Tuesday, July 05, 2005

Four Weddings and a Root Canal*

Let's begin with a couple of disclaimers; call them amplifications if you prefer. They are doubtless unnecessary, but I have loquacious longings.

I have been known to tell people that you should never let something as mundane as the facts get in the way of a good story, so only seventy-five percent or so of anything factual that I report here is what sticklers for detail would call the truth. But I reckon that's par for the Internet. If you go to any blog you like, if someone's telling you a story, they've made things up. You have two basic choices when you're reading a blog. You can suspend disbelief and accept at face value what's said, or you can try to determine while you're reading which one of the four facts or details you've just read was made up. (You realize, of course, that the denominator here only includes the things that aren't obviously false; you get those lies as a bonus.) Each of these approaches has its benefits and drawbacks, and you're free to switch back and fourth depending on your mood. Either way, the blogger is not really being dishonest. He or she is merely maximizing your enjoyment by arranging the facts into a more palatable melange. (Yes, I actually said "more palatable melange." Deal.) The urge to edit and to make sense and a good story out of items that may really not make any sense is deeply embedded in the human psyche. It's also what Absalom, Absalom! is all about, and if you haven't read A, A! yet, then I insist that you do so before you do anything else because it's the best novel ever. (It is not my favorite novel, though I like it immensely. My favorite novel is Our Mutual Friend, except on the days when it's Emma or Pride and Prejudice. And if I had to go to a desert island and could only take one novel by Faulkner, I am forced to confess that I would take Light in August, but Absalom, Absalom! is still the best.) Go ahead, read. I'll be here when you're done.

The second disclaimer has to do with the fact that we all know that you can get pretty much any recipe you want off the Internet today, so when I write about buying cookbooks, I'm mainly writing about the past (even though I still buy them) because they are really not the necessities that they once were. Or at least the basis for their value has been altered fundamentally by epicurious.com and other sites. Anyway.

The cookbook library is composed of either three or four tiers, depending on how you describe the top tier, which I will come to eventually. The bottom tier, the foundation upon which your library depends, are your encyclopedic cookbooks. Joy of Cooking is the example that leaps to mind, but there are any number of others. My mother, for example, got as a wedding gift an Encyclopedia of Cookery that has fourteen volumes and undoubtedly made her the envy of her peers back in 1952. It was not a bad set of cookbooks, either, and I looked up many recipes in it when I was a child and when I was visiting her as an adult. You would probably not say that it has aged particularly gracefully, but it has a recipe for at least 90% of anything you'd ever want to make. What constitutes a bottom-tier cookbook varies with the cook, but for me, the bottom tier is Joy of Cooking and Mastering the Art of French Cooking.

On the second tier are books that you consider essential but that deal with a limited range of dishes or a specific cuisine that you prepare only occasionally. I'm thinking of things like The Cake Bible or Putting Foods By. My favorite second-tier book is Beat This. It holds the recipe for my pecan pie, which is better than yours, as well as a number of other recipes without which the world would be a much worse place.

The third tier contains books that you like and that have at least some useful recipes but that you could probably get by without, though why in heaven's name would you want to? A lot of books that you really liked reading even though you never got around to making more than a few of the recipes fall into this category. I would give you examples, but I have several hundred third-tier books, and I hate to play favorites when there isn't enough room for everyone. (If you remind me that I just picked out my favorite second-tier book, I shall be forced to remind you that consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, and you don't want that, do you?)

Those of you keeping score will remember that there was a fourth pseudo-tier that I mentioned earlier. In this tier, I put books about food that don't really have recipes or much specific cooking advice. These books might be equally at home in your non-cookbook library, so it's not clear whether they rate their own tier. You could think of a fourth-tier book as a book without a country, but I prefer to think of them as books with two homes. When they make the long and arduous migration between the two libraries, you can be sure that the seasons are changing.

Back in 1985, I posited that for a third-tier cookbook to be worth my while, it should have at least one good and useful recipe for every two dollars that I spent on it. By "good and useful," I mean that I should have actually made and liked the recipe. If the recipe was fantastic, it would count double, so for an eight-dollar book, one terrific recipe that I made more than four times and two good recipes that I made at least once would have made buying that particular book a wise purchase. (This analysis doesn't hold on the lower tiers, where you want the book to be full of recipes that you make regularly, so that you end up with a much lower cost per recipe.) There is also a discount for literary merit. If you get a great deal of pleasure from reading the book in question, then you can buy it even if you don't make any of the recipes. I am, by way of example, pretty sure that I never made any of the recipes from The White Trash Cookbook, but I am nevertheless glad to own it, notwithstanding the considerable philosophical issues I have with the term "white trash."

I would not die defending this particular analysis, but it made sense to me at the time, and it makes some sense to me now, provided that we factor in changes in the cost of living. My elementary research into the Consumer Price Index tells me that in 2005, you should buy a third-tier cookbook if it seems likely that you will get one good and useful recipe for each $3.61 that you spend. You may wish to take a calculator with you to the bookstore, or you could simply round up to four dollars, in which case the bar is a bit higher. Those of you in the advanced section will want to factor the probability that you will want to cook any particular recipe multiple times and the potential resale value of the book into the expected value calculation. Please remember to show your work so that I can give partial credit.

*I don't know either. When I was in college, I liked to perplex my professors by giving my literature papers titles that had nothing to do with the topic at hand. I was taking a class from my faculty adviser, and when I submitted my paper on Washington Square under the title "The Role of Chevre in The Red Badge of Courage," he crossed it out and wrote "The Chevre Role Lay in the Red Badger's Garage." He was a fun guy.


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