Mark Bittman and Florence Fabricant on Cookbooks, Food Blogs, Apps and Foodies

"Cooking is all about compromising. You never have enough time, enough ingredients, enough skill. If I have good ingredients, I try to take advantage of them, but I don't always have the best." -- Mark Bittman
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Yesterday, a panel hosted by NYU debated why books and benchmarks matter to introduce the release of 101 Classic Cookbooks, 501 Classic Recipes. I had the opportunity to discuss the future of cookbooks, food blogs and apps, and the term "foodie" with Mark Bittman, bestselling cookbook author and New York Times Op-ed and The Magazine's food columnist, and Florence Fabricant, New York Times food and wine columnist, contributor to 101 Classic Cookbooks, and the mother of the woman who designed the cookbook.

Louise McCready Hart: In your opinion, what makes a good recipe?

Mark Bittman: Clarity. There are a dozen judgment calls made in the writing of any recipe -- where you're not teaching people what boiling water means, but you can't take so much for granted that you skip things that aren't obvious. There is also the judgment about what it means to do something "to taste." I used to just say, two tablespoons lemon juice. Now I would say, two tablespoons lemon juice or to taste. I don't say cook about eight minutes anymore. Now I say cook five to 10 minutes or until done, and I might include how you know when something's done.

Florence Fabricant: The ease of accomplishment and the end result. That doesn't necessarily mean a recipe details every last half teaspoon. I'm a firm believer in letting people have some leeway to take liberties, to suggest a "good pinch of" instead of an exact measurement, but unfortunately a lot of people are insecure with that when they get in the kitchen. They don't have the experience. I can eyeball the amount of oil I want to put in the pan, but when I write a recipe, I have to give people that kind of exactitude. In terms of cooking, there are many ways of establishing "done," but editors want a specific number of minutes or hours. For ingredients. Take a fish recipe that calls for swordfish. You go into the market and your heart is set on that recipe, but you have to be able to turn on a dime if the swordfish doesn't look good. You have to be able to consider, what can I use instead? If the market doesn't have Swiss chard, use kale.

LMH: This book spans from 1896 to 1997. Which books from the past dozen years would you add?

FF: I would include The Mile End Cookbook, The Babbo Cookbook because it's really good, Anya von Bremzen's The New Spanish Table, Michel Roux's little book Eggs, and The King Arthur Flour Baker's Companion. The other one I use often that is more recent is Fuchsia Dunlop. I would certainly add her cookbook Sichuan Cookery.

LMH: What cookbooks do you use most often?

MB: During the first twenty years I cooked, and especially during the four or five years I was writing How to Cook Everything, I looked at cookbooks like mad. I had probably 500 in my house. I was constantly borrowing them and going places and looking at them. I gave away all but some favorites that are in a library. At home I have 10 or 15 current books, but they're all completely arcane. In my office, there is a stack of 30 or 40 books that came out this fall. I pulled two of them out that I'm interested in, but they're not going to be the best sellers -- they're just interesting to me.

FF: I use them more as reference, than to follow a recipe, although if I'm looking for a traditional or a classic recipe like for gâteau St. Honoré or gougère, I will check a cookbook. I wouldn't tackle a pâté off the top of my head but I could do a chicken liver mousse easily enough. Some of the cookbooks I use most often are Mireille Johnston's Cuisine of the Sun. Jacques Pepin's A French Chef Cooks at Home. I still go back to his pears in caramel baked with cream and sugar. Anything from Maida Heatter and anything Paula Peck such as Art of Good Cooking or Art of Fine Baking.

LMH: What is the first cookbook you'd give a novice in the kitchen?

MB: How to Cook Everything the Basics. I'm prejudiced, but that's whom it's for and I think we did a good job.

FF: Joy of Cooking because it covers all the bases and it's been regularly updated.

LMH: In his introduction to The Gourmet Cookbook (1950), Earle A. MacAusland writes that there are three types of gourmets: "good cooks who refuse to compromise with quality; good cooks who constantly improvise or improve, create, or adapt a recipe; cooks who are artists in still life." Do you consider yourself any of those three?

