The Food Lab: a review

As a kid, growing up in a household with an abundance of cookbooks, I always wondered what the best possible recipe for chocolate chip cookies was. The cookies my mom makes are excellent, obviously, but they’re slightly different from the recipe on the bag of chocolate chips, which is slightly different from the recipe in the ever-reliable Silver Palate Cookbook, which is slightly different from the first Google result for “chocolate chip cookie recipe”. There may be an infinite number of different chocolate chip cookie recipes in this world. I wanted to try all of them and determine, once and for all, the BEST one, and then make that one forever and live in superior cookie bliss.

I never actually went through with this project, but J. Kenji López-Alt did. His account of his cookie odyssey portrays a man determined to reveal every last one of a recipe’s secrets. When I read it, I was delighted to see that someone had actually put in the time, effort, skill, and scientific knowledge to learn everything about the chocolate chip cookie. Want dense, chewy cookies? Melt the butter first. Prefer them light and firm? Cream it with the sugar. López-Alt has his own idea of what constitutes a perfect cookie, and that’s the recipe he provides at the end of the article, but he also equips his reader with the knowledge to fine-tune it to their own tastes.

The cookie investigation was part of López-Alt’s regular column on Serious Eats, The Food Lab, in which he delves deep into the workings of classic recipes. These columns, plus lots more instructional and reference material, have been collected in a doorstopper of a cookbook also titled The Food Lab. I was thrilled to receive it as a Christmas gift and, having had the chance to put it to use, can confirm that López-Alt’s book lives up to his column, and more.

Of course, that’s a trivial statement for the many parts of the book that actually are the column. If your only interest in a cookbook is as a repository of new recipes, it might be wiser to browse the online Food Lab archives rather than buying the book. In fact, I’d recommend checking out the website to anyone interested in the cookbook. The Food Lab effectively has the most extensive try-before-you-buy offer I’ve ever seen in a cookbook. Butterflied Roasted Chicken with Quick Jus would be my recommendation for a good example of López-Alt’s typical approach: an everyday recipe, tested and perfected. (A note, however: the online and book versions aren’t always identical. For example, the website recommends trussing a whole chicken if you aren’t butterflying it, while the book claims that trussing a chicken actually makes it cook more unevenly.)

Though many of the recipes in The Food Lab can be found for free online at Serious Eats, there’s much, much more in the book than recipes. They don’t even start until page 101! Much of the book describes how López-Alt developed the recipes: the techniques he compared, the standards of his tests. He also includes a wealth of information on cooking beyond recipes, such as tips on evaluating ingredients. (Do free-range, organic, etc. eggs taste better or have other advantages? López-Alt looked into it.) His breezy, engaging style makes what could be dry instructional material into a delightful read.

I do have some criticisms of the book. As I noted above, there are occasional discrepancies between the column and its printed version, and it’s not always clear which version is best. I doubt these differences amount to anything groundbreaking – trussing or not trussing a roast chicken won’t ruin it – but they are something of a hole in the book’s idealized presentation of food research. The insistence that what López-Alt does is “science” also began to grate on me after a while because, well, it’s not. I don’t think any of his tests are double-blinded. There’s no statistical analysis anywhere, and honestly I think the datasets might be too small for it to work. (For example, when testing brining a chicken breast vs. not brining it, it seems like he used one brined chicken breast and one non-brined one – the percentages of weight lost after cooking that he gives are drawn from just one test, not averaged from many.) That’s not really a problem for a cookbook, and I do trust the claims in The Food Lab, because its author is an experienced cook and he tested the recipes in ways more rigorous than cookbook authors normally do. But there’s a difference between trustworthy information and scientific fact, and it makes me a little uncomfortable to see the veneer of the latter applied to the former.

The other concern I have with The Food Lab is more practical, but certainly still a matter of taste. The recipes are almost all for dishes the typical American home cook has some sense how to make already: egg salad, chili, hot buttered peas. That’s not strictly a bad thing, but it does mean that one of my favorite pastimes, paging through a cookbook for dinner inspiration, doesn’t work well with The Food Lab. The book’s innovations are in technique and refinement of the recipes, not flavor combinations. Of course, this kind of food isn’t everyday to everyone; if you’re new to American home cooking, The Food Lab would make an excellent comprehensive introduction.

