Heaven Help Me, I’m Addicted to Food Porn

I’ve finally been tapped to contribute to a cookbook. I feel a bit like the lonely relief pitcher stepping up to the mound to save the game.

But in this case there is no Steinbrenner sending a memo down from the luxury box and no Ozzie to give me the nod on my way out of the bullpen. A higher power called me to the stove. The call came down to the field like so:

Mike Nagrant- “Hey, my aunt is putting together a cookbook for her church and she asked if Hungry would submit something. Do you have a secret recipe that will wow the socks of the church folks?”

Me- “Yea, I think I can “intelligently design” something for the church folks.”

This was no laughing matter. To those of you less inclined to over analyze a task like this, let me say this: church folk cook. A lot. I really needed to bring my “A” game for this one. It’s not like I’m Charlie Trotter, armed with an entourage of food stylists and researchers. I don’t have the full arsenal of recipe testers or a wingman of Michael Ruhlman’s stature to write witty colloquialisms.

Penning a cookbook is not a job for the faint of heart. It’s a process that can stretch out over many months if not years. The slow and daunting task of testing and adjusting recipes can take longer to complete than one of Trotter’s dessert recipes.

It really inspired me to take a look at my own collection of cookbooks and re-evaluate their actual function in my life. As a chef who teaches others to cook I am often called upon to know the origins of the Scotch Egg and the proper technique for potting Kimchi all in the same breath. Don’t ask me why the two are remotely related. They’re not, but rest assured combining the two in one sitting can have dire results on your lower GI.

I have often been asked by my wife, as well as a whole host of other characters, “Why do you need all of those books?” “Do you actually use them?” My answer to them, and to you the reader, yes and no.

My collection is mostly made up of pretty books, full of shallow editorial content and extremely beautiful photography. The latter being the motive behind their purchase. I’ll admit it, I love pictures. Food Porn if you will. (And I will)

But will I, or any normal cooking enthusiast, actually attempt any of the recipes? Say, the “White Truffle Infused Custard,” baked in a hollowed out egg shell with a paper thin “potato chip” garnish, from Thomas Keller’s, “The French Laundry Cookbook.” It’s impossibly gorgeous to look at and mouthwatering to think about. But practical for the home cook?

Let it also be said that the center-spread, double page, full color photography on display in some of my cookbooks can arouse me in ways that would make Hugh Hefner blush. Does that make me less of a man? No. (Well, maybe if the guys on my hockey team read this… Don’t worry boys I still think the bartender at Johnny’s is hot.) Would I actually attempt the recipe that led to that great centerfold? No again.

I would venture to say that the impracticality of most chef-driven cookbooks published these days is of no concern to booksellers. Nor is it of any consequence to the people who buy the books, myself included. It is the inspiration that these books give me that fuels my addiction. And the grandeur of the food styling that satiates my need for more.

But what ever became of the practical cookbook? You remember, the kitchen bibles that our baby boomer parents lived by? Monday night: Meatloaf; Tuesday night: Chop Suey; Wednesday Night: Chicken Tetrazini; etc.

As far as my current foray goes, I’ll be contributing a macaroni and cheese recipe that has spent a long time in development. (Read: I’ve just been too lazy to ever write it down.) It’s a simple recipe and will be featured in a cookbook that is being sold to benefit a church.

So how does a church cookbook fit into the mix of all of this food porn? I went to the source to find out. Mary Lobeck, of Dexter Michigan, is helping to collect recipes for her church’s first cookbook. “My first experience with church cook books was from my childhood,” said Lobeck. “These cookbooks were coveted because of the ethnic recipes (I attended a Slovak church) they contained which were not available in the typical “Betty Crocker” books.”

So, it could be said that the great American church cookbook was really the first “food porn.” People were putting down their mother’s Joy of Cooking in favor of the more exotic, “Harper Valley PTA’s Favorite Possum Casseroles” or the infamous “Sweeny County Swiss Miss Society Cooks with CorningWare.”

These books really do serve a purpose. They help to continue the weaving of our country’s tapestry. “Many of these recipes are lost over the years when the older folks who make them pass on” says Lobeck. “They usually had various specialty recipes for certain seasons, like Easter bread or cheese, and included food traditions that surrounded these seasons.” Seasonal cooking? I thought that was new concept. I guess all of these farmer’s markets popping up all over the country are just stealing their inspiration from a smarter more practical generation.

You have to search for books like the ones being produced by churches, civic organizations, and school PTAs, but they’re out there. You can count on these everyday soldiers to produce delicious meals day in and day out. If it weren’t for the simplicity that these books bring to our lives we wouldn’t have publishers turning out gems like these-

Think Like A Chef, by Tom Colicchio
Colicchio has put together one of the best technique based cookbooks to hit the shelves in years. While his peers are publishing spectacular renditions of their over-the-top tasting menus, Colicchio is helping the everyday cook improve their pot roast. In addition, this market inspired chef helps to demystify common ingredients. Danny Meyer, the legendary powerhouse behind the Union Square café wrote the foreword. The Union Square Café Cookbook, Meyer’s 1994 cookbook, is also worth a look. The emotional forward outlining the struggles involved in getting the Café off the ground alone merit a read.

New Best Recipe, All New Edition, by Editors of Cook’s Illustrated
Cooks Illustrated is to cooking magazines as Alton Brown is to cooking television shows. Need I say more? This group of food geeks has done all the leg-work of a chef’s army. They break food down to an elemental level and report the results. In some ways I don’t like the way they steal the guess work away from the home cook. After all, learning from your mistakes is half the fun, but for the pragmatist, this is your kitchen bible.

Dean & Deluca Cookbook, by David Rosengarten
What most all purpose cookbooks lack in flair, this cookbook more than makes up for. Written by David Rosengarten, a veritable walking encyclopedia of culinary expertise, this book takes the simple and makes it sublime. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve recommended this book to friends in search of an everyday cookbook. The recipes, although simple, are put together in such a way that anybody would be comfortable taking them on.

How to Cook Everything, by Mark Bittman
This encyclopedia of gastronomy is so comprehensive it’s almost silly to recommend anything else. Bittman has squeezed so much into this cookbook that if you can’t find it here, you simply don’t need to cook it. What this book lacks in simplicity it more than makes up for in comprehensiveness. How to Cook Everything isn’t going to be your everyday, go-to recipe file, but when you come across something in another book that you don’t understand you will be turning to Bittman for the answer.

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