From The New Yorker Page-Turner blog:
Recipe readers are always talking about how cookbooks are like novels, and there’s a clue here to how we actually read them. Like a short story, a good recipe can put us in a delightful trance. The Oxford English Dictionary defines fiction as literature “concerned with the narration of imaginary events.” This is what recipes are: stories of pretend meals. Don’t be fooled by the fact that they are written in the imperative tense (pick the basil leaves, peel the onion). Yes, you might do that tomorrow, but right now, you are doing something else. As you read, your head drowsily on the pillow, there is no onion, but you watch yourself peel it in your mind’s eye, tugging off the papery skin and noting with satisfaction that you have not damaged the layers underneath.
I was contemplating the nature of cookbooks while reading William Sitwell’s new book, “A History of Food in 100 Recipes.”
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My favorite recipe was No. 65, “Creamed Mushrooms,” taken from “The International Jewish Cookbook,” by Florence Kreisler Greenbaum (1919). The recipe itself is for mushrooms simmered in a béchamel sauce with “a gill of cream” added. “Cooked like this,” Greenbaum tells us, “mushrooms have more nutritive value than beef.” Sitwell uses the recipe as a springboard into a discussion of the pop-up toaster (invented by Charles Strite in the same year as Greenbaum’s cookbook), and the “frantic and fiercely fought battles” driving rival patents for toast-making. Finally, he ponders “the Cat and the Buttered Toast Theory.” Buttered toast is notorious for landing buttered-side down. Likewise, it is said that a cat “if dropped, always lands on its feet.” So, Sitwell asks, “what happens if you tie a slice of buttered toast to the cat’s back? When the cat is dropped, will the two opposing forces of butter and feet cause the cat to hover?”
From this, you get a sense of Sitwell’s schoolboyish sense of the absurd. But he has done something in this book that is highly original and not absurd at all. At the start he gives us a “note on the recipes,” which explains that he does not actually expect us to cook from them. They are not “triple tested,” he confesses. He has chosen not to update the ancient recipes so that they could be knocked out “after a quick trip to your local supermarket.” Sitwell says that he wants us “to simply read and enjoy the recipes as they were written down.”
Sitwell has removed one of the sources of pleasure we get from cookbooks, which is the illusion that we are actually going to make every recipe we fancy the look of. But being asked to read recipes for their own sake, rather than with a view to cooking, gives a clearer sense of how they stimulate our imaginations. The vast majority of the recipes we read are hypothetical. I’ve spent more hours than I care to count this year staring at an April Bloomfield recipe for veal shank. I’ll probably never make it. I’m not sure if my butcher even sells the right cut of veal. But, I’m telling you, the imaginary version tastes incredible.
Link to the rest at Page-Turner