A few weeks ago, we asked the question: Do Cookbooks Matter?
To some of us—cooks, culinary writers, photographers, food stylists, graphic designers, publishers—these books are part of our livelihood. To the vast number of people who dream of wearing one of those food-career labels, cookbooks are escapes from a world in which meals are mostly grabbed on the run by those who too rarely participate in either cooking or dining with others.
We’d contend that viewers watch Food TV more to be with entertaining “food people” than they do to learn how Paula Deen mixes meatloaf or Ina Garten whips cream. Whether pictures of the geeky Lee Brothers and their friends cracking crabs at a Low Country picnic are in a book or a magazine, to see the photos invites us to suspend reality and to temporarily share that camaraderie—even if all we are contemplating for a solo dinner is diet soda and half a cup of cottage cheese .
When it comes to cookbooks, picture-perfect presentations of artisan loaves, rustic faience platters beneath glazed roasts, exotic table textiles, candles, and wildflower bouquets (all expertly captured by the camera) are part of the allure. But in the age of Facebook and “friends” one may never meet—it’s often the images of people, guests enjoying themselves around food celebrities, that allow us to share the hipness and happiness so much harder to achieve in our real lives.
And while millions of these photos (not to mention thousands of cooking videos) can be seen on the Internet, cookbooks remain a way to remove ourselves from the world-view filtered by search engines. For better or worse, screen-delivered content is part of our lives. Whether we are lucky enough to still claim a job in a cubicle or are stuck at home, spending hours on Monster.com searching for jobs that would land us back in a cubicle, a lot of us live online. That’s one reason it’s soothing to read something on that material created by the ancient Egyptians—paper.
Continuing to examine and cook from the new books piled high in our dining room, today we look at someone whose trajectory we’ve been following for a few years:
Jaden Hair began Steamy Kitchen as a blog and expanded it into a successful cookbook that is testimony to both the realities of everyday life and the social rewards of sharing food. Chinese-American and raised by a mother who cooked, the author didn’t learn her craft at her mother’s wok, but fired up her own only when she became a homemaker and mother of two boys.
In brief—although a few of her offerings are classic Chinese (Mom’s Chinese Steamed Fish), most of Steamy Kitchen’s recipes are what we’d call fusion food or “Asian Modern” (Furikake French Fries, Pork & Mango Potstickers, Thai-style Chicken Flatbread, Asian Pear Frozen Yogurt). Jaden uses straightforward techniques, fresh ingredients, and some Asian pantry staples to yield brightly flavored dishes. Her stance is that authentic tastes and textures of Chinese, Thai, Vietnamese, Korean, Malaysian, and Japanese food can be readily achieved by home cooks willing to invest a little time and thought in a week-night family dinner.
Clearly, the Steamy Kitchen blog readers, scores of whom volunteered to test recipes for the cookbook, find food conversation stimulating; it adds another dimension to their social networking. Jaden-the-blogger has made her readers feel like friends around the table and has built an enormous following thanks to her seductive photography and casual, let-me-tell-you-a-secret monologue. Her telegenic appearance and personality haven’t hurt, either. But most significantly, Jaden’s recipes are for dishes readers want to make and share.
Jaden’s got it right—if you’ve read the recipe, assembled your mise en place, and follow her instructions—it won’t take much time to prepare a delicious meal, one that will surpass anything you could order in most Asian restaurants in America.
The most striking aspect of The Steamy Kitchen Cookbook is the spectacular food photography. Self-taught and dauntless, Jaden-the-photographer managed to persuade Tuttle, her publisher, to let her do almost all the photography for the book. Given how far Tuttle went to feature a color picture of every dish, some bigger than life-size, one wonders why the handful of instructional photos (not taken by the author) weren’t given a little more space.
As one reader described it, Steamy Kitchen is “text-dense.” In addition to recipes, the book is packed with anecdotes, family memories, and copious credits to friends and fellow-foodies. What should not have been given so much real estate is the sophomoric, bloggy chatter, some of it trite and off-color. It’s a glaring distraction from the simple elegance of the recipes and illustrations. For their own sake and that of a first-time author, we wish Tuttle’s editors had asserted themselves at least as much as Jaden’s garlicky Asian Pesto.
Nonetheless, Jaden’s suggestion of using a Microplane to grate those devilishly hard lemongrass stalks gains her redemption. The text can be cleaned up for the second edition. For now, we’ll forgive her and wish her the success she deserves.
The Steamy Kitchen Cookbook:
101 Asian Recipes Simple Enough for Tonight’s Dinner
Tuttle Publishing (October 10, 2009); 160 pages; $27.95