Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Book Review: Cookoff

Book Trout Book Review:

Cookoff: Recipe Fever in America, by Amy Sutherland (NY: Viking, 2003)

My grandmother collected recipe booklets from food manufacturers from the 1930s through the 1970s, saving labels from cans and bottles, cutting out tabs from cardboard packages and redeeming them with her postpaid envelopes to get various soft cover cookbooks prominently featuring the company product, whether it was shortening, flavored gelatins, canned pineapple or baking powder. I remember many summer afternoons leafing through her cookbook collection and getting the sense that every home cook wore a ruffled pinafore apron, a happy smile and high heels. My grandma and her wonderful cookbooks made meal preparation seem like a fun and rewarding thing to do and I think of her a lot when I'm cooking.

It was with that sense of fuzzy nostalgia that I picked up a copy of Sutherland's book, expecting that I would snack on satisfying stories of plucky cooks rewriting bespattered copies of family heirloom recipes and winning fabulous prizes. Was I wrong. The American competitive corporate cooking scene is more like a grim battle among a small cadre of obsessed contesters (the major leaguers who have hundreds of contest wins and cheerlessly run through recipes designed for corporate marketing appeal rather than taste). Grandma would be sad and puzzled to meet up with these robotic chefs.

What an unappealing lot these major leaguers are with their whining websites, backstabbing complaints about fellow contestants, and mean-spirited attempts to psyche out the hapless few amateur cooks who blunder into this tense scene. Sutherland certainly doesn't describe any joy at the Pillsbury Bake-Off, the Build a Better Burger Contest or even the Gilroy Garlic Festival. If you can't have fun while wearing a garland of the stinking rose, it is a sad day indeed.

There is an interesting chapter about muy macho barbecue and chili cookoffs and the decidedly-not-corporate contesters who spend their vacations (and retirements) (and their retirement savings) at these events. Certainly the accounts of the various eccentrics who name their barbecue teams and trailer-sized cookers and imbibe liver-busting amounts of alcohol at these events seem to have a little more camaraderie.

Cookoff was an eye-opening book for me and one that ultimately got rather depressing. I didn't even feel like jotting down any of the contest-winning recipes because I got so disgusted at the winning cooks. I applaud Sutherland for keeping her cool when surrounded by so much self-absorbed nastiness in the kitchens. The writing could have been a little more punchy, but I guess when your main characters are so leaden, it is hard to keep things light.

Recommended reading for foodies, the strong-hearted and military strategists.

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