The Lost Art of Real Cooking: Rediscovering the Pleasures of Traditional Food One Recipe at a Time
by Ken Albala, Rosanna Nafziger
Publisher: Penguin Group, Country: US
ISBN: 9780399535888, Year: 2010
Link to publisher’s page or site
This review is the personal opinion of the reviewer.

Overview

As I’m typing this, a crock of briny cucumbers is sitting in my basement. In a couple of weeks, in theory, the cukes will, in theory, be big, crunchy dill pickles. I’d been meaning to try this for a couple of years. I knew vaguely that it’s not a complicated process, just pickles in salty water, with a splash of vinegar for safety. But The Lost Art of Real Cooking, a book that’s both accessible and bursting with personality, was the book that finally inspired me to stand up and do it. So I give it full credit.

Review

Perhaps I finally attempted pickles because it is in fact the very first recipe in the book, and sets the tone for the whole collection. Any reasonable reader interested in the kinds of cooking projects now typically relegated to the grocery aisle, would say, after the pickle adventure, “Oh, I can do that.” And after that, you may be hooked. If you can make pickles, why not cheese? Or pasta? Or sausage? Or beer?

The Lost Art of Real Cooking covers all these topics and more, in a chatty, easy-breezy style that makes the secrets of generations of farm wives seem like so much common knowledge. As the introduction says, “We have both long bemoaned the dumbing-down of cookbooks … the conversion of recipes … from homey inviting instructions to quasi-scientific experiments.” The co-authors, each with their distinct interests and specialties, take turns writing recipes. Ken Albala is history professor who has written about food in the Renaissance; Rosanna Nafziger grew up in an Appalachian Mennonite family. Together, they thoroughly cover sturdy American farm fare, while Albala expands this with some European recipes (brandade, pasta sauces), and Nafziger fills in some interesting Asian techniques (koji pickles, using a type of fermented rice as a starter, for instance) and some more hippie-inflected whole-grain recipes, plus a passionate ode to oatmeal.

The book is composed of 11 chapters, each with six to ten recipes–it’s like the most obscure chapters of an older edition of The Joy of Cooking, condensed into an attractive little hardback book. For the geeky food historian, boxes with vintage recipes from medieval sources (a 14th-century technique for roasting a pig, say) provide an occasional spot of novelty–and who knows, perhaps some inspiration?

The Lost Art of Real Cooking is riding a wave of a back-to-the-land trend in American food and cooking–it will fit right in on a shelf with vintage cocktail manuals and organic gardening tips. But fortunately, its tone is not particularly trendy, and its authors seem to be more ardent food-history geeks than urban hipsters. It seems to bridge a crucial gap between modern kitchens and those from decades past.

The only real fault to this book is its format. Recipes are written in block paragraphs, with a simple narrative and a conversational tone. This makes for great reading on a sofa, but makes it harder once you hit the kitchen. It would have been nice if at least ingredients had been marked in bold, for easier scanning. I anticipate marking this up with a highlighter if I embark on something complicated in which the text runs over more than a page.

Albala and Nafziger’s main objective is to make these fundamental techniques approachable—not necessarily easy, but also not terribly intimidating. To that end, they don’t get bogged down in precise times and temperatures—and sometimes not even ingredients. “Break an egg in. Or two. Or none. Or two yolks. It all depends on how eggy you like your pasta,” reads the Basic Pasta Dough recipe. This kind of vagueness will inspire fear in some, but be empowering for others. (At least Albala then says, “I prefer one whole egg”; it gives those who just don’t know how eggy they like their pasta something to start with.) And the authors also give the occasional tip for covering up your mistakes if all this imprecision produces less-than-ideal results. For tagliatelle, “don’t worry if they are not even and regular,” Albala advises. “Call them maltagliati (‘badly cut’), and sound sophisticated.”

But even within this framework, I wonder if there might be more precise guidelines available. For instance, in the instructions for yogurt, you’re advised to heat it to 110 degrees Fahrenheit, but “you won’t even need a thermometer: just heat it till it feels a little warm when you put your finger in it.” Maybe this works just fine, but what constitutes “a little warm”? I know from other homey cookbooks, and my own experience, that milk is at approximately the right temperature for the culture when you can hold a finger in it for just 10 seconds. That this little tidbit was missing made me wonder what other lore isn’t in there. That kind of wisdom, passed down over generations of cooks, has often been lost. It’s exactly what these authors are trying to revive, but they may be missing more than they realize.

In short, if you prefer precision, this is not the book for you. It takes a more instructive approach—the authors clearly care about making you understand the principles at work in the recipes. (From the introduction: “Dictating strict recipes really teaches aspiring cooks very little, apart from slavish obedience to directions.”) But you’ll need to spend more time reading a recipe and deciding just how to adapt it to your kitchen and your tastes.

Personally, I don’t find this a problem–I like to “study up” before I go into the kitchen anyway. And I suppose the hardback format is, in the long run, sturdier than a more kitchen-friendly paperback or spiral-bound book.

Apartment-dwellers will also have some difficulty—for instance, for fermenting anything you’ll want a space with a controlled temperature. My pickles may already have gone wrong because I don’t have a nice cool root cellar (or wine fridge, as Albala suggests) to stash them in—but such was the power of this book that I was willing to give the experiment a try.

Speaking of which, I’d better go check on those guys.

This is an original review for The Gastronomer’s Bookshelf.
Main rating: 4. Recommended – good
Visual appeal: Attractive
Suitability as a gift: If the person is really interested
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The Lost Art of Real Cooking, Ken Albala | 2010 | US, 5.0 out of 5 based on 3 ratings

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2 Comments

  1. Posted 01 Oct 2010 at 23:36 | Permalink

    I enjoyed reading this book… It gave me inspiration but it is not the best to try to cook from… even though I don’t need a recipe, I find the guidelines to be even more vague.

  2. Posted 05 Oct 2010 at 03:39 | Permalink

    Glad to see your contribution to this site – nice review!

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