Thursday, November 10, 2011

Take this APP and Shove It!

It's time to take another glance at technology, pop culture, and the world of food.  Along with political protests and Famous Dictator Deaths (for $500, Alex), 2011 will likely go down as the year of the Tablet, the popular digital gadget and "must-have" of toddlers, students and adults, alike. 

My alma mater just released last month a fully interactive tablet application for "The New Professional Chef", the exhaustive, comprehensive Bible for all CIA students and grads.  And, in good turn, after testing it out and piling on a little kindling (ahem) to the fire, The New York Times asked the incendiary question, "Are Cookbooks Obsolete?"

I suppose the same question has been asked recently of magazines and newspapers.  We're already in the midst of a sea change in traditionally printed materials.  Gourmet Magazine is dead and burried. But, cookbooks obsolete?? Let me begin by acknowledging that tablets as teachers have an edge over texts as they promote space saving, speed and accessibility.  Putting a reference such as Pro Chef into a compact, highly convenient, interactive application for mobile devices was brilliant.  Mostly, because it's meant to be used as a teaching tool.  But, you ask, "Aren't all cookbooks teaching tools?"  Hardly.  There are several styles of cookbooks- and yes, utilitarian is one.  But, the real question is, "Of all the cookbooks you have, what percentage of them do you actually cook from?"  Are we talking single digits, here?  

I guessed as much.  

Cookbooks are a very unique way for people to connect with food.  When we choose a book for our collection, we attach ourselves to its personality.  The beautiful photography can activate Proustian memory in some, salivating in others.  We can see ourselves sitting in folding chairs at the long vineyard or farm table with carafes of rose and fresh cut flowers, kids, dogs, family and huge bowls of colorful pastas, salads and breads.  The freshly baked cake on a decorative ceramic pedestal looks a lot nicer than it does on the heirloom cookie sheet with foil.  And, the people in cookbooks are more beautiful than we are.  We live vicariously through the culinary landscapes they depict.

Last week was the release of another cookbook, possibly the most anticipated of 2011,  Eleven Madison Park.  The boys at EMP are riding the crest of some remarkable recent publicity, a well-deserved three stars from Michelin Travel Guide and the news they are branching out on their own from Big Daddy Danny (Meyer) to not only purchase EMP, but open a new hotel next year.  This book is the modern equivalent of The French Laundry cookbook or Grant Achatz's Alinea; beautifully photographed, extra-large format books that define an era and critical genre of American cooking.  EMP is a stunningly gorgeous book that leaves you shaking your head and licking your lips at once.  For advanced cooks, it represents a cuisine you must grasp or risk being left behind.  At the criminally priced $25.77 on Amazon, this book could easily fetch $100 or more, specifically because it is so revered as a "must have" for foodies.  Yet, I cannot imagine sitting down with a smart phone or tablet and getting a fraction of the pleasure I get from reverently leafing through the heavy, white pages of culinary artistry it provides.

A dish from Eleven Madison Park Cookbook; Photography by Francesco Tonelli
Whenever I am writing a menu of great importance, I open a mature bottle of wine and pull the big boys off the shelf: Ducasse, Blanc, Kunz, Robuchon and their American counterparts, previously mentioned.  The same consideration given to appreciating the wine's nuances is given to the genius and years of professional and creative contributions these artisans provide.  Charlie Trotter who helped define this type of modern, food-as-art cookbook is famous for saying of his first book, and I'm paraphrasing, "Use this book as either a collection of recipes to try or simply use the pictures and recipes as inspiration; but think outside the recipe."  

Mood has as much to do with inspiration as source.  As I slowly turn the pages and sip history, I am reminded that a cook's collection of cookbooks define his style and philosophy on the subject.  A method here, a shortcut there- even if you flat out copy a recipe, it'll never come out the same way twice.  Reducing that tactile experience to sliding screens of reconfigured 1s and 0s seems unromantic at best, and more like being cheated of some really creative ideas.

No, I'm not willing to give up aesthetics for convenience.  Yet, I confess that I bought Gabrielle Hamilton's Blood, Bones and Butter for my phone with Kindle technology.  I couldn't wait to read it, and I knew at that time of year, I was more likely to read it digitally because of my work load.  I loved it; it was convenient and quick and it was always there when I had a few moments to spare for another chapter or two. And the built in book light was a bonus for these aging eyes.  But, I feel as though someone has stolen from me a book that should now be nestled right between Comfort Me With Apples and The Soul of a Chef on my shelf at home.  Instead, I have it on my phone.  Sigh.

Even more preposterous is the idea that people would stop giving hardcover cookbooks as gifts.  Culturally we all benefit from reading and cooking from cookbooks.  I suppose I love the Pixar film Ratatouille so much because of its message- which, by the way is NOT "Anyone Can Cook" (Linguini can't cook- and is relegated to waiting tables at the end).  The resounding message to all ages is, and should be, encourage creativity.  After all, what is a cookbook if not a collection of ideas meant to evoke a visceral connection to food?  If it was to feed ourselves or to learn to cook, surely we would have all starved to death by now.

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