November 26, 2009
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Your Grandmother’s Pound Cake

Adam Gopnik explores the evolution of cookbooks, from Escoffier’s dictionary to Julia’s encyclopedia and on to the modern cookbook which is a grammar. It’s an important essay.

Your grandmother’s pound cake may have been like concrete, but it was about a whole history and view of life; it got that tough for a reason.

Gopnik is right about the grammar, though perhaps unintentionally so. I suspect when he thinks of grammar he’s imaging worn prescriptive textbooks that coerce students to follow rules: no dangling participles, add the liquid ingredients to the dry. But the best of the New Cooking is grammatical in the deeper linguistic sense: not rules to follow but an index of possibilities, connections and linkages, a guide to what can follow a dish, a hint of how to distinguish the eloquent from the merely adequate.

He's not shy, either, of plain talk about the bare bodkin:

After reading hundreds of cookbooks, you may have the feeling that every recipe, every cookbook, is an attempt to get you to attain this ideal sugar-salt-saturated-fat state without having to see it head on, just as every love poem is an attempt to maneuver a girl or a boy into bed by talking as fast, and as eloquently, as possible about something else. 'Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day? / Thou art more lovely and more temperate' is the poetic equivalent of simmering the garlic with ginger and Sauternes before you put the cream in; the end is the cream, but you carefully simmer the garlic.

Garlic, ginger, Sauternes. Damn: it’s Thanksgiving. Now, where am I going to find Sauternes?