Casaubon's Book

De Gustibus Non Est Disputandum

I’ve always read cookbooks the way one reads novels, not only for recipes but for plots, stories and bits of detail, and one of the details I always look for are acknowledgements of particular tastes in my cookbook authors. The reason I look for this is that cookbooks are usually a uniquely authoritative genre – one that purports to tell you THIS IS GOOD. And yet, of course, one’s tastes are particular – most cookbooks that don’t originate in restaurants are fundamentally about a particular person’s sense of what tastes good and is appealing. Some acknowledge this, most don’t, but it is always present and underlying the larger question of how foods should go together.

An extreme example of this is Christopher Kimball and the magazine _Cook’s Illustrated_ version, which purports to test the single best way to cook a given item and present it. While the results are tested by a group, they sometimes make very odd choices to my lights – for example, a beef stew recipe that involves adding vegetables 45 minutes before completion so that the vegetables don’t get “soft and overcooked.” I admit, I find this weird – I’ve always liked the deep flavors of long-cooked vegetables as they meld into stew, but it was presented as a given that no one really does.

Other authors are more openly idiosyncratic. One of my favorite winter cookbooks, Sarah Leah Chase’s _The Cold Weather Cookbook_, for example, has two full chapters on Thanksgiving, including one that is entirely desserts. At the beginning, she blithely admits she can’t stand pumpkin pie and won’t be giving out any recipes for it, and moves on. Laurie Colwin, whose recipes are entertaining in many ways precisely because they are the narrative of her tastes and her food offers us an unstuffed turkey, because she doesn’t like stuffing, although she does eventually break down and give a corn bread stuffing recipe to please the protesters in her family.

Tastes in food are obviously personal, but so are tastes in labor. Just as I’m fascinated by the implicit personal tastes that shape our supposedly objective evaluations of good food, I’m also intrigued by how we feel about certain jobs. Often our perception of what can be done or cannot is based less on objective facts than on our tastes in work.

I thought a great deal about tastes of both kinds as I was reading Jennifer Reese’s _Make the Bread, Buy the Butter_ which describes the author’s exercise in making from scratch any number of things, and calculating whether the homemade versions are cheaper and/or better. The book is fun and fascinating and wonderfully written and goes beyond just recipes into the author’s explorations of goat-rearing, chicken butchering, duck egg collecting and the rest of the mix. It is, as my kind friend Alexandra put it, “A Sharon sort of a book.”

The book is laugh-out-loud funny in some places, and also does, I think, a fairly good job of giving industrial convenience food its due – and it does have one. There are real conveniences – and all of us take advantage of them some times, getting others to do things we don’t necessarily want to do. Given that our dumpster-diving friend is now providing us with more free industrial food, I have a real appreciation of the industrial apricot cake recipe she provides – moreover, for all my general preference for made-from-scratch-without-sodium-benzoate food, there are a few “greater than the sum of their parts” recipes I love from the days of my childhood – most notably a chocolate pistachio cake involving a green interior made with jello pudding. That’s the irony of having grown up in the 1970s and 1980s – the food of my childhood is not the pure natural stuff (although probably more in my family than average), but at lease in part the food of several generations of the recipients of industrial processing.

Reese’s attempt to find an empirical measure of whether one should buy or make is fascinating, particularly in the way that it ends up focusing heavily on the question of taste in work and food. Reese makes a laudable attempt to objectively evaluate how much hassle any given job is, and save others the trouble of experimenting – in many cases, I think she does a really good job. It is a buttload of work to make your own wonton wrappers, even though they are much better than the purchased sort. Making mustard is something very few people do, even though it can be done in a trice with minimal effort.

The places where the book puzzles me are places where our tastes in labor or food just don’t overlap – for example, she finds making mashed potatoes by hand terribly onerous and hates peeling potatoes. I admit, I actually don’t mind zipping my peeler over any vegetable – I find it meditative, and I find hand mashing to be pleasant, satisfying work. Mashed potatoes don’t even rank on the list of troubling projects – we eat potato cakes a lot, and my kids love mashed potatoes, so making mashed potatoes falls in the category of “things I don’t even think about doing because they are second nature” for me – it is interesting to find that someone else finds them annoying.

On the other hand, Jennifer Reese expresses little distress at the idea of picking maggoty bits out of a bad batch of her camembert, which is not one of the jobs I’m most inclined to do. Making good soft cheese is a bit of work to me – not something I won’t do, but very different from quick mashing some potatoes. Her claim that instant potatoes really aren’t that bad and that regular mashed are too much work just seems strange to me, while her statement that everyone should make their own camembert is inspiring, creative, but not instinctively true to me. But that’s one of those accounting for tastes things – and perhaps I’m being overly nice in my tastes.

