For Cooks With Commitment Issues

This may be hard to believe, but Culturebox has discovered a “best-of” list with solid, practical value. It’s a brand extension of the “Best American” literary franchise–you know, TheBest American Essays, TheBest American Short Stories, etc. This iteration of the idea is called The Best American Recipes 1999: The Year’s Top 100 From Books, Magazines, Newspapers & the Internet, edited by book editor Fran McCullough and food writer Suzanne Hamlin (Houghton-Mifflin, $26).

The Best American Recipes, Culturebox wishes to warn you in advance, is not for readers of Cook’sIllustrated magazine or anyone else pledged to uphold gastronomical values. On the other hand, it’s not for “dummies” either, as the other leading introductory series likes to put it. This cookbook’s brow-level is all over the place. One minute you’re cooking the first-prize-winning recipe in the Pillsbury BAKE-OFF® (chicken thighs with a sweet-and-sour Old El Paso® salsa, currants, and honey sauce, served on couscous), and the next you’re composing the sternly Mediterranean endive, fennel, and orange salad from the latest cookbook by Paula Wolfert, the most rigorous scholar in American cookbook writing. The recipes are Indian and Brazilian and French and Italian and Texan and Minnesotan. They’re culled from regional cookbooks, Robert Redford’s kitchen and Sophia Loren’s memoirs, and the kinds of sample recipes you find inside the box when you open your new Kitchen Aid. The introduction lists emerging food trends of the year, albeit a bit cursorily, and without really specifying how the trends are certified as such. There are marginal notes explaining how to secure obscure ingredients or perform difficult procedures, and menu recommendations that allow you to assemble an impressive three-course meal using this book alone. In short, it’s the perfect purchase or gift for those among us with bare kitchen bookshelves and larger culinary ambitions that dwell in latency, stymied by a grave–though common–psychological flaw: being unable to commit to a single technique or ethnic cuisine at a time.

Which brings us to the question raised by The Best American Recipes 1999: Why, in a world besotted with mindless applications of the “best-of” conceit, did it take so long to come up with this one? The answer surely has something to do with the sociology of cooking right now–you’re supposed to crave purity, or at least authenticity. If you’re going to cook Italian, you’d best get the works of Marcella Hazan, or else a food anthropologist who has interviewed all the grandmothers in Italy and discovered the best liver-and-grappa pasta sauce to be found north of the Arno. Ditto with Spanish and Penelope Casas, Indian and Julie Sahni, and on it goes around the globe. If your tastes are downmarket, you can be a purist in that department too–just buy the works of white-trash aficionados Jane and Michael Stern, all of whose dishes must be presented with the requisite ironic appurtenances, such as trays and swizzle sticks. Reference-style cookbooks, such as Fannie Farmer, range fairly broadly over the American basics, but if you want to get higher-end than that, you’re hard-pressed to find anything but books devoted to individual cuisines. Foodies don’t believe in mixing and matching–it’s the culinary equivalent of putting an Eames chair in a room full of frilly French antiques. Look at the harsh waves of criticism that greeted Maria Guarnaschelli, the editor who asked food experts and celebrity chefs of all stripes and preferences to contribute chapters to the 1998 update of The Joy of Cooking.

But cooking is one of the few areas in which anthologizing actually makes sense. A best-of collection of recipes is a much more satisfying creature than most other genres of best-ofs. When it comes to poetry, for instance, such compilations always lack context: Who can grasp the greatness of a poet on the basis of a single poem? Anthologies of essays, on the other hand, just make you feel oppressed. No one wants to read that much of the same thing–that much folksy, digressive argument–in a single sitting. But The Best American Recipes 1999 reflects life as it is lived. This is how Americans eat–at an Italian restaurant one night, a Chinese one the next. America the melting pot has become American the food court, and The Best American Recipes makes a virtue of that fact.

McCullough and Hamlin say they plan to repeat The Best American Recipes in 2000, which is good, because there’s room for improvement here. Some things are strangely delicious, such as the salsa-and-couscous chicken and the Lemon-Almond Pound Cake, which is essentially baked marzipan dough. Other dishes, such as the cloyingly sweet lamb with olives and oranges from celebrity chef Mario Batali’s Simple Italian Food, just don’t measure up. The times given for cooking are not to be relied on. Culturebox tested everything in or on a gas range viewed favorably by Consumer Reports, and found that some things were done in the time recommended, but the so-called Perfect Brownies–a dry, crumbly, tasteless contribution from a book presumptuously called The Perfect Recipe–would have been overbaked, and Batali’s lamb dish understewed, if Culturebox had followed the recipes strictly. The fault may lie with the authors of the original cookbook or recipe, but since Hamlin and McCullough allege that they tried everything out, they share the blame.

There are other faults. Eclecticness guarantees waste and inefficiency. Should you shell out $25 for a bottle of Italian lemon liqueur you will use once, then store in your liquor cabinet? Or should you make your own, which would take about four days? The writing can be breathless and schmaltzy–it was not necessary to say of the Turkish poached eggs with garlic yogurt from a cookbook written by a couple that “this is a Sunday morning meal from two people whose love for garlic is as intense as it is for each other.” The emphasis on trends leads to a knee-jerk over-reliance on ingredients that happen to be fashionable right now, such as cumin and coconut milk. But these are quibbles, which could well be obviated by next year’s anthology. And besides, they’re in keeping with the basic idea. This is a cookbook that’s pleasingly shallow and imperfect, just like those of us who are drawn to it.