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Christopher Kimball, publisher of the Cooks Illustrated empire, can be abrasive. Like when he dismisses all food blogs as lacking true expertise. (Ahem.) But this piece in the New York Times Magazine - Cooking Isn't Creative, and it Isn't Easy - was shocking. It felt like a character assassination.
Why do I give Mr. Kimball the benefit of the doubt, after reading this? Here's why, quoted from the article:
Editor after editor at C.I. recounts stories of readers, a surprising number of whom turn out be white, middle-aged men, who’ve approached them at public events to offer thanks for “teaching me how to cook,” voices froggy with emotion. Kimball views his bond with home cooks as a solemn responsibility.
I'm one of those emotional middle-aged men. Pam Anderson, Mark Bittman, John Willoughby, and Kenji Alt, all alumni of Cooks Illustrated, have taught me a good chunk of what I know about cooking, and made me want to go find out more on my own. I've read every issue of Cooks Illustrated - ten years ago, I got the hardbound set of their entire back issue run. The data driven approach that CI uses, explaining what they tried and how it worked, helps me more than the actual recipes. And I trust their equipment research more than everyone else's added together.
I watch Mr. Kimball on TV all the time, and listen to him on the radio whenever I get a chance. I feel like I know him, even though I don't really know him. I met him once, as an assistant at a cooking class he was teaching. While we were doing the prep work, he was gruff and exacting. I was peeling shrimp for one of the recipes he was going to demonstrate. He demanded that I weigh the shrimp. He wanted to make sure it was exactly 1 ½ pounds, like the recipe called for. I said something like "I don't know where the scale is…but it's 21-25 count shrimp, so I counted out 35 shrimp, which should be right." He thought about this for a second, then turned away. I didn't get the satisfaction of him saying "yes, that's right", just…he had his answer, and was moving on to other things.
So, I was surprised at how much fun Mr. Kimball was while he taught the class. He bantered with the students, quizzed them on how sharp their knives were at home, then ran a mini-taste test so they could compare results among themselves. He teased us about what we say versus what we actually do. Cooks Illustrated has a very data driven approach, with lots of surveys of home cooks. But, he said, we don't answer the surveys honestly. We ask for fish and vegetable recipes. But when they publish a cookbook, we only buy the ones with beef or chocolate on the cover.
He particularly enjoyed reading us a batch of viewer emails from the America's Test Kitchen show. His favorite was the one asking them to "dump the geek in the glasses and the bow tie."
"It's my show", he smiled above the bow tie, straightening his glasses. "You can't get rid of me."
I don't think Mr. Kimball is joyless about food as the New York Times article makes him out to be. When I read Fanny's Last Supper, I could feel the fun he had trying to reproduce a late 19th century dinner in 21st century America.
I think he cares about home cooking, and takes it seriously. He recognizes the difficulty that novice cooks face in the kitchen. Cooking dinner every night is more about organization than it is creativity, which gets lost in the translation in a lot of cookbooks. Mr. Kimball isn't making that mistake.
I think Pam Anderson and Mark Bittman have better ideas about what it takes to get dinner on the table every night. Cooks Illustrated is so specific that it can be paralyzing. Close enough is good enough for weeknight dinners. That said, I still appreciate everything Mr. Kimball has done and is still doing for home cooking. There is fun and creativity in cooking, once you know what you're doing, and get some basic techniques under your belt. There is the satisfaction of a job well done, the love of feeding your family, and the joy of tasting something delicious and thinking "wow...I made that." And I think that comes out in Mr. Kimball's writing.
What do you think? Have your say in the comment section below.
Cooks Illustrated just published The Science of Good Cooking, a book that takes what they've learned in their twenty years in the test kitchen, and distills it down to the key points. I just got my copy, and I can't wait to dig in.
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Charlie L says
That was a terrible, overdone article, I agree. However, I think the point he might have been trying to make wasn't that cooking is an uncreative enterprise. I think there's a great deal of creativity in cooking, but it's the creativity of a scientist or doctor or engineer - disciplined, focused, working from first principles, rooted in deduction and knowledge. It's not winging it, it's not making up the rules as you go along, and there's definitely a right way to do it. If that's what he was getting at, I tend to agree. I've watched what happens when people think they can just wing it in the kitchen, and my god is it not pretty.
- Charlie @ grillingwithoutremorse.blogspot.com
Laura - Hip Pressure Cooking says
That NY Times article is insufferable. I tried reading it twice and it was just peppered with too many three-sentence long adjectives and not enough information to keep me interested - kudos to you for sloughing through it and picking up the most salient bits to share. I can't stand reading stuff that has been so over-laden with descriptors that I forget why I started reading it to begin with.
Great to hear your personal experience with Kimball, saw a tweet somewhere that they're coming out with a "Pressure Cooker Manual" next year. I'm excited to see Kimball's exacting take on an appliance where cooking can be affected by sooo many variables (PSI, cooktop, altitude, ec.).
Big D says
I loved picturing him in his Maserati and silk scarf; a far cry from the self portrait he paints as a pickup driving good old boy from Vermont. That said, I love the magazine and the tv show. A little science goes a long way in the kitchen (http://bigdinthehouse.blogspot.com/2012/06/shuckin-and-jivin-with-cooks.html)
Dave Gill says
I read the same profile - I don't think he came out looking too great. I agree - I still admire what he does... but the article did emphasize the crabby, picky side. Let us all know how you like the new book.