Edit 1/1/2013: (Belatedly) updated the author’s website per his request.
Writing books is a ton of work. Making them appealing is even more so, especially when your audience is geeks. You have to know your stuff, you have to present it well, and it doesn’t hurt if you can make it entertaining. In the technical field, I think O’Reilly is the one publisher that hits this bar more consistently than any other publisher. Getting to co-write my first book for them was a great experience; if they ever came asking me to work on another book for them, I would seriously think about it (more importantly, my wife wouldn’t automatically say no).
Back at the end 0f August, I had the opportunity, thanks to the @OReillyMedia twitter feed, to get my hands on a review copy of Cooking for Geeks (CfG) in e-book format. As part of the review agreement, I was supposed to:
- Select a recipe from the book,
- Prepare it,
- Photograph it,
- Write a review and post it,
- Post the photograph on the O’Reilly Facebook page,
- and all by September 6th.
Oops. Obviously, I’ve missed the precise timing here, but a bit belated, here’s the review I owe.
Why this cooking book?
There’s a lot of information on cooking out there. Stephanie has a metric ton of cookbooks and collected recipes in our house, and there are large chunks of old-growth forest bound up in the various cookbooks you can find in various stores. Thanks to the celebrity chef craze on TV, cooking (never an unpopular subject) has grown leaps and bounds beyond the good old Betty Crocker Cookbook that many of us grew up with. Popular TV chefs now write and sell cookbooks on just about any specialty and niche you can imagine. I’ve even indulged in the recipe fetish myself once or twice, most noticeably to snag and perfect my favorite dish, the Cheesecake Factory’s Spicy Cashew Chicken dish.
What caught my attention (other than this being an O’Reilly book) about CfG was that my household has been slowly and steadily moving into the exciting world of food allergens. We recently flung ourselves off the cliffs of insanity this summer when blood tests revealed that Steph and Treanna tested positive for gluten antibodies. Add that to the existing dairy-free regime, and it was clear that menu planning at Chez Ganger had just started a new, exciting, but potentially very limited and boring chapter.
We’ve got a lot of friend who are gluten-free, dairy-free, vegetarian, vegan, some other regime, or even combinations of the above, so Steph’s no stranger to the issues involved. What is doable as an occasional thing, though, can become overwhelming when it’s a sudden lifestyle change that comes hard on the heels of a long, exhausting summer – just in time for the new school year. Understandably, Steph was struggling to cope – and we weren’t exactly the most helpful crew she could hope for.
After a few weeks of the same basic dishes being served over and over again, I was ready for any lifesaver that I could find. That’s when the fateful tweet caught my eye. After a few rounds of back and forth e-mail, I discovered that CfG included a chapter on cooking to accommodate allergens. The rest, as they say, is fate.
Torturing Chickens For Fun and Noms
Although I could go into great detail about the recipe my family ended up selecting – butterflied roasted chicken – my wife has already done so. Like a good writer, I will steal her efforts link to her blog post instead. She even took pictures! Go, read and salivate!
Under the Cover
CfG is written by Jeff Potter, whose geek credentials appear to be genuine. The book has a fantastic companion site, which is essentially a link fest to the related blog and Twitter stream (as well as to the various places you can go on the Internet to purchase a copy of the book).
My lovely wife handled the “cooking” and “presentation” parts well, so I’m going to move on to our thoughts about the book itself:
- Content. If you want a book that explores the science and the art behind cooking, this is your book. It’s not a college textbook; it’s a great middle school or high school-level overview of the science of cooking that seems more interested in sharing Jeff’s love of cooking with you rather than creating cooking’s equivalent of the CCIE. Jeff writes with a very informal personable voice and isn’t afraid to show off his mastery of the physics behind good and bad dishes, sharing them in a way that’s part Bill Nye the Science Guy and part Ferris Bueller. I have never before laughed while reading a book on cooking. However, if you’re expecting a cookbook, check your expectations at the door. If this book has a weakness, it’s that talking about all this food will make you want a lot of recipes to try out, and I was surprised by how relatively few recipes there actually are. What is there provides an interesting cross-section across different types of dishes and ingredients, but it’s not a comprehensive reference guide. This is not “Cooking in a Nutshell” or cooking’s Camel Book; it is instead a not-to-scale map of the CfG theme park. If you find something that entrances you, you should be able to walk away with enough exposure to be able to knowledgeably pick out some other more detailed work for given area. CfG is the culinary equivalent of Jerome K. Jerome’s immortal Three Men in a Boat (To Say Nothing of the Dog); you’re going to get a fantastic lazy summer day punt trip down the river of Jeff’s epicurean experiences.
