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Cookbook love story

(article, Matthew Amster-Burton)

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If you're a faithful reader of Culinate, your bedside area probably looks a lot like mine.

Lately, I've been rereading a favorite series of books, and they're starting to pile up. It's looking like a professor's desk down there. A hungry professor, since the series is Jeffrey Alford and Naomi Duguid's travelogues with recipes, beginning with the 1995 classic [%amazonProductLink "Flatbreads and Flavors" asin=0688114113]. 

In this original volume, the intrepid authors circle the globe and bring us to places where the daily bread is, well, flat. Central Asia, Mexico, Italy. Long before Anthony Bourdain set foot outside Manhattan, Alford and Duguid would go anywhere and eat anything. They are the Joe Hardy and Nancy Drew of regional cooking.

Given my family background, these bedtime reading choices aren't unusual. I grew up in a house full of cookbooks. No, I mean, really, full of cookbooks. There were cookbooks in the den. Cookbooks in the dining room. Cookbooks in the kitchen. Several thousand, in all. They belonged to my mother, Judy Amster. My parents now live in an apartment, and the collection has shrunk, but it's still formidable, and my mother still gets the same dreaded comment: "You must love to cook!"

[%image reference-image float=right width=400 caption="Some of the cookbooks on Matthew Amster-Burton's shelves."]

"I love to read," she replies.

I didn't abscond with my mom's cookbooks often, but the ones I remember best were full of recipes for the kinds of things I still love to eat. There was Jane Butel's [%amazonProductLink "Chili Madness" asin=0894801341], Wise and Hoffman's [%amazonProductLink "The Well-Filled Tortilla Cookbook" asin=0894803646], and Norman Kolpas's [%amazonProductLink "Pasta Presto" asin=0809246767]. The latter I brought to college with me, and to hear my wife tell it, seeing cookbooks in my dorm room helped seal the deal. (Years later, I met Norman Kolpas and had the urge to say, "Norm, buddy! Thanks for getting me laid in college!" I didn't say it, but Norman, if you're reading, thanks, buddy.)

One day I pulled a Chinese cookbook off the shelf. I believe it was [%amazonProductLink "Chinese Cookery" asin=0895860880], by Rose Cheng and Michele Morris. For the first time, I learned that even if you were not Chinese, you could make Chinese food at home. Years went by before I ever acted on the knowledge, but now I cook Chinese at least once a week, and homemade potstickers are my daughter's favorite food. My Asian cookbook shelf is replete with titles from Fuchsia Dunlop, Shizuo Tsuji, Kentaro Kobayashi, and Kasma Loha-Unchit.

I cherish these books. And I can't wait to get rid of them.

h3. The phantom menace

There are few things in life I enjoy more than food and cooking. Music is definitely one. You've heard of [%amazonProductLink "musicophilia" asin=1400033535]? I've got it bad. When I feel down, I put Cotton Mather's 1997 masterpiece [%amazonProductLink "Kontiki" asin=B000003ONC] on the stereo and flip open a cookbook. On a monthly basis — and preferably more often — I go wild for a new record, playing it to death and collaring my friends and family to make the same dreaded comment: "You've got to hear this!" Once I blew off a trip to Taiwan to go to a Belle & Sebastian concert.

In 1997, I bought a high-quality CD rack with room for 600 CDs. It was, like my cookbook shelves, a pleasure-delivery mechanism in furniture form. My music was lovingly alphabetized. I scoffed at five-disc changers and CD jukeboxes. If I wanted to play the Pernice Brothers' [%amazonProductLink "Yours, Mine, and Ours" asin=B000095J6M] (which is one of the most awesome records ever, and you've GOT to hear it), I had to pop it out of its case, insert it into the single-disc Marantz, and curl up on the couch with the liner notes. Every part of this process, I told myself, was inherent to the enjoyment of the music, the double shot of dopamine that hit along with the four-count at the beginning of Track One.

Yours, Mine, and Ours came out in summer 2003. A few months later, Apple released iTunes for Windows. I downloaded it and ripped a CD. Interesting.

Within a year, I'd gotten rid of every CD. My favorite neighborhood record store closed. And I enjoy music now more than ever. 

If I took a time machine to 1997 and told my younger self, "Your favorite record store is going to close and all of your CDs will be replaced by lower-quality computer files with no liner notes," my younger self would have replied, "What can I do to fend off this dystopian future in which music sucks and I have no hair?" Well, here we are. Being a music fan in 2010 is beyond awesome. (And my daughter, the potsticker fan, is showing unmistakable signs of musicophilia.)

The parallel between music and books is inexact, as I'm sure you're already prepared to argue. Compact discs were a mediocre transitional technology. Printed books have been with us for centuries and are a superb technology. In fact, books have been around so long that we no longer think of them as technology at all. But printed books supplanted previous technologies (scrolls and handwritten codices) by offering features that people liked: portability, random access, and, especially, lower prices.

Some people — and not just unemployed scribes — thought the printed book was bad news. Italian humanist Niccolò Perotti wrote in 1471:

bq. Now that anyone is free to print whatever they wish, they often disregard that which is best and instead write, merely for the sake of entertainment, what would best be forgotten, or, better still, be erased from all books.

Yes, people were complaining about bloggers 500 years ago.

h3. Heavy reading

Let's return to Alford and Duguid, the hungry globetrotters. My favorite of their books is Hot Sour Salty Sweet: A Culinary Journey Through Southeast Asia. I've never eaten better than I did in Thailand, and this book reminds me of my trip and makes me want to visit all the other tasty places in Southeast Asia.

But I never read Hot Sour Salty Sweet in bed, because it's unwieldy. Flipped open, it's two feet wide, and it weighs five pounds. It's a coffee-table book that happens to be worth reading for more than just the photos.

This summer we're putting down new carpet in several rooms of our apartment. This means we have to move everything off the carpet, which is like moving out for a day and then moving back in. The biggest challenge, by far, is the books — hundreds of them, on four large bookcases, each of which is screwed into the wall for earthquake safety. So I've been thinking more than usual about what it would take to get me to replace my books with ebooks.

I'm ready for ebooks, but ebooks aren't quite ready for me. I've played with the Kindle, the iPad, and my wife's Sony Reader. I've read several novels on my cell phone. I could gripe about everything wrong with the current state of ebooks — the bad typography, the many incompatible formats, the difficulty of sharing books with friends. But the landscape is anything but static.

"It's a little like the beginning of film, when they used to film plays and call them movies," says Eric Gower, the author of The Breakaway Japanese Kitchen, which is available in a multimedia iPhone/iPad version for $5. He's writing his next book, The Breakaway Vegetarian, as a dedicated ebook — with a print-on-demand version available, if you must.

In the mid-1990s, I read a piece in the Utne Reader titled something like, "The Internet: Should you check it out?" The article was all about Usenet, a long-forgotten, spam-infested corner of the Net. Critiques of 2010 ebook technology will sound much the same, and soon.

So, hello everyone. I'm a guy from the future. Someday you will be reading most of your cookbooks on screens. You'll do it by choice, because you'll fall in love with some aspect of the new technology. You'll keep some favorites around in printed form. You'll enjoy electronic cookbooks every bit as much as my mom enjoys her printed cookbooks.

You'll be happy. And possibly bald.

p(bio). [ "Matthew Amster-Burton"] writes about cooking and culture from his home in Seattle.

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