MB: Maybe the middle one. But cooking is all about compromising. You never have enough time, enough ingredients, enough skill. If I have good ingredients, I try to take advantage of them, but I don't always have the best. If you're asking me what a good cook is, I think it's someone who can prepare a decent meal and put it on the table. I used to say to my kids not every meal is going to be the best meal you ever had in your life; and sometimes you eat because you're hungry. Last night, we thought we were getting home at 7 but got home at 8:30 -- and I go to bed at 9:30. So I put dinner on the table in half an hour, by making risotto with delicata squash, lobster from Cape Cod where I'd been the day before, lobster stock that I made when I cooked that lobster, parsley, and maybe a shallot. I was lucky I had a A++ ingredients. It was great, and I would've been happy to serve it to anybody. Does that make me a gourmet? I don't know. It makes me a good cook.

FF: I would certainly say the first two categories apply to me, and in terms of art in still life, I am very concerned with presentation when I serve. If I am entertaining, I am careful that the rims or my soup plates are wiped clean of drips. I'm careful to use the leaves of herbs not the stems. If there is an element on the plate, most chefs will use an odd number of items. It's stunning to me when I'm in someone else's kitchen or cooking with somebody else, how little attention they pay to these things. How much of the sauce seeps on the plate and whether that's attractive. Very often I get cold soups served to me that are way too thick or if they have fat, the fat has congealed. People who don't understand you've got to let meat rest, before you carve it. People who don't put salt and pepper on the table. Or hors d'oeuvres that are more than one bite. You're standing there with a drink. You're not an octopus. You don't have eight hands. A lot of this goes back to when you're entertaining, but even when you're serving family, it's being considerate of your guests. Cooking may be partly ego trip but it also should be very considerate of who you're serving to. Food is sharing. The root word for companion -- com pain, bread together.

LMH: The term "foodie" was coined in 1984 by journalist Paul Levy. What does that, sometimes-divisive word, mean to you?

MB: I hate that word. Everybody eats. So these are people who are obsessed with ingredients but don't know how to cook, or people who are obsessed with eating in restaurants but don't know how to cook or don't think at all about how food is raised or where it comes from? If those are foodies, I want no part of that. If foodie describes someone who is obsessed with things, I don't want any part of that either. If it were agreed that foodie describes people who care about the food they eat, where it comes from, how it was prepared, I'm fine with it, but I don't think that that's what it describes. I think it describes, more often than not, a vague hipster who eats in restaurants all the time and knows who just won Top Chef. I'm more interested in cooks -- a perfectly fine word -- and people who care about real food.

FF: Some people think it's a put down. But, I think it's a handy catch all for people who are obsessed -- and that's a lot of people and it covers a lot of bases. It tends to suggest amateur rather than professional. Food groupie.

LMH: With the increased number of digital recipe apps and online sites that make choosing and following recipes easier, do you think the cookbook is an endangered species?

MB: It's a two-pronged question. On the one hand, there are literally a million recipes online and I can find a recipe for anything I want in the time it takes google to do that work. If I google eggplant parmesan, I'm presented with 30 or 1,000 eggplant parmesan recipes. Who or what is telling me which one? User ratings? There's always someone who says this is the best and someone who says this is the worst. (It's like those ratings of products on Amazon that are completely unhelpful.) People want the fastest recipe or the best recipe or the vegetarian version. So someone needs to say this is the fastest way or best way or vegetarian way to make eggplant parmesan. What I think is important is curation, and cookbooks still do that best. And I think people like cookbooks. Still: time will tell.

FF: The answer to that was just dropped on my desk -- a 400-page book, called The Epicurious Cookbook. They have come out with a printed, soft cover cookbook with 250 of their best-loved four fork recipes. Epicurious started in 1995 as one of the first, big, generous, and reliable websites with recipes that were cooked by many people and vetted by editors. They published this book because there was demand for it. It's a gorgeous with beautiful food photography, and I would imagine extremely reliable recipes by committee. It's also $27.99, which is very reasonable. The one thing that I find is the quality of the ingredients that you select is not really addressed. Salmon is salmon. It's not discussed in terms of the different type of salmon, which might be better for the environment.

