Brave Old World
by Chris Amirault
It's a strange gambit to model your essential cooking reference on William Strunk and E. B. White's Elements of Style
. For one thing, you tempt readers to invent drinking games in which players seek sentences that follow or violate the style book's dictums, applauding the well-pared "All other knives are nonessentials" and giggling over -- deep breath -- "If you've salted and cooked your meat properly, the dish will taste better than the fancypants dishes at your favorite French restaurant -- rich and mushroomy and meaty, with great body and, from the butter, smooth texture and lusciousness -- because it is fresh and made a la minute
, and because it came from your kitchen."
Whatever Elements of Cooking
lacks in Strunk-Whitean precision it makes up for in bravado. Like fatter forebears such as Larousse Gastronomique
promises definitive answers on pressing culinary questions of the moment. Like the context for Larousse
, however, the moment in question may well have passed. Ask yourself: when was the last time you ate "fancypants dishes at your favorite French restaurant"?
Though living in an era in which old and new media illustrate fascinating new techniques shortly after they've been revealed and the reach of both professional and amateur chefs is truly global, Ruhlman expresses a deep desire for the good old days when a list of "the elements" could be frozen in time and "cooking" meant Continental cooking. Covering topics from pate a choux
to the concept of a recipe, the book proclaims its version of the plain facts in strident declarations that would, in tone if not in syntax, make Strunk and White beam. Why you'd want to look up "Recipe" in a reference I do not know, but if you do, you'll be told that "Recipes are not assembly manuals" and then given a manual for how to read recipes: "Do it over again. And again. Pay attention. Do it again."
Ruhlman never wants you to forget that these elements are serious business, the foundation for all that is good in cooking, and nowhere is that clearer than in the opening section on le fond
itself, veal stock. Though dozens of books have stressed the importance of veal stock for many decades, Ruhlman's insistence on his mission blinds him. When he states that "one has to travel all the way back to 1970 to find a cookbook author properly expounding on the notion of veal stock," he must be excepting Anthony Bourdain's Les Halles Cookbook
, Julia Child's Way to Cook
, and The Gourmet Cookbook
, in which Ruth Reichl uses Ruhlman's own recipe for the stuff to expound, we surmise, improperly.
Of course, the insistence on veal stock as The One Thing is both deeply parochial and deeply familiar. When he declares that "the bones of beef result in an unpleasant bone-gelatin flavor," he doesn't just toss the pho bo out with the bathwater. He also reveals that his commitment to French-derived cuisines allows no culinary or even gustatory relativity, and the book's focus on wobbly categories such as "essential" and "refined" allows for definitive judgments about what's in (composed salad) and what's out (soy sauce), judgments that to this reader seem out of touch with our times.
Taken as a whole, the book suggests less Strunk & White than Dumas on Food
, the slim edition of the French author's 1873 Grand Dictionnaire de Cuisine
, a book whose declarations about the objective truths of cuisine are just as biased as they are stentorian. If you are amazed, along with the author, that most humans wouldn't put veal stock in the same category as the Goldberg Variations
or Plato's cave allegory, then let Ruhlman be your Beatrice. If you're confused by the taxonomy itself and, given our exciting era of cuisine, by the need for claims of categorical superiority at all, then take a pass. The Elements of Cooking
leaves me in just that state of confusion, unclear as to what counts and doesn't count as elemental, and unsure that we need yet another reference detailing the culinary traditions of the Western world, no matter how handy and slim.
* * *The opinions expressed here are those of the reviewer and not those of the Daily Gullet or the eGullet Society.