Book Review: A Tale of Two Cookbooks

(Image credit: Apartment Therapy)

I purchased these two cookbooks on impulse last Sunday at my favorite SF bookstore, Green Apple Books, but one of them is going to be returned tomorrow. Can you guess which one and why?

Actually, I’ve been craving A16: Food + Wine ever since I saw it when it first came out a few weeks ago, so the purchase wasn’t totally impulsive. However, The Flavor Bible was. I had never seen it before but when I picked it up and started browsing, I was immediately hooked.

The Flavor Bible isn’t technically a cookbook. Instead, it’s an exploration of flavor divided up into three sections: flavor as the language of food, learning how to communicate that language and an exhaustive list of ingredients and their flavor complements. Sprinkled throughout are quotes from famous chefs and lists of dishes as well as the occasional lovely photo.

But it’s the list that’s the most intriguing. Ingredients are described first in terms of season, then a detailed flavor profile which includes taste (sweet, pungent, sour, salty, etc.), but also weight and volume. Cauliflower, for example, is autumn-winter, astringent tasting, with a medium weight and moderate volume but cayenne is seasonless, with a piquant taste and loud volume.

Each ingredient is followed by a long list of other ingredients one could use with it and a few flavor affinity equations (such as cauliflower + curry + apple.) Nifty, huh? Well, actually, no. At least not for me. After spending some quality time with The Flavor Bible later that night, I began to grow dissatisfied, but wasn’t sure why. Confused, I turned to A16 and tumbled straight into the magical world of southern Italian food.

Starting off with several pages exploring the virtues of southern Italian wines (which I skipped so I could savor it on some quiet Sunday afternoon) A16 took me on a slow, meandering walk though a cuisine that brings sunshine to my very core.

Simple, earthy, elemental and crackling with life, the recipes in this book inspired me in a way that a list of flavor profiles just wasn’t able to reach. The flavor profiles felt clinical by comparison and failed to convey the alchemy of cooking: turn a crisp, pungent onion into a sweet, soft jam by cooking it slowly in butter…or turn it into a sweet, soft and slightly salty jam by cooking it in bacon fat…or something slightly less sweet when cooked in olive oil.

I’m sure there will be many people who will find The Flavor Bible inspiring and helpful. It’s got a lot of great tips and for some, having things in lists is a Godsend. But my cookbook collection is vast and my shelf space limited, so this one is going back to the store tomorrow (gently and carefully perused.) I suspect A16 won’t make it to my bookshelf either, at least for a long while. Instead, look for it splayed open on my kitchen counter, splattered with this season’s tomatoes and smelling of garlic and Italian sunshine.

You can buy A16 at most bookstores, but Amazon has a cute little video which gives you a nice feel for the book. The video also reminded me to mention that A16 is both a road that cuts through southern Italy and a restaraunt in San Francisco. The Flavor Bible is also widely available.

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