Monday, March 1, 2010

Mastering the art of 21st century cooking

I grew up on a diet largely composed of Velveeta, Hebrew National hot dogs, Ramen noodles, Shake&Bake Chicken, and family-original MacToeBeef (MacaroniTomatoBeef. Figure it out). Somehow I emerged from the nest with a love of cooking and baking, and one of the requirements in my apartment search post-Penn was a nicely furnished kitchen.

Cooking, I think, is an underexplored area with regard to the digital revolution's effect. How I approach my culinary efforts has changed dramatically over the past few years. For one thing, I've stopped buying hard copies of cookbooks. Recipes abound online: my go-to sources are,,, and, supplemented by food blogs like 101 Cookbooks, Chocolate & Zucchini, Bakerella, Cooking Light, and others. Once every few months I'll consult the five cookbooks propped on my kitchen counter, but generally I hunt online or use my AllRecipes, SparkPeople and BettyCrocker iPhone apps to find a recipe, either print it or bookmark it on my phone or as a Google Doc on my computer, and then have a ready-made, portable list of ingredients to take to the grocery store. The browsing function of Internet recipe repositories lets me stumble upon fresh ideas I wouldn't otherwise think to look up in a cookbook's index- just the other night I was searching for a curry chicken recipe to make for a few friends and instead wound up making apricot chicken, a dish that wouldn't have occurred to me. I also like the creative collaboration born of food blogs, in that other home cooks' input can help a given recipe crystallize into a version specific to you (use olive instead of canola oil, add an extra cup of water, cut out the green peppers- ick). The infinite depths of cooking sites, too, promotes their use over the purchase of paper-and-glue cookbooks, which even if generalized à la The Joy of Cooking could never hold such endless content.

With this efficiency, convenience, and cross-pollination comes, however, the loss of the cookbook as a rich artform. Some people, like The Millions blogger Sarah McCoy, read cookbooks as any other book:

"The truth is, I read cookbooks like novels. Cover to cover, page by page, the dedication, the acknowledgments, the indexes: I devour everything. Like the literary works on my bookshelves, I can give you the plot, characters, themes and favorite scenes; however, ask me a recipe and I’d be hard-pressed to name one I’ve personally prepared."

McCoy is not alone in celebrating the aesthetics of food writing. The site encourages people to hand-illustrate and post their favorite recipes, rendering beautiful a list of ingredients and directions.

I've never felt the linguistic magic of cookbooks as McCoy has. When my house in college had living room shelves lined with them, when I'd bring one or two home over winter break to make dishes and desserts for my family, or when I'd browse my mom's mini-collection in envy, my appreciation was for the access to cuisine they would give me, not for the writing or even the sometimes stunning photography. So I can't relate to McCoy's cookbook-as-literature passion. But I can relate to the lamentation of the loss of a concrete compilation of recipes, in that my collection now consists of sauce-spattered print-outs, documents on my computer and saved screens on my cellphone. One 21st century option is a service like TasteBook that lets you upload your personalized recipes and photos to craft an individualized physical cookbook. But what happens when you find two more pasta recipes you want to add, or when you discover that an extra teaspoon of cocoa powder in your brownies makes their chocolatiness just right?

Perhaps this need for cohesion will find accommodation in the iPad, as GrubStreet blogger Helen Rosner posits. Hard copy recipe content could migrate on-screen more comfortably "with the possibility of iTunes-style individual recipe downloads and recipe-specific instructional videos".

Just as I'm saddened by the diminishing use of physical books in favor of Kindle downloads, I'm not praising the gradual devaluation of the cookbook publishing field. But I think the benefits of digital recipe adaptation are vast and, as always, my opinion is that mixing and matching tastes and samples from both the old world of publishing and the new is the safest and surest path to take. Kind of like cooking.

1 comment:

  1. I did make apricot chicken, at least once and don't forget tacos and spaghetti! Love, Mom