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COOKBOOK WATCH

Something to Say

April 04, 2001|RUSS PARSONS

Cookbook writing is a profession these days, and for that, I suppose, we should all be grateful. After all, is there anything worse than a cookbook where the recipes are hard to follow? Where the techniques are haphazard? Where the steps don't match the techniques? Where crucial information is sometimes incomplete or even wholly absent?

Well, yes, as a matter of fact, there is something far worse-cookbooks with nothing to say. That's certainly not the case with the first books in Modern Library's food series, edited by Ruth Reichl. These are cookbooks from the 1930s and '40s-what could be called cookbook writing's pre-industrial era. When Edouard de Pomiane's "Cooking With Pomiane," Henri Charpentier's "Life a la Henri" and Samuel Chamberlain's "Clementine in the Kitchen" (each $12.95) were originally published, cookbook writers were an oddity. There were home economists who wrote manuals, largely intended for other home economists. And there were writers who were interested enough in food that they chose it as their subject-much the same way an essayist today might pursue, say, baseball or fly fishing.

What resulted was highly idiosyncratic, frequently charming and quite often uncookable. There is a reason the structures and rules of recipe writing have been adopted-such troublesome details as quantities and even whole ingredients lists are frequently missing from these books. Today's cookbook copy editors would wear out a forest's worth of pencils trying to put them into shape.

But what they did have-and what, reading them reminds us, today's cookbooks too often lack-is a distinctive voice and point of view. Consider this recipe for an asparagus dish from Pomiane: "Mash the yolk of a hard-boiled egg with a fork and add to it, little by little, 3 1/2 ounces melted butter, very hot, stirring all the time. You will have a creamy sauce, slightly fluid, which will blend admirably with your asparagus."

There's a lot that could be improved on in that recipe, starting with telling you how much asparagus to use and how to cook it. But you probably know that. And more important, have you ever read an asparagus recipe that more made you want to rush to the kitchen?

The truth is that most of the 500 to 600 cookbooks that are now published every year are clearer and more reliable than those books of yore. But every once in a while it's good to remind ourselves what's missing.

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