The subtitle, A Short Guide to an Essential Craft, gives the game away—the book’s a largely successful attempt to be the Elements of Style of cooking. Costello (the chef) and Reich (the editor) even emulate Strunk & White, giving blunt, acerbic tips that read like dictums, with additional witty—and equally terse—commentary below each piece of advice. At least the authors know it. From the introduction: “A note dares shamelessly to assert The Truth. It is not weighed down by prevarications or extraneous information; the fat is cut away and only the essence remains.” The book moves briskly from the beginning of a meal’s process to the end stage, so that “Understanding the Recipe” and sections on proper tools and equipment come 30 pages before a specific foodstuff is mentioned. I read Notes on Cooking linearly but it’s just as useful—and as likely to incite arguments—if you thumb through it randomly. Some advice is deeply, obviously practical… but I had never bothered to think it through. (The entirety of #49: “Rotate your product. Shelve your perishables with the newest in the back and the oldest in the front. Habituate yourself to the FIFO system: First In First Out.”) Others are abstract, though Costello and Braun are quick to dismiss gauziness. Some are infuriating if you’re on a recessional budget (#97: “If you won’t drink it, don’t cook with it.” But what the hell am I gonna do with this leftover holiday wine? Throw it out?) And that’s… okay. Costello wants to establish a canon, a gold standard that you can know and then ignore once mastered. To emphasize that she wants to teach you how to think about cooking rather than what to cook, there are no recipes here. (There are appendices, though, with useful food combinations and a “flavor lexicon,” so that you can talk about food more concretely.) The organization and design are both clean and classy; the white space invites marginal notes and meditation. And, of course, fuming—but, then, you did that with Strunk & White, too.
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