The literary cookbook?

Those cookbooks that promise you can make meals in fewer than 30 minutes sure look nice, but they won’t teach anyone anything about cooking, and even less about writing. In a time when Americans are rarely cooking and reading even less, is there a way that someone can curl up on the couch with a book AND learn how to feed their family at the same time?

Sorry Rachael Ray, but you don’t have the answer. Michael Ruhlman does.

Author and journalist Michael Ruhlman broke into the world of culinary literature after working for The New York Times and writing his first book on his experiences at a private boy’s school. He made a name for himself among chefs with the instant success of his book, The Making of a Chef (1997), based on his personal experiences at the Culinary Institute of America (CIA). What was meant to be a single project lead to obsession; Ruhlman opted to stay in the industry, quickly becoming acquainted with the culinary leaders of America. After only one book’s success, Ruhlman was collaborating with Thomas Keller (one of the most prestigious chefs in America, having two simultaneous Michelin three-star restaurants; only a handful of chefs in the world hold this title), on a food column in the LA times. Soon they were co-writing The French Laundry Cookbook (1999), often deemed the culinary bible (behind the CIA’s Professional Chef, of course) or the ultimate indulgence in the world of “food porn”. You don’t buy Keller’s cookbook for the recipes; they are nearly impossible to anyone besides Keller himself. One spends $50 on a single cookbook they will never cook from simply to develop their culinary obsession, and of course, look at the stunning pictures of Keller’s food, if you can’t afford the $250 meal at one of Keller’s restaurants themselves.

With all of these culinary accomplishments under his belt, Ruhlman recently produced The Elements of Cooking (2007). From its description, it is seemingly another one of the overdone “how to cook like the chefs at home”; you would expect to see white pages filled with “how to” tips and tricks and the occasional large glossy picture like the cookbook every American family undoubtedly owns.

Wrong.

In this renovated version of the timeless The Elements of Style, Ruhlman seeks to educate and entertain; but this time about food and not the English language. However, many non-writers are sure to miss this reference. The format of this book is dictionary like; but many entries are more than just definitions. “Bacon” warrants a two page entry (although ham and pork are significantly shorter), and if you look under “vinegar”, you will find a rough outline of how to make your own. It’s easy to see where Ruhlman’s priorities lie, often interjecting personal experience, or stating that “I like to do it this way…even though so-and-so in the industry does it this way…”

The introduction to the elements reads like a novel; teaching concepts such as making the perfect veal stock or hollandaise. I was able to lie in bed and learn both how to poach and egg and exactly how an omelet should be constructed without once feeling like I was reading a cookbook. One side effect is going to bed hungry- but my breakfasts have since improved significantly. Ruhlman makes it clear that he loves food- but his real love is writing. His ability to explain culinary terms with enthusiasm is impeccable; it was easy to forget I was reading and not listening to him explain concepts offhand. Even on the days when I wasn’t interested in learning about the pH of dough, I couldn’t resist picking up The Elements of Cooking as if it was my new favorite novel. And in the morning when I woke up realizing that object I was snuggling with all night was actually Ruhlman’s latest book, I knew he was onto something.

With a book of cooking techniques that reads like literature, is America moving in the right direction? I’ll admit that many people have a hard time escaping the lure of the 30 minute meal (don’t be fooled- they actually take an hour). But if people want to eat, will they eventually want to read?

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