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It’s 11 days till Mother’s Day, which means you still have time to order and ship a cookbook to give someone special. Need some recommendations? Sure you do! You’ll find them on CookShelf, my new cookbook-rating app. Download it here!
When you’ve got it, click on the upper left corner menu and scroll down to “Mother’s Day gifts!” Voilà! a whole list of charming, whimsical, great-value books that will endear you even more to the person who already loves you best. (for more about Mother’s Day, check out my post on Eat Your Books.)
Somehow, in all the excitement of the “Surprise! Apple’s approved your app!” launch of CookShelf last Friday, I never quite round to doing a formal announcement here on the website.
So… CookShelf, my cookbook-rating app (and the project which took over my life for the last 2.5 months), is now available for iPhone and iPad for a mere piffling $2.99. And Android users? Never fear! CookShelf will be coming to you next week.
Actually, I completely forgot about it, which is my usual Pi Day tradition. I didn’t even have any frozen pie dough left over from previous forays into pie.
Sooo, instead, here is a nice picture of the best rhubarb lattice pie I ever made or ate.
It was my consolation pie, after that time I dropped the incredibly complicated rhubarb-strawberry pie I was recipe-testing on the floor. And God, it was good! It made me almost glad I dropped that other horrid thing, so I could treat myself to one so much better.
Although pixels last forever, there is sadly no way, even virtually, to eat again a pie you have once eaten. I guess I’ll just have to wait till May, when the rhubarb will be here again – tart, memorable, and full of solace.
It’s a slightly different format this year: a one-book report on a selection from the list. I had a terrific time recording this piece at our local NPR affiliate (New England Public Radio) on the campus of U. Mass., and I got to put the phrase “bone-suckingly good” on the radio for possibly the first time ever.
You can hear the commentary and read the original story here.
You can also read my extended post with the complete 2012 cookbook shortlist here.
I’ve been a passionate advocate for paper cookbooks for some years. I love them equally for their beauty and practicality.
At the same time, I’ve been watching as the Internet’s portfolio of recipes has blossomed, and the search functions that allow you to hunt them down have gradually improved. More and more cooks have brought their devices into the kitchen–yet I and many others wondered: how do you cope with the small, single screen? How do you protect a basically fragile, complex machine in a humid, physically stressful environment? And what about all the extra features of a cookbook: the author’s headnotes, the company of other well-curated recipes, the sidebars, the paper pages you can scribble on with your thoughts and additions?
I don’t have a smartphone–our town is surely one of the last redoubts in the country where no cell service is available–so I have only toured iCookbook and other excellent cooking apps on my laptop. But when Key Ingredient, a crowd-sourced recipe database site, contacted me about its Recipe Reader device, which it markets as a “Kindle for the Kitchen,” I thought it was time for me to step up and see if my paper biases were unfounded. I do love a gadget. I use and love a Kindle, too. Let’s give it a try, I thought.
Like the Kindle, the Recipe Reader essentially syncs with just one place on the Internet–the database of recipes hosted by Key Ingredient. So I signed up for the database, uploaded a few of my recipes, downloaded a few others, and set to work.
I was taken, at the start, with the Recipe Reader’s appealing physical properties. It can be canted at a low or high, practical incline for countertop use. It’s durable, and the seamless surface wipes off cleanly when (inevitably) you spill or splash.
At first, it was just plain fun to see my own recipes pop up on the screen, with my own photos and words. I like the way the quantities were automatically bolded and the font sizeable. It was fun playing with the timers and the metric conversion tool and the substitutions glossary.
But as I worked with it, I grew more frustrated. First of all, it was annoying not to see more of the recipe at once. Good cooks look ahead to budget their time, anticipate problems, and see where they can save steps. They look behind to check and make sure they didn’t omit something, and to repeatedly scan the ingredients list. I could scroll up and down, but that’s something not usually necessary with a full-format paper cookbook.
And as much as I liked the timer, conversion, and substitution tools, I didn’t want to have to switch screens to see them. I wanted to be able to convert on the fly, by touching “1/2 cup butter” and seeing it magically change to “8 tablespoons butter” to “1/4 pound” to “113 3/8 gr.” as I wished. I wanted to be able to touch “Great Northern beans” and see “cannellini,” “navy beans,” “gigantes,” and “pinto beans” come up as substitutes, with mutatis mutandis instructions. I wanted to be able to selectively scale up recipes by having some kind of multiplying function right there on the screen.
In short, I wanted magic.
