Christopher Kimball: "He may be the sole person associated with food journalism to remark, 'There’s something about pleasure I find annoying.'"
October 14, 2012 9:11 AM Subscribe
"Cooking isn't creative, and it isn't easy." A NYT Magazine piece on Christopher Kimball, Cook's Illustrated, and his franchise (America's Test Kitchen, Cook's Country, et al.). "At the core of C.I.’s M.O. are two intrepid observations Kimball has made about the innermost psychology of home cooks. Namely that they 1) are haunted by a fear of humiliation, and 2) will not follow a recipe to the letter, believing that slavishly following directions is an implicit admission that you cannot cook... What the magazine essentially offers its readers is a bargain: if they agree to follow the recipes as written, their cooking will succeed and they will be recognized by family and friends as competent or even expert in the kitchen... The bargain further holds that the peppercorn-crusted filet of beef or butterscotch-cream pie will turn out not only in C.I.’s professional kitchen, with its All-Clad pans and DCS ranges, but also on a lowly electric four-top, using a dull knife and a $20 nonstick skillet."
On the recipes:
On the recipes:
I was at the meeting for the unveiling of the Perfect Soft-Boiled Egg. It’s one of those recipes that isolate the weird, wayward essence of the Cook’s Illustrated project, a seemingly boner-proof preparation that, when fixed with Kimball’s unsparing eye, reveals itself to be fundamentally broken. And therein lies the narrative arc of the C.I. recipe — invariably it begins with the insuperable flaw, that through toil and experimentation is resolved in a sudden, improbable revelation that, in-house, is known as the aha moment. By far the most commonly occurring aha moments involve baking soda and gelatin. Others include browning butter for Perfect Chocolate Chip Cookies and presoaking no-boil noodles to make Spinach Lasagna. C.I.’s Classic Spaghetti and Meatballs for a Crowd, which calls for roasting the meatballs on a wire rack and adding gelatin, can be said to have not one but two aha moments. (An authentic aha moment has to be unexpected and original — a recipe can’t be fixed by something as banal as shortening the cooking time or cutting the flour by a third.) [...]On Kimball's editorials:
If you’re wondering what could be especially difficult about boiling an egg, you should have heard her. The Flaw — the unappetizing probability of either a chalky yolk or a runny white — occurs because the yolk gets cooked before the white, and the desired temperature window turns out to be harrowingly small, so the ideal preparation must set the white while leaving the yolk custardy, and not do it too rapidly. Oh, and tossing a fridge-temperature egg into boiling water will cause the air inside to expand and sometimes crack it, and apparently no two cooks can agree on exactly what simmering means, and third, the number of eggs must be compensated for by adjusting the amount of boiling water to keep cooking time constant. Geary recited further facts imperiling the P.S.B.E., and after a while the difficulty of boiling an egg at home with anything like success sounded to be on the order of a bone-marrow transplant. This appeared to please everyone, particularly Kimball, and the meeting moved on to Dressing Up Meatloaf.
...[A]s a prose stylist, Kimball trades “cookbook pastoral” for “thresher gothic.” He writes about the locals with such misty reverence that you’d think he were Gauguin in Tahiti and that his odes to haying, sugaring and a New England past “when hard work, thrift and self-reliance were the coin of the realm” were larded with Proustian longing. Yet passages of bottomless ickiness come spring-loaded with genuinely unsettling episodes about the dangers of modern convenience and, of all things, death’s inevitability. For every mention of turkey fatigue or homemade soda bread, Kimball conjures enough mountain-road auto wrecks, equine tramplings and corn-chopper dismemberments to max out a police blotter. (In one editorial, a neighbor discovers a mass grave in some woods near Kimball’s home.) Much of the rest is just weird. Kimball considers dog-powered washing machines, describes a cave where locals take children for some kind of homegrown Meso-American initiation rite and rewards the patient reader with epigrammatic gems like, “If you had walked across this country a hundred years ago, you probably wouldn’t have eaten the same biscuit twice” and “When it comes to eating out, I have grown quite fond of church suppers” and “squirrel is mild and lean.”On knowing his audience:
What few quibble with is Kimball’s grasp of the magazine business. “I think he’s a genius,” says Ruth Reichl, the former editor of Gourmet. “He gives his readers exactly what they want while managing to repurpose every recipe six or seven times.” Privately, some editors at C.I. complain that Kimball’s business model sometimes works too well. SurveyMonkey, the software that keeps them in touch with readers, informs every aspect of the editorial process — when a test cook wondered whether most readers had access to shallots, SurveyMonkey told them they did. One consequence of a participatory approach to content is the readers’ tendency to pass on their contradictions. “When we survey, everyone tells us they want healthy, low-fat recipes, but then no one wants to make them,” an editor says. “They want dinner to take 20 minutes, but they want it to taste like it took all day.” It turns out that readers tend to return to the familiar — to date, Kimball’s magazines have published eight iterations of meatloaf — and, until recently, snubbed ethnic cooking. “Getting international recipes into the magazine was like pulling teeth,” an editor tells me. When they do make it into print, the recipes survey better after they’ve been decoded into familiar language: Thai-Style Stir-Fried Noodles With Chicken and Broccolini will get a more enthusiastic response than Pad See Ew. The readers’ prejudices dovetail neatly with Kimball’s.previously: I'm making Cook's Illustrated's recipe for beef stew
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