Top | Unexplained Bacon

Real men use cookstoves

(article, Matthew Amster-Burton)

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I've learned a lot from Christopher Kimball, the bow-tied impresario behind the magazine Cook's Illustrated and the PBS show “America's Test Kitchen.” Not a week goes by that I don't make at least one of his recipes. His hash browns, pancakes, enchiladas, chicken marsala, salmon cakes, chili, and even pad Thai are mainstays of my table.

As much as anyone, Kimball taught me how to cook. He breaks the process down into digestible pieces. He shows you how, and he shows you why.

But I don't accept all his advice as gospel. If I hewed to the wisdom of his page-one editorial column in Cook's Illustrated, I'd move to the country, cook on a wood-burning stove, kill my television, and eschew Southeast Asian fish sauce. Modernist and traditionalist, he's a microwave and slow cooker rolled into one. The contradictions he presents make me wonder: Which version is the real Christopher Kimball?

[%image reference-image float=left width=400 caption="Preparing dinner on a wood cookstove sounds like fun, except that my landlord would evict me for installing a wood cookstove in an apartment."]

Kimball is a wealthy publisher whose family maintains a farm in Vermont and a townhouse in Boston. He's also a TV host. Yet, in the May/June 2003 issue of Cook’s, he wrote, "It's a shame that at the beginning of this new century, the world is watching America, and America is watching television." Kimball's show has aired Saturday afternoons on PBS since 2000. Is this a shame too?

Kimball's editorial columns in Cook's generally espouse the joys of rural life. While most of these make for good reading, the column's reactionary posture seems divorced from the rest of the magazine — and from the kind of food-related issues that Cook's readers think about.

In the May/June 2005 issue, Kimball wrote, "Today, we seem to have lost our belief in constancy, the unwavering good sense to follow a single path in life." But only two kinds of people have access to that kind of constancy: the very poor (like Kimball's beloved rural Vermont characters, although it's hard to tell which of these are playing Marie Antoinette like Kimball) and the very rich. Given Kimball’s addiction to writing about the charms of rural Vermont living, maybe he thinks he’s a member of the former class, not the latter.

But my all-time favorite Kimball column — and I've read almost all of them, fueling my daydream about confronting him à la the documentary film “Roger & Me” — isn't about TV or rural poverty. It's entitled "Freedom of Choice," from the September/October 1995 issue.

In it, Kimball described visiting a Vietnamese supermarket in southern California. "It was like dying and going to heaven — the ultimate gourmet supermarket," he wrote. Then, like a fundamentalist summing up his investigative sojourn to a strip club, Kimball concluded:

bq. Yet the memory of that Vietnamese supermarket is difficult to erase. The mint. The jumbo prawns. The stone crab. I am tempted to join the culinary revolution and leave behind what could be considered the relatively parochial cooking of New England. But perhaps making the right choice is more important than having many choices.

Kimball is, I think, trying to mount a "paradox of choice" argument here. The term is from psychologist Barry Schwartz's book of the same name, which argues that having too many choices (like three dozen varieties of jam instead of just three) becomes overwhelming. Too many choices, in other words, make people less happy rather than more. 

I tend to agree with this argument, but not with the anti-immigrant sentiment wafting off Kimball's column. What does he mean, he's not going to leave behind the cooking of New England? Cook's publishes international recipes in every issue. Does he mean he won't allow stone crabs to crabwalk into his house?

Or does he mean he'll publish Asian recipes but dumb them down for a "parochial" audience? Barbara Fisher, of the blog Tigers & Strawberries, found Kimball guilty of doing just that:

bq. It is one thing to experiment and play around with a recipe in the quest to simplify it and make it your own. However, when one violates the spirit of the cuisine in order to create a dish which no longer really resembles the original — that is culinary cultural imperialism. Instead of stretching their readers’ experience, the editors strip the unfamiliar, foreign foods of nearly everything unfamiliar or foreign. It’s much like when Chinese restaurateurs changed the perfectly respectable Cantonese chow mein into the strange glop that came to be called chow mein, with one significant difference: The choice isn’t being made by Chinese cooks in order to survive, it’s a change wrought by American writers for the sake of convenience, at best.

