Sunday, March 24, 2013

Book Review: America's Test Kitchen DIY Cookbook

My mother has an old step by step cookbook that includes photos. Each recipe is a classic where each stage is described with clinical efficiency and the newest in colour photography for the times. It was like reading a laboratory experiment from high school. Photo of completed product, list of ingredients and apparatus, followed by the methods.

America's Test Kitchen DIY Cookbook is a descendant of that style of cooking instruction. This cookbook is about canning, curing, churning and brewing according to its cover. This fits firmly into the urban homesteading or hipster cooking demographic. I find myself in a curious position right now. I am going to come to the defense of hipsterism and food.

The hipster generation, studied in the wild, grew up in the age of the plethorization of television channels and the rise of the internet. So much older programmes were required to fill these new channels, creating a nostalgia for a time that was unlived by the viewer. Nostalgia used to be expensive but now nostalgia is cheap, at least until DRM or some other scheme takes place. They are the last generation of mass media before it falls apart.

The second issue to bring into the mix the high unemployment that requires the hipster to find cheap retro items and use their skills to supplement income. They are no longer consumers due to not being able to afford those choices of brands but rather mix, sample and remix and repurpose. Whether it is to change an old item into something new or to make, grow or trade stuff, there is a perception of choice. This choice between competing cheap items whether food or clothing is discovered or adapted to show individualism. Think etsy or food trucks or the taco craze. Being first or being original is the currency.

This reminds me of a ruralization of the city rather than an urban homesteading. It appears as a movement against mass market coupled with distrust and ability to manipulate electronic media. This mastery plus a resurgence of other older skills serve to satisfy in the absence of climbing the corporate ladder. Sharing large becomes possible with the internet, using facebook groups, kijiji, craigslist and other forums.

This cookbook gives the skills from the memories of grandmothers' that never happened. Maybe I am wrong and it is just the new youth rediscovering everything like it is the first time and they are being douchy. Regardless, end of digression and now back to a more traditional book review.

There are a ton of useful recipes for everyday things that are preserved or fermenting in some way: Sriracha, Wine Vinegar, Oven-Dried Tomatoes, Bacon Jam, Refrigerator Jams, Kimchi, Paneer, Feta Cheese, Bacon, Duck Confit and Beer. Aside from those above that split into six categories of rotting foods of some sort, there are two additional chapters on snacks and sweets.

The organization in the book is great. It moves from technique to technique starting with simple ones in a chapter to more advanced as the chapter goes on. It has a novel like progression to help build confidence in the person cooking. The head notes in this volume contrast tremendously from the magazine. There is less of a statement of perfection that often crept into the magazine and more of the personal stories of the testers and why they preferred this recipe or technique to another one.

The collected wisdom that sits in the conversational tone of these recipes would be invaluable for a beginner into the old world traditions of preservation. If you have been around the block, you probably have a version of these recipes somewhere. The difference is in the delivery. The pictures provide comfort and there is enough explanation for you to rely on the techniques and begin to use these techniques for other purposes. It is missing a little of the clinical and scientific bent of the previous generations self-help cooking books. I miss that. I suppose that is why we have Robert Wolke and Harold McGee.

Look, if you are starting out on this whole journey of rediscovering old methods for whatever reason: frugality, environmentalism or nostalgia, then this book could serve you well.

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