So should you buy a nearly thousand-page cookbook? If you’re really into home cooking, I’d definitely recommend at least testing out the recipes. The Food Lab is the kind of cookbook that could become a well-used reference for years to come.

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Mantis Wives: a review.

Before I get down to my review of “Mantis Wives”, a couple of quick pieces of housekeeping. First, welcome to anyone who got here from Rush-that-Speaks! I hope I can keep up with the high expectations Rush’s readers must have. (And thank you so much for the link, Rush!) Second, a note: I’m not going to avoid spoilers in this review as I have been doing so far. Personally I really dislike getting spoiled for things, but I also find it much easier to say interesting things when I feel I don’t have to worry about spoiling people. So my plan for works that my audience can read quickly for free online, such as “Mantis Wives”, is to write whatever seems interesting in the assumption that if you care, you can go read it first.

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“I doubt that enough feminist scholars and theorists have taken the pains to acknowledge the societal forces that wrench women’s emotional and erotic energies away from themselves and other women and from woman-identified values. These forces, as I shall try to show, range from literal physical enslavement to the disguising and distorting of possible options.” – Adrienne Rich, “Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence”, 1980.

“Mantis Wives” is one of the most hauntingly queer stories I’ve ever read. I mean that in the fullest sense of the word. The story is obviously quite unusual; it has essentially no plot or characters, only the barest sketches of a setting. It’s more like some kind of historical or instructional work than like a story, but it is also powerfully lyrical. I could reread that prose for days; it is as intricately crafted an artwork as the killings it describes. My real joy in “Mantis Wives”, though, comes from the queer sexuality that it articulates in between the lines of the lives mantises can imagine.

The story does a disturbingly good job of making us understand the beauty and the necessity, and yet also the needlessness and horror, of mantis sexuality. The narrator (whoever it is – more on my suspicions below) clearly knows that her readers will find it hard to believe that torturing one’s lover to death could be good, or good art. And so she justifies it to us over and over, often with rhetorical questions: “What else could there be between them?” She claims that mantis men desire these outcomes as much as their wives, despite the occasional resistance they seem to offer. (Given that mantis women do not ask their husbands about their experiences, we are left to wonder how a single speaker came to be so certain that both genders’ desires are for this violence.) There is, in the imagination of this narrator, probably no other way; several possibilities for kindness turn out to be nothing more than another variation in the infinite listing of artful deaths, and anything not within this framework “may be a trap”.

I hope that by now you’ve worked out where I’m going with this. There is in our society a structure of sexuality that appears to offer as many variations as it has participants, that is ideologically tied to the furthering of the species, and which it often seems impossible to question. Adrienne Rich called this “compulsory heterosexuality”; in other words, not just heterosexual sex, but the whole culture that makes heterosexuality in a very particular form seem beautiful, natural, and inevitable. The difficult thing is that with something like conventional heterosexual romance, a culture-wide belief that it is beautiful, natural, and inevitable more or less makes these things true. In “Mantis Wives”, Kij Johnson demonstrates how the process of interpreting biological drives into cultural production can inextricably link beauty and violence. It’s a deeply important argument, and one I’m thrilled to see getting as significant an acknowledgment in the SF community as a Hugo nomination.

“Mantis Wives” appears to offer no hope. In this way it reminds me very strongly of Tiptree’s short stories, which also often make tragic feminist commentary without offering utopian solutions. (Tiptree also has a deft hand with deeply alien minds and cultures; “Mantis Wives” is clearly powerfully indebted to “Love Is the Plan the Plan Is Death”.) In my opinion, however, “Mantis Wives” is not actually saying that mantises (or people) can never truly love each other without doing horrific things. This is where the unusual structure comes into play. Most narrative prose elides the question of who is telling the story and to whom. “Mantis Wives”, written as some kind of informational work, suggests strongly that the narrator is one of the people in this world, and is speaking to people who are real to her. My interpretation is that the narrator is a female mantis explaining the facts of life to a younger female, helping her understand what she will do soon and why it has to be this way. But our narrator is very concerned that we might not be convinced. Why else would she be so careful to tell us that the queer other life we have been dreaming of may be a trap? And yet, if she herself has never dreamt that dream, why does she only say “may”? Queer mantis sexuality, in which the distinctions between husband and wife are dissolved and the dreamer is only “a mantis”, is the only option for survival. Even as the explicit text claims that living, too, is dangerous, the structure of the story makes the reader’s mind insist that it must be possible.