She notes that Cook's rarely expurgates Western recipes in the same way:

bq. When Italian recipes are covered in Cook’s Illustrated, they are not described in a dismissive, condescending fashion. The authors simply present easier ways to create classic recipes, without removing every element of the recipes that make them recognizably Italian.

(I'm pleased to report that Fisher absolves my favorite pad Thai recipe from Cook's — the ingredients list includes salted radish and dried shrimp — of imperialism.)

Asian recipes, in fact, provide a perfect opportunity for Kimball to get on his bully pulpit and explain why it's important to spend a little extra time shopping and prepping to achieve the best flavor. There's a good reason for that salted radish in the pad Thai recipe: it's not available in Western supermarkets, but you can't make great pad Thai without it. Why Cook's now tends to expunge "exotic" ingredients, I don't know. And it's not only ingredients that get censored: the magazine once published a feature on Vietnamese pho (beef noodle soup) without once using the word "pho" in the article.

Perhaps readers complain about hard-to-find ingredients. But Kimball loves haranguing readers. What's the best philosophy for adapting international recipes to an American audience? For that matter, doesn't Cook's have plenty of Asian and Asian-American readers? How could the magazine best serve them? 

To its credit, Cook's once ran a long article on Indian curry that consulted two Indian cooks, used their advice extensively, and didn't ignore the fact that curry is a huge family of recipes, not just one. They get Asian recipes so right and so wrong that there must be plenty of internal staff discussion, but the result is so confused that I wonder if the guy at the top is spending too much time over his wood cookstove.

In the introduction to [%bookLink code=0936184981 "The Best 30-Minute Recipe"], a compilation cookbook from Cook’s Illustrated, Kimball sums up his views on modern times:

bq. Today's "lifestyles" . . . demand speed and convenience. Do I think this is a good thing? Of course I don't. I still think that preparing dinner on a wood cookstove (which I do occasionally) is a vastly preferable approach.

bq. But enjoy this book anyway, you decadent whores.

Okay, I made the last part up. Preparing dinner on a wood cookstove sounds like fun, except that my landlord would evict me for installing a wood cookstove in an apartment. And woodstove or no, The Best 30-Minute Recipe is excellent; the skillet lasagna recipe is a family favorite.

[%image kimball float=left width=200 caption="Christopher Kimball as he appears in his magazine column." credit="Illustration: Randy Glass"]

Perhaps Kimball is, like all of us, simply festooned with contradictions. He's a man of his times, stretched between his wood-cookstove ideals and our nonstick-skillet reality. But that would ignore how fundamentally incurious Kimball's column is.

The defining distinction of Cook's Illustrated is its reliance on the scientific method. "Would you make 38 versions of crème caramel to find the absolute best version?" asks the cover of [%bookLink code=0936184388 "The Best Recipe"] (not to be confused with The Best 30-Minute Recipe; Cook’s publishes a lot of books). "We did." And in two separate blind taste tests, Cook's found that imitation vanilla extract was just as good as, if not better than, real vanilla. 

Other than in Kimball's column, Cook's wastes no time on rural superstition. I made the switch to imitation vanilla; it's so cheap it's basically free, and I can't tell the difference in taste. Do Real Vermonters shun imitation vanilla as they would imitation maple syrup? Which is the more important value, thrift or tradition? Real vanilla is a labor-intensive export crop grown in developing countries by an exploited workforce. Imitation vanilla is a byproduct of stinky, oil-gulping industrial pulp mills. How does the ethical consumer decide which one to buy?

Good questions. I don't know the answers. Kimball's column is the only part of Cook's Illustrated that deals with issues beyond flavor and texture, but his finger-wagging Vermonter (or Bostonian, I can't keep track) persona doesn't seem interested in this kind of question. Instead, month after month, he offers an "indoor plumbing is for softies/treasure life's precious moments" routine. Constancy? You bet. But "unwavering good sense" is pushing it.

p(bio). [ "Matthew Amster-Burton"] writes about cooking and culture from his home in Seattle. He keeps a blog titled Roots and Grubs.

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