Thursday, January 26, 2012

Regarding those very expensive books about modern food

The editors of Modernist Cuisine spent a lot of time making pretty pictures. Here is the anatomy of a pot roast in a pot.

Thanks to the San Francisco Public Library, I've been reading Modernist Cuisine by Nathan Myhrvold et al., a six-volume tome dedicated to describing, picturing, and otherwise celebrating Western cuisine. The books are fun to flip through and full of interesting facts.

My favorite so far is the story of what happened to silphium, a fennel-like plant the Greeks, Romans, and Egyptians once loved to eat. Everyone put so much of it into stocks and sauces that the plants disappeared right around the time Christ showed up. Modernist Cuisine doesn't offer much of an explanation, but I wonder whether the drive to extinction wasn't so much silphium's flavor but its side effects. When eaten in sufficient quantities, it was the morning-after pill in plant form.

One very big beef I have with the books is that despite their extravagant cover price (around $500), there apparently was no budget for copy editors. The books are seasoned generously with typos, and because of that lose some of their credibility. The worst recurring offense is the misuse of the word "stagier" instead of "stagiaire," when describing apprenticing in a restaurant kitchen. These are the sorts of errors common in the fast world of digital media, but why let this happen when you're going through all the trouble of printing a real live book that can only be fixed with a second edition?

Words are the meat of books. Pictures are the salt.