Where the question of taste and perception of labor really comes into play is with water bath canning – Reese mentions her memories of her mother standing over a hot canning kettle, and functionally announces that she can’t see it as anything other than totally repressive. She writes:

“I remember well and not fondly the black graniteware kettle rattling and steaming on the electric stove, every surface given over to widemouth jars into which, sweating and impatient, my young mother – a math major, one of three women to graduate from her law school class in 1964 – funneled apricots and cherries and plums and tomatoes so I could come home from school and pop open a jar of golden peaches for a snack. They were delicious, but when I think about it now, it seems almost tragic, a sacrifice of time and youth and spirit when we would have grown up just fine eating Del Monte. Everyone I knew who ate Del Monte and Wonder Bread and Skippy and Pringles turned out okay. I see these people around town all the time.”

The funny thing (and she does acknowledge this) is that this is a woman who plans to milk goats daily, butchers her own turkeys and makes lamb prosciutto, jobs at least as time consuming as canning. Speaking as someone who fills up her shelves every year and doesn’t feel that she has to choose between a life of the mind and canned peaches, I find filling a half-dozen jars with jam and setting them on to boil while I do other things to be a quick, easy job, and don’t find myself to be a slave to the kettle at all. Yet I know that Reese’s perspective is incredibly common – the assumption is that home preserving is extremely onerous. People who think nothing of spending a weekend refinishing their deck are overwhelmed by the idea of making strawberry jam or pickles, both of which are very easy and much quicker than the deck.

Generally speaking, I agree with most of Reese’s recommendations. If you only have time to do one, you should make the bread and buy the butter, both because homemade bread is so much cheaper and also because the difference in quality is much more dramatic. That said, there’s a compelling argument for making or buying good butter – big industrial dairies are mostly not a good thing. Still, one does have to pick and choose in some measure, and most of us will – so it is good to be explicit about our criteria and our choices.

There are recipes here for some really wonderful things – the clotted cream recipe alone would be worth the price of the book for me, so that I could indulge twice a year in scones and jam. I haven’t made camembert myself, but I’ve done other soft cheeses and this is high on my near-term list. I can’t wait to try making my own vermouth (ok, I don’t even like or use vermouth that much – it is just one of those things that are so cool I can’t resist for their own sake). The basic chocolate birthday cake she recommends is simple and delicious.

There are some major things missing (from my perspective, remember) – where’s her tofu recipe? We’ve got burrata, but not a single hard cheese? Was she short on recipes that she really had to demonstrate that homemade onion rings are better than Burger Kings’ (couldn’t she have set a higher bar, really?)

There are a few problems with her evaluations – for example her claim that you should buy your canned pumpkin clearly stems from the variety of pumpkin she tried mashing up – there’s a huge difference between varieties, and many of the commonly sold varieties of pumpkin have to be reduced and cooked down to taste rich, rather than watery. There are some varieties (winter luxury, long pie, etc…) that are fabulous just roasted and mashed, though, and the difference in quality is noticeable there. Her evaluation of the economics of goats and goats milk isn’t something I’d recommend everyone take – we find that the return on investment for our goats is pretty quick, actually.

Generally speaking, this is a great book, that at least on some fronts sits down and tries to figure out where to expend your time and resources. Here is a book that implicitly (and sometimes explicitly) recognizes that in our screwed-up society, we have been told that doing for ourselves is too hard and too time consuming and probably more expensive too. We’ve seen decades of ads that showed that canned soup is better than homemade and that Grandma is pissed because her lasagna isn’t as good as the kind you get in the freezer case. We’ve been told that industrial food has freed us – even as the money we need to buy industrial food and support an industrial life has tied us harder and harder to our jobs until we work longer hours than almost any people in history. Reese gets that this wrong, and sits down and tells us that some things aren’t as hard as you think they are, and some things that are hard are more fun than you think they are, or more wonderful and delicious. This is awesome.

All of us have our tastes and our blind spots – I know that objectively everyone likes dark chocolate better, but I like milk, and ideally I like my chocolate as an accent to other flavors, rather than as an essence. I find measuring to be fiddly and I prefer not to do it, so I’m a better cook than a baker – even though objectively measuring is easy and takes no time, it annoys me. I don’t like jellied things, so I:will never try Reese’s jellied cold borscht, even though it is probably awesome and my readership will suffer from never having learned of its wondrousness. I am no more objective than Reese is.

