Book Reviews

The Poet’s Guide to Food, Drink, & Desire
by Gaylord Brewer

The Banquet of Donny & Ari: Scenes from the Opera
by Naomi Guttman

Cooked
by Michael Pollan

Revenge Baking
by Randon Billings Noble

Biting the Apple
by Jeanie Greensfelder

Best Food Writing 2014
edited by Holly Hughes

Creamy and Crunchy
by Jon Krampner

Biting through the Skin
by Nina Mukerjee Furstenau

Feeding Orchids to Slugs
by Ann Mah

Mastering the Art of French Eating
by Florencia Clifford

Ivan Ramen
by Ivan Ramen

Third Thursday Potluck Cookbook
by Nancy Vienneau

Mint Tea & Minarets
by Kitty Morse

Prospero’s Kitchen
by Diana Farr Louis and June Marino

Mushroom: A Global History
by Cynthia Bertelsen

One Straw Revolution
by Masanobu Fukuoka

Fried Walleye & Cherry Pie
by Peggy Wolff

Day of Honey: A Memoir of Food, Love, and War
by Annia Ciezadlo

unrest
by Chloe Yelena Miller

The Hungry Ear
by Kevin Young

Best Food Writing 2012
by Holly Hughes

Dinner: a Love Story
by Jenny Rosenstrach

My Kitchen Wars
by Betty Fussell

American Cookery
by Laura Kalpakian

Apron Anxiety
by Alyssa Shelasky

Cucina Povera
by Pamela Sheldon Johns

Home Cooking: A Writer in the Kitchen
by Laurie Colwin

The Social Life of Coffee
by Brian Cowan

The Raw and the Cooked
by Jim Harrison

Modernist Cuisine
by Nathan Myhrvold, Chris Young, and Maxime Bilet

Horsemen of the Esophagus
by Jason Fagone

Coffee Philosophy for Everyone
by Scott F. Parker and Michael W. Austin

Corked
by Kathryn Borel

Food Rules
by Michael Pollan

On Reading
by Rilke and Ruskin

America the Edible
by Adam Richman

Interview with the author of Party Girls,
Diane Goodman

Death Warmed Over
by Lisa Rogak

How to Cook a Crocodile
by Bonnie Lee Black

Great Food,
All Day Long

by Maya Angelou

Love Bites: Marital Skirmishes in the Kitchen
by Christopher Hirst

Best Food Writing 2011
edited by Holly Hughes

Balzac's Omelette
by Anka Muhlstein

The Little House Cookbook
by Barbara M. Walker

Muffins and Mayhem
by Suzanne Beecher

As Always, Julia:
The Letters of Julia Child and Avis De Voto

More...

Boozehound
by Jason Wilson

The Particular Sadness
of Lemon Cake

by Aimee Bender

The Bluberry Years
by Jim Minick

Livingston and the Tomato
by A. W. Livingston

Tomatoland
by Barry Estabrook

Palmento: A Sicilian Wine Odyssey
by Robert V. Camuto

Best Food Writing 2010 edited
by Holly Hughes

Curry
by Lizzie Collingham

Four Fish
by Paul Greenberg

The Physiology
of Taste

by Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin

Far Flung
and Well Fed

by R. W. Apple, Jr.

The Food of a Younger Land
by Mark Kurlansky

The Dirty Life
by Kristin Kimball

Ratio
by Michael Ruhlman

Cooking with Italian Grandmothers
by Jessica Theroux

Blood, Bones & Butter
by Gabrielle Hamilton

Candyfreak
by Steve Almond

The Alice B. Toklas Cook Book
by Alice B. Toklas

Medium Raw
by Anthony Bourdain

Appetite City
by William Grimes

Twain's Feast
by Andrew Beahrs

97 Orchard
by Jane Ziegelman

Born Round
by Frank Bruni

Cakewalk
by Kate Moses

Full English by
Tom Parker Bowles

Following Fish by
Samanth Subramanian

Eating Animals by
Jonathan Safran Foer

Immortal Milk: Adventures in Cheese
by Eric LeMay

For You, Mom. Finally
by Ruth Reichl

Farm City
by Novella Carpenter

Alone in the Kitchen with an Eggplant
edited by Jenni Ferrari-Adler

I ♥ Macarons
by Hisako Ogita

The Hamburger
by Josh Ozersky

Best Food Writing 2009 edited
by Holly Hughes

Gastrology
by Archestratos

Eat, Memory edited by Amanda Hesser

Eat My Globe
by Simon Majumdar

Eating
by Jason Epstein

What We Eat When We Eat Alone
by Deborah Madison

The Sweet Life
in Paris

by David Lebovitz

Modern Spice
by Monica Bhide

Modernist Cuisine: The Art and Science of Cooking

 

Update: Modernist Cuisine now has a sequel, Modernist Cuisine at Home. You can find a sample chapter here. For the original review of Modernist Cuisine, please scroll below.

