Sara Dickerman just wrote a terrific piece for Slate in which she put five cookbooks—The Fannie Farmer Cookbook, The Joy of Cooking, The New Best Recipe, How to Cook Everything , and Marcella Says—to the test by having her culinarily challenged husband cook from them. As a staunch supporter of Mark Bittman, I was curious to see how the other cookbooks would measure up (and, weirdly enough, worried that his would not fare well enough); as someone whose cooking style varies significantly from her significant other’s, I liked the hints about how Sara Dickerman's kitchen works.
My devotion to Mark Bittman is especially puzzling since most of his dishes turn out to be bland, at least to my taste. I suppose his simplicity and straightforwardness are appealing, and he entered my consciousness at the peak of my veneration of the New York Times (fall of 2000, if you care, said veneration having suffered much in the intervening years). I recently decided that my lifelong aversion to The Joy of Cooking could be chalked up to its having become associated in my malleable young mind with The Joy of Sex, something I wanted no part of. Now that I’ve spent some time with The Joy of Cooking, my boyfriend’s go-to text, I actually like it quite a lot. I fear, however, that buying another information-packed book is out of the question, since I already find myself sitting in front of five cookbooks every time I want to do something basic I’ve never done before. The Fanny Farmer Cookbook always intrigued me, and it doesn’t anymore; I all but ignored Marcella Says when it came out, and now I’m eager to pick it up. As for The New Best Recipe—my admiration of the Cook’s Illustrated crew is unparalleled (though I agree with Dickerman about the insistent, deathly boringness of their prose), and that brings me to my sweetheart.
You see, my ideal cooking experience involves a precise recipe, perfect ingredients, and loads of time to devote to proper execution. It has taken me years to become comfortable enough to fiddle, even with things I’ve made over and over, and so the first time I make something, I want to follow good instructions (especially because I hate feeling that I’ve wasted time and money shopping for ingredients only to render them less than lovely). Andrew, on the other hand, is a confident improviser. Sometimes he wanders off and forgets something is on the stove, but for the most part he produces terrific food with only the barest attention and no anxiety at all. We have different, um, strengths: mine are conducive to spending meditative hours at the counter, while his lend themselves to getting dinner ready with a minimum of fuss. It's probably no coincidence that the books I lean on are about how to cook everything and the best recipe, while Andrew's reference presents itself as a work of joy. Sigh. I haven’t mastered my overcritical tendencies yet, but even I must admit that with my book learnin’ and his confidence, we have had more successes than failures.