At the same time, it is worth being aware of how our tastes are shaped – I don’t know Reese or her mother – it is possible that some hippie-era ideology really did undermine her mother’s hopes of a decent future. It is also possible that instead of tragic, her mother’s attempt to feed her children well was heroic, or just neutral. The idea that women are enslaved to their homes and freed by sitting in an industrial workspace can have some truth to it – or it can be another way of convincing people to go cheerfully into a kind of slavery.

There is no truth here – on some level there is no accounting for taste. Except that there is – there is the kind of purely personal taste, a liking for salty over sweet or a little milk chocolate dripped on your strawberry vs. deep chocolate decadence cake that doesn’t bear too much discussion. Three of my sons love pickles, one doesn’t. Is it in the genes? In how we presented the pickles? Just coincidence? Who knows or cares?

There are other kinds of tastes, however, some that can be accounted for – accounted for by the world we live in, by advertising and cultural perception that values some things over others. Those, sometimes, are worth sorting out and disputing about – it is worth asking where our perception that traditional women’s work is endless and valueless drudgery comes from and leads to. It is worth asking why a canning kettle sound harder than six hours in front of a computer screen. Are there objective difficulties or subjective ones here? What subtly or unsubtly shapes our thinking here? All of us, in the end will pick and choose what we make, what we buy and how we buy it – making those choices can be challenging, and I admire Reese’s work in sorting them out. She makes a beginning, and opens up discussion of how we might further the project of sorting out what we should and should not do for ourselves.

Sharon

Comments

  1. #1 GreatBlue
    January 17, 2012

    Sometimes it’s just how you grew up. I never had homemade soup as a child and so it never occurred to me to make it until I met someone for whom canned soup was anathema. To this day, though intellectually I know making soup is easy, I still rarely make it because emotionally I’ve classified it as hard and not worth doing. De gustibus non est disputandum indeed!

  2. #2 Greenpa
    January 17, 2012

    “Is it in the genes? In how we presented the pickles? Just coincidence? Who knows or cares?”

    Me! I do! Care, that is; not know. :-)

    Not because it’s “important” in terms of our humanity; but because a good chunk of me is a geneticist and scientist and the question is actually fascinating. To me. My taste! :-)

    Excellent essay- and actually an important subject. Not joking. A horrendous number of human conflicts are either based on what are essentially matters of taste, or taste is used as a derogatory bludgeon in warfare (eg calling French persons “frogs”). And important just day to day, in getting along. I’m afraid I tortured Middle Child more than I should over the fact that at age 8 he absolutely loved blue cheese; but loathed shrimp. I was/am parentally greatly in favor of teaching children to be experimental, and did push him to experiment with shrimp and squid way past the point where it was obvious he didn’t like them.

    And, to this day, he hasn’t ever quite forgiven me for tricking him into eating a plate of calamari, and enjoying it greatly, before telling him it was squid.

    It’s all a great puzzlement. And I will continue to care about why. :-)

  3. #3 Anna
    January 17, 2012

    My mom used to make everything from scratch- used to. Now, she’s lost much of her health. I live an hour away and when I go to visit, she’ll pull out a store bought frozen lasagne. I can’t bring myself to eat it because she raised me on real, good, home made lasagne, and I just can’t eat the store bought stuff.

  4. #4 HistoricStitcher
    January 17, 2012

    You’ve hit right on the heart of what’s been running through my mond lately. I’m caight up in the Industrial Mindset, while me heart is longing to be home raising food and kids.

    I was raised in a rental house on a farm. While we did not do the farming ourselves, we had two enormous gardens that provided the bulk of our food for the year. Mom bought meat (when Dad didn’t hunt it), flour, butter, and eggs. I don’t recall much boxed food in the cupboards – it was all jars.

    Now, though, with those years behind us, she denigrates my desire to live that way, telling me she did it because she “had to”. They had no money, so they provided for themselves. In my mother’s view a lifestyle that includes providing for yourself indicates destitution and lack of wealth.

    I guess I see the wealth in having less and doing more. Wealth is far more than just having money.

  5. #5 Nicole
    January 17, 2012

    “Wealth is far more than just having money.”

    Amen. Time is also more than the sum of minutes and seconds. I can buy a LOT of supermarket jam for the price of 6 hours in front of a computer screen working for someone else, but the jam feeds my soul as well as my body.

    I can’t give up working for someone else just yet, so I try to balance it by working for myself. To a great extent, I am free to do the things I want to do with my spare time (once you get past the gotta-dos like mopping the floor). It’s a First World luxury, I know. There is an algebra of work time vs. outcome on my projects, but it has a lot of variables, not just time and money.

    This sounds like a book I’d find for interesting reading, and like Sharon, I doubt if I’d agree with all of her assessments.