 

by Nathan Myhrvold, Chris Young, and Maxine Bilet
The Cooking Lab, 2007
2,438 pages
ISBN: 978-0982761007

Review by Sarah Einstein

I’m a fan of books that deepen my understanding of how food comes together, rather than simply providing recipes and leaving me to trust in the mysteries of heat and flavor. Apparently, there’s an experiment you can do with slices of American cheese to discover the wavelength of your microwave and a series of procedures for finding the sweet spot on your grill. I’m fascinated by that sort of thing. So I felt thrilled to get a look at Nathan Mhyrvold’s encyclopedic book, Modernist Cuisine, essentially a scientific treatise on the chemistry and physics of cooking.

To geek out fully, I knew I was going to need to be able to cook sous vide: a water-bath method that allows you to cook food to a precise temperature and hold it there for as long as necessary to achieve the exact result you want. So, I bought a Sous Vide Supreme, the first commercially available water oven for home cooks, borrowed a very accurate metric kitchen scale and thermometer from a friend who runs a micro-distillery, and found a place where I could purchase liquid nitrogen. On Top Chef the molecular gastronomists seem to go through a lot of liquid nitrogen. I was, I imagined, on the verge of throwing the best dinner parties.

But here’s the thing: even with the fancy new additions, Modernist Cuisine is not a work that lends itself to the simple appliances in an ordinary home. Almost all of the recipes require ingredients that I wouldn’t have known where to purchase even when I lived in Manhattan and did my grocery shopping at Balducci’s and Gourmet Garage. The sous vide machine did make flank steak that was as tender as filet mignon, perfect soft boiled eggs, and fish cooked exactly to the point of doneness and no more. But I found the times and temperatures for cooking these things from various blogs and recipe websites, not from Modernist Cuisine. In fact, during the three weeks I reviewed the work, the pattern of my days was largely this: find a new recipe for sous vide cooking online, start the protein in the water bath, and then spend three or four hours reading Modernist Cuisine. I used a few components from the recipes offered, but never completed one. I read and reread it, but never really cooked from it.

Here’s one example: I’d wanted to make the egg salad sandwich inspired by Wylie Dufresne, chef-owner of wd-50 in Manhattan and a pioneer of molecular gastronomy. It’s a fascinatingly deconstructed thing, each part of the sandwich greatly altered using the chemicals and techniques of modernist cuisine and then brought back together to make a deceptively simple plate. The photograph of it was beautiful enough to frame and hang in my kitchen. But it required chemicals and tools that couldn’t be obtained locally and wouldn’t arrive, if ordered, for weeks. Had I been able to attempt it, I think it would have been a very Lucille-Ball-at-the-chocolate-factory sort of thing, funny primarily because you, the reader, would know right away it was doomed to failure even if I seemed to think I might be able to pull it off. There would have been sketch-comedy anecdotes about small kitchen explosions and photographs of me in a nineteen-fifties apron holding up a beaker and looking dismayed.

And, for me, that’s the central problem of Modernist Cuisine: the concepts in the book—particularly those about the physics of heat transference and the chemistry of cooking—are surprisingly accessible. But it’s more Eshbach’s Handbook of Engineering Fundamentals than Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking. I’m a far more knowledgeable cook now that I have read it, but I had to look to other sources for recipes that would let me actually apply this new knowledge in my own kitchen.

Modernist Cuisine is not a cookbook. It’s “a large-scale culinary reference book.” It’s lavishly illustrated, it explains difficult concepts in language that can be understood by a layperson while still retaining the integrity and usefulness of the information, and it’s exhaustive in its scope. If a scaled-down version were offered, one that included the beautiful photography and the exposition but left out the impossible recipes, I’d gladly pay a few hundred dollars for it. But there’s something about these recipes that made me feel like a little kid trying to get the basketball away from a bigger kid who was holding it higher than I could jump. I felt frustrated to learn all this knowledge and then see that I’d never have the equipment, time, or expertise to use it as the book suggests.

Still, dinner tonight will be better than it could ever have been before I read Modernist Cuisine. The duck breasts are in the Sous Vide Supreme as I write; in an hour, I will take them out and crisp the skin in a hot skillet lightly coated with grapeseed oil until the fat is rendered. It’s a technique I would never have tried without Modernist Cuisine, but it’s a recipe I got from Alton Brown’s Food Network blog.

October 2012