I get one serious cold every year. Apparently, this is my week.
In between coughing fits during which I am almost doubled over with pain there are quiet, salient moments that I don’t know what to do with. With my seven-days-a-week life, I don’t have much experience with quiet, salient moments – and naturally regard them with suspicion like strangers on the subway.
I thumb through a copy of Bon Appétit, vaguely curious what (some expert or think-tank somewhere has presumably measured) other people know or care about.
For 20 years, I have always wondered how yet another magazine could sell all umpteen-thousand copies of “How to Roast the Perfect Turkey.”
As a practical mechanic of professional cooking, my knee-jerk argument is typically, “Well couldn’t we just hold on to last year’s copy? Or Julia Child’s? Or Escoffier’s before that?” But if I am being my most mature, this is an obtuse point of view, for in modern culture, Escoffier is about as dead as you get.
When I read a piece of writing, I am in pursuit of knowledge. But by the time I get to the table of contents in a popular magazine, I can see that the reader who buys the vast majority of magazines doesn’t appear to want what I want – and that magazines that shared my viewpoint would probably be headed for the cutting room floor.
Instead, what you will find is a sharply dressed man gliding smoothly across a concrete corridor in an airport somewhere; a flawless model seductively gaping at the camera with $8,000 of a designer’s “this-just-in” jewelry.
“But he’s looking at the ads,” you say. Okay, fair enough. Let’s look at the meat.
The first thing that strikes me is that people want things.
There’s always a compilation of all the year’s best “stuff” to purchase: ceramic birds you put in your pie to do something that – or so it is implied – you could never do by yourself. Pie crust “shields” that protect your crust from overbaking (even though on the very next page a short blurb states, “FYI, You Can’t Really Overbake a Pie Crust”), and a 12-inch acrylic ruler (for $9!) to measure the length of your pie dough in style. These are all objects that you will absolutely, positively never find inside a professional bake shop.
For example, my stainless steel ruler – which also is used for accurately slicing stacks of pamphlets, cutting 2x4s, and measuring plumbing clearance – cost me 99 cents in the discount bucket at the grocery store after a back-to-school closeout. I couldn’t tell you what year I bought it, but we’ve used it so much, the numerals are just about worn off.
Take a look inside a kitchen anywhere in the industry, and you’ll find well-used (and frequently abused) equipment that was born blunt, heavy-gauged, ugly, and practical. We’re not there to impress anybody – with the notable exception of high-end cooks and their knives, where there are the obvious spurs of competition and vanity. The need for a pan that will cheaply sear 1,000 fish in a row without a single hiccup is simply a matter of life and death.
On other pages, a mildly interesting multigrain cracker. Pulsing spelt in your food processor for a risotto-like effect. “Tostada night” – Whoopee! Cooking like they do in Scandinavia, so you, too, can be cool like René Redzepi. There was, however, an article about using koji (the mold responsible for soy sauce and miso) to tenderize and encrypt the flavor of a chicken. Tenderize a chicken? Well, it’s imaginative – perhaps the most educational part of the Thanksgiving edition.
I guess what I’m getting at is that these magazines don’t subsist by selling skill – they do it by selling “cool.” And, as the observation of repeated behavior in any successful magazine can tell you, “cool” is a recyclable commodity. That’s why every cover of every Thanksgiving edition has looked – and sold – about the same since the advent of two-tone lithograph.
Though “cool” has been rehashed and reheated in every imaginable formula and sequence – “Want to jazz up your pumpkin pie this year? Try miso!” – I have a sneaking feeling that it’s not getting any smarter. We are permanently condemned to the 101 class. Making shawarma out of your leftover turkey may represent innovation, but it is more likely to be an amusing one-off bar trick than a long-term development resulting in meaningful change as, say, a good, solid course in baking and pastry fundamentals would be.
Because honestly, what would happen if a publication tightened the nuts every season? In no time you would alienate the newcomers – first-time mother, first-time host, first-time empty nester – for whom the turkey still represents uncharted territory. (For me, that’s hard to imagine, but they exist).
As it developed, such a magazine would have to be split into subcategories, for each of the educational levels of the pupils enlisted, quickly resembling university curriculum. Imagine this bewildering maelstrom of wide-ranging (and often conflicting) material. It would be impossible to publish, which is just as well, because nobody would ever buy it. You’d go nuts.
I wish for my understanding to improve with age. And I wish that for my society also. Grateful as I am for all those who read (anything), I wish that we had some kind of evolutional cycle (A helix? Am I saying that right?) in popular literature that drove our cultural consciousness steadily upward. Raise the lowest boat, so to speak. That’s my Christmas wish, I think.
Enjoy your turkey.