LMH: On Instagram and food blogs, thousands of people photograph and publicize what they've eaten and what they've cooked. How do you think this gastronomic sharing has changed the food landscape?

MB: I don't know. I mean, so what? Everyone can see what you ate.

FF: I think it has put it much more in the forefront. There are so many sources, not just for recipes, but for food information and for food photos. Years ago you had to look in a fancy food magazine or a lavish cookbook to get that kind of thing.

LMH: Today's chefs are expected to publish cookbooks, yet many today are less recipe books than coffee table books. I'm thinking in particular of Noma and Fäviken. Do you this is as an increasing trend in chef-directed cookbooks? Or is this a proverbial fork in the cookbook road?

MB: Thomas Keller's French Laundry book was the anomaly because we thought it was going to be a coffee table book, but then it sold a billion copies and everybody loved it. But most chefs are vanity publishers; they write cookbooks to publicize their restaurant and to get their name out there. I don't know many chefs who depend on cookbooks for income. There are of course chefs who write great cookbooks.

FF: It goes way back before Thomas Keller and the French Laundry. This kind of sleeker and slicker and more beautifully put together book is not that new. I can look on my shelves and find some that go back 40 years. You should look at Jean-Louis Palladin. In the early 1970s Christian Dior wrote the cookbook, La Cuisine Cousu-Main. It's absolutely gorgeous, bound in silver Lucite. Gourmet's France is another very lavish one that came out in the 1980s. The whole Time life series is fabulous and a great reference. I think particularly for chefs, one of these lavish books is a statement and part of his resume, just as a bricks or mortar restaurant is. Chefs buy other chefs' books, perhaps more than consumers do. Most of these are a permanent example of the food photos on your phone. You can page them, and not necessarily take them into the kitchen. But examining the culture of a cuisine, or of a particular food, is a newer phenomenon, and I think it's only been happening since the idea of food scholarship has been validated. And that was inspired by Julia Child who felt strongly that it should be a discipline.

LMH: This book traces the trajectory of cookbooks from cookery books by the housewife or nutrition-focused doctor to the professional chef who emphasizes equipment and quality. International cuisine, vegetarianism, eco-friendly and activist cooking, manly appliances, and three-star restaurants are covered in turn. What do you see as the next phase of cookbooks?

MB: Twenty years ago very few people in the United States knew anything about Japanese food. It was hard to get ingredients recipes a sense of what stuff should taste like, etc. Japanese food has been "discovered." Europe has been blanketed. Fifteen years ago, when Coleman Andrew wrote The Catalan Cuisine book, it was the last great, undiscovered European cuisine, or so we thought. But the avenue for so-called discovery is kind of closed. Then we went through molecular gastronomy and the super ultra creative. Now, there's room for specific dietary requirements -- and that's changing all the time, whether it makes sense or not. But there's still room for teaching people how to cook, though but you could argue it's been done. You could buy James Beard's Theory and Practice of Good Cooking and get 80 percent of what you need to know how to cook for the rest of your life and the book is 35 years old. Nevertheless, a million cookbooks have been published since then and some of them are quite good. There will be cookbooks as long as there are people wanting to write them and wanting to read them. It's like fashion. I could live on the clothes that are in my closet for the rest of my life and never buy another article of clothing, but I'm not going to do that. So: What's next year? I have no clue but there will be something. In a way, it's like novels. There are novels every year, but you have to wait five or ten years to see which have any lasting impact. Sometimes there's a cookbook that's obviously worth keeping as an instant classic but more often than not you have to wait.

FF: Over the past three years, I've been getting a vegan or gluten free cookbook every week because people who write cookbooks look for a niche and a hot topic and weigh in with their opinion. Cookbooks for busy moms are a big thing this year. Gluten free is valid for some people, but I think it's become something of a fad. I think you'll find more books that go in the direction of meatless and vegetarian. Just when you think everything under the sun you've ever thought of has been published somebody comes out with the gluten free hostess cupcake cookbook. New appliances drive cookbook writing too. When Cuisinart was introduced, there were rafts of cookbooks. Whether sous vide will take off on a home basis, I don't know. There may be some international cuisine I haven't yet to see but every corner of the world seems to have its cookbook.

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