- Format. We used the PDF format (like all of O’Reilly’s e-books, unencumbered by DRM). Steph already made a comment about how useful she found the e-book format. With a sturdy tablet, I think an e-book cookbook would be great in the kitchen, especially if there were some great application that could handle browsing and organizing recipes from multiple sources. As I already said, though, this book is not a cookbook and I’d probably just make a quick copy of (or retype) the recipes I was interested in so that I didn’t have to use the physical book in the kitchen. Having said that, though, we’re going to purchase a physical copy of the book to facilitate quick browsing. If you’ve already made the switch to casual e-reading (we have not yet), you probably won’t have this same issue.
- Organization. Whether you like the book’s organization will depend on what you wanted out of it. If you wanted cooking’s Camel Book, you will find the book to be dismayingly unorganized. The structure of the book (and the recipes within) are based around the physics of cooking. Here, Jeff reveals himself to be a Lego Master of building blocks – you will find yourself introduced to one scientific concept after another, and each chapter will build on that knowledge by concentrating on a particular theme or technique rather than on a specific type of food or course. It really will help you to think of it as a novel (a romance, actually, between Jeff and food) and read the book from cover to cover rather than jump around in typical O’Reilly reference format. This is passion, not profession; calling, not career.
- Utility. I’m pretty much a dunce when it comes to cooking, so I found this book to be extremely useful. I hate following the typical magical thinking approach to cooking: put ingredient A into slot B and pull on tab C for 30 minutes until you screw it all up because you didn’t know that your masterpiece was afraid of loud noises. I want to know why I’m putting nasty old cream of tartar into my mixing bowl; what purpose does it serve? How can I usefully strike out into the scary wilderness of trying to adapt existing favorite recipes to a gluten-free, dairy-free existence? CfG doesn’t answer all my questions, but it answers a hell of a lot more of them than any other cooking book I’ve picked up. It didn’t talk down to me, but it didn’t assume I was already a lifelong member of the Secret and Worshipful Order of Basters, Bakers, and Broilers. What it didn’t do, though, is give me a large number of variations on a theme to go and try. At times the recipe selection – while ecletic and representative – felt somewhat sparse and even unrelated to what was being talked about in the main text. It seemed like someone on the team had written a badly behaved random recipe widget to insert a recipe every so often. I would love, in the second edition, to see a little bit more connection between the theory and the practice, even though I recognize this isn’t a textbook.
We found our payoff in the chapter on cooking around allergens. Of all the chapters, this is the one that most felt like a reference work — a concise but thorough reference work. Jeff explains why (for example) taking gluten out of a recipe and merely substituting some non-gluten flour is probably not going to produce edible results, and then explains some of the common approaches for dealing with the problem. He’s trusting us, the readers, to be able and willing to do some experimentation and find our own way without having a GPS to lead us by the nose. While it’s initially tempting to have the comfort of specific substitution steps, in the end, CfG will help you know how to make substitutions on your own and quickly dial in to an acceptable solution rather than sit around waiting for someone to write the HOWTO.
In the end, Jeff’s approach is empowerment. We liked it a lot; thank you, Jeff and O’Reilly!
 Not only did I grow up with one and spend a lot of time browsing it, Steph has one. I’ll have you know, however, that I’ve only flipped through it once for auld lang syne.
 Probably written in Ruby or PHP.