I know there are apps out there that address many of these concerns. And I know that all of this is achievable in a single device. In a way, just using the Recipe Reader (despite its flaws) made me realize that. I’m now open to the idea that an electronic device can have a home, and a happy one, in the kitchen.
The bottom line is this: What’s a recipe, for you? Is it just information–a formula? Or is it a complete learning experience?
The things I love about paper cookbooks remain unchanged and hard to duplicate–the sense of customized, sustained attention, the physical heft and portability, the permanence, the voice. It’s a tangible artifact for a tangible act – the act of cooking. To compete with the accessibility of online recipes, cookbooks have had to step up in quality, usefulness, and longevity. And they have. The best of today’s cookbooks have a thoroughness and perceptiveness not yet achieved by many apps.
What I think I’ll love about digital and online recipes, someday, is the speed and readiness of the information. But there will have to be a lot of information, and it will have to be high-quality, deeply steeped in reference material, and as instantaneous as thought, before I’ll readily set aside the slower pleasures and practicality of paper.
Not really a food post this time, just something that’s been kind of haunting my mind.
Today I found myself thinking of my friend Kevin, who passed away this spring. Kevin was a fellow NPR Kitchen Window contributor, and one of those friends one makes so easily and casually these days thanks to social networking.
Over the course of maybe 3 years’ acquaintance, we had just a handful of exchanges– a few phone and email conversations and a bunch of Facebook interactions. We posted food haikus on each other’s Walls. Mine were mostly absurdist; his, more heartfelt.
I found Kevin interesting, a little funny, always game for some chitchat about a pretty wide range of subjects ranging from food to politics to technology. I thought his haiku was OK, if a little callow. On occasion, I caught a glimpse of a more sensitive nature. If I happened to disclose some waves breaking in my emotional life, I was always surprised that Kevin was so quick to respond and try to shore up my outlook.
Over the phone he seemed strangely grave, and in his written messages to me I sometimes felt he was trying to prove something about his life experience, or maybe his smarts (not that his smarts needed proving). He mentioned his health problems in passing, the way people do, and I thought that the way he mentioned and then minimized them was also just, you know, what people do.
I didn’t hear that he had died until a couple of months after it happened. It was only then I discovered that he had been desperately ill through much of our acquaintance, and though his death was always before his eyes, he never spoke of it to me. I found out what had been stalking him–acute liver disease–only by digging deep into search and finding some posts he had filed on a non-food website.
When I learned he was gone, it was as though I suddenly had to re-interpret everything I knew about him. Things he’d said that maybe seemed overblown in a casual acquaintance suddenly made every kind of sense in an acquaintance whose every day was tinged with the formality of death.
That he had a really profound sense of humor, was essentially modest, was private enough not to share his burden of trouble, and yet was empathetic enough to help others share theirs, were things I only later understood. But now I saw why he seemed to take things so seriously. Why shouldn’t a man facing the end at any moment feel the need to prove the things he’s done right in his life? Why shouldn’t he write earnest haiku? Why shouldn’t he seem grave on the phone? Why wouldn’t he reach out and find the humanity in other people he scarcely knew?
It was like one of those movies where a sudden shift in perspective makes you realize you have to review the whole thing from a new reality baseline.
Alas, a friendship can only be reviewed in memory once death has put an end to it. And Kevin, merely a somewhat like-minded acquaintance when I knew him, has transformed in my memory into someone who might have been a dear friend if I’d gotten to know him better. Yet that would have taken getting-to-know-you time, a kind of time that social media makes you feel you don’t need. On the other hand, I wouldn’t have ever gotten to know him even a little if it weren’t for that very mode of communication.
The only thing I can conclude is that you never really can be sure you know a person, and you might as well give them the benefit of the doubt. Chances are they contain multitudes, and among those multitudes there just might be someone very dear.
Click here to read today’s review of Wild About Greens in the Boston Globe.
Links to all my cookbook reviews now can be found in one place on my cookbook reviews page! (Before today you could see about 20 of them.) There are scores of cookbook reviews, dating back to 2003 when I first started regularly publishing them for the Boston Globe. (Only a dozen or so are no longer available online except as paid content on research sites–if you’d like one of those, contact me.)
Although no one who knows me would associate me with the word “diet,” I did do a short interview with “Today’s Diet and Nutrition” recently. My views–go ahead and roast the vegetables in butter!–were a little radical for them, but so far either there haven’t been any protests or the TDN editors have kindly shielded me from them.
Click here to read the one-page interview.