  6. #6 AngieC
    January 17, 2012

    To give a classic example – it’s cheaper by far to buy clothes than it is to make them from scratch. I can’t argue with that, with t-shirts costing not much more than £2 at one local shop. But, and it’s a big but, I’m not a standard size or shape, and neither is either of my daughters. And we don’t look good in white or pastel shades, which is all most of those £2 shirts come in, and they get stained too easily if you’re not sitting behind a desk all day. So we can spend hard-earned money on cheap clothes that don’t fit us or suit us, or money on fabric & time on making things that look good on us and will last a darned sight longer. Not as straightforward a choice as it initially appears…

  7. #7 mandarina
    January 17, 2012

    Excellent, worthy post – prompting me to remember some of the things I’ve been astonished to learn other industrially-employed-full-time parents find onerous or valueless – and hoping readers might catalogue others for my own edification. For context, I’m a seriously lazy person (mopping the floor is a gotta-do?:)

    – It had never occurred to me to prefer (tumble dried) soft or fluffy laundry. Clothes (and especially towels and linen) that lack little crispness and brittleness just don’t feel clean to me (or other friends of mine in Sydney – I know ‘cos I’ve asked) and I’ll often rewash them.

  8. #8 Gordon
    January 17, 2012

    I spent a couple of years WWOOFing around, including a stint on a grass-fed dairy farm in Vermont, and I have to say that the butter I made by shaking cream in a mason jar for 20 minutes or so was well worth the time and tired muscles. The cream was just a bit old, the butter just slightly cheezy…yum!

    (And, then, there are the barrel cured kosher dills I’ve been making recently, and the sauerkraut…and I will be making some borscht tomorrow with the beets that I put up to ferment last week (thanks, Sandor Elix Katz!).)

    Anyway, just to say that there may be good reasons to make the butter as well…

  9. #9 Richard Eis
    January 18, 2012

    You peel potatoes? Heresy!

  10. #10 NancyNew
    January 18, 2012

    Bought Make/Buy over the holidays and enjoyed it very much. I, too, thought the whole potato thing was odd, and the canning too–although memories of mid-August, no air conditioning, and a poorly vented kitchen are enough to make me sympathise.

    One thing that got me–one reason I don’t can fruit much is I hate to add all the sugar. And canning applesauce when I have a freezer? No way.

    Clearly, she also never made the Cook’s Illustrated Rice Pudding recipe, or she wouldn’t recommend buying it ready-made.

  11. #11 knutty knitter
    January 18, 2012

    I’d never actually heard of mashed instant potatoes except as part of climbing/tramping food. Having now tasted them (on a tramp) I’d never even consider serving them with dinner! There are so many types and ages of potatoes and each has its place in the calendar. I don’t mind peeling veges but I have to admit that after a lifetime of washing dishes I just love the dishwasher we got several years back!

    I have a line of letters after my name (which I never use) but I still like to make pickles and jam and preserves and cook from scratch and knit/spin/sew etc, etc. It hasn’t taken anything away from what I ‘really’ do :) Far as I can see, its all in the mind.

    viv in nz

  12. #12 NM
    January 18, 2012

    My mother often tells me I’m nuts for working so hard preserving food all summer. One year, I finally pointed out that she raised me to do all that work … and she exclaimed, “I just Did it! I didn’t ENJOY it!”
    Was falling over in a fit of laughter the wrong response? ; }
    Still trying to figure the comment out; seems like a funny distinction to me.
    We’ve been living on homegrown heirloom potatoes this winter, and I can’t get over how delicious they are. With these, some sauteed onions, potatoes, water and salt, and maybe a handful of greens makes the best soup ever. Amazing.

  13. #13 Andrew
    January 19, 2012

    Why on earth do you peel potatoes. I love potatoes prepared in several different ways including mashed potato and I have never used peeled spuds.

  14. #14 Lisa
    January 19, 2012

    Ha Sharon, I remember some years ago discussing with you if freezing or canning chickens was less work overall, and we disagreed to the point where I felt like we had different realities…

    We spend most of our non-day-job raising food, hubby asks why we never do anything for fun… to me “work” vs. “fun” is just a personal definition. You couldn’t pay me to play golf, collect stamps, or show dogs… but I enjoy digging a nice hole and nothing is as much fun as starting seeds.

    We keep bees, while it would be cheaper to buy the relatively small amount of honey we use, and most of the work is not at all fun. So there’s yet another aspect that doesn’t fit within the labor equation or price equation, a sort of satisfaction. That’s how we felt about milk goats, too, which we have not started with at our new place.
    Lisa in Oregon

  15. #15 NM
    January 23, 2012

    Hi Lisa in Oregon! I am in Oregon, too. Specifically, northwestern Oregon.

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