Captain Vorpatril’s Alliance: a review.

I’ve been a big fan of Lois McMaster Bujold since I first encountered The Warrior’s Apprentice in my mom’s friend’s house, about five years ago. Captain Vorpatril’s Alliance, Bujold’s latest book, is a delightful science fiction romance, the latest in her thirty-year-career-spanning Vorkosigan Saga. Science fiction and romance can easily be a bad combination – either genre can end up feeling like an afterthought – but Bujold is a master of that mixture. Human relationships and emotions are frequently a focus of her work, and though I think only three Vorkosigan books count as romance novels per se, far more of them could easily be called romantic novels.*

In many ways, Captain Vorpatril’s Alliance resembles the earlier A Civil Campaign (which may be all the recommendation Vorkosigan fans need). Its central plot is the developing relationship between Captain Ivan Vorpatril and Tej Arqua, the circumstances of which are sometimes dramatic and sometimes comic, but always light. The Vorkosigan Saga in general tends to unfold at an intense pace, with the turns of the plot sometimes making one dizzy, but where this style makes some of the novels military thrillers and some of them harrowing explorations of character, in Captain Vorpatril’s Alliance the impression is one of farce. The secondary plot, which involves intergalactic intrigue and various clever/harebrained schemes, is exciting and funny and interesting, but never eclipses Ivan and Tej; the really important thing about all that machination is how it gets in the way of the couple.

What distinguishes this novel most clearly from Bujold’s other work is its focus on characters who have so far been secondary players in others’ lives, not heroes. Ivan is the cousin of Miles Vorkosigan, the protagonist of most of the books in the series that bears his name. In his first appearances, Ivan seemed friendly but very shallow, mainly interested in avoiding trouble and having a good time. By Captain Vorpatril’s Alliance, however, he’s almost twice as old as he was in The Warrior’s Apprentice (and Bujold has been writing him for thirty years), and he’s become more complex with time. Bujold takes this opportunity to show us that competence does not only come in the explosive, impressive form Miles usually displays; after lots of Vorkosigan books about incredible badasses whose failures are as heroic as their successes, it’s an interesting experience to read about the dedicatedly average person who’s been living with those kinds of people his entire life. There’s a really lovely moment in which Ivan thinks to himself that he “like[s] flowcharts—nice and clear and you could always tell just where you were and what you should do next, everything laid out neatly. … Why couldn’t life be more like flowcharts?” Few protagonists would ask themselves that question. And this wish for a simple life isn’t just an enlightening way of thinking about Ivan; one of the most compelling aspects of the developing romance is the pair’s mutual realization that with each other, they can just be ordinary people, rather than being expected to excel and conquer the world.

I don’t really want to go into too much detail about Tej, because the reader begins the book completely in the dark about her, and many of the book’s plot reveals consist of the discovery of secrets about her and her history and family. Her position in her family has been much like Ivan’s, as mentioned above; while her relatives are clearly the heroes of their own important dramas, she’s mostly thought of herself as their assistant. Bujold loves to show us a female character coming into her own and learning to respect herself over the course of a romance, and Tej is a worthy addition to this theme. (Note I say “over the course of”, not “through”: she doesn’t come to appreciate herself simply because Ivan does.)

The couple’s interactions are just frankly adorable. I’m personally especially charmed by the way they talk about sex – though they’re both reasonable adults about it, Ivan can’t hide the fact that he’s from conservative Barrayar, and galactic-born Tej shocks him more than a few times. (It is probably going to become increasingly evident, readers, that I love it when books are interesting and intelligent on the subject of sex. Bujold is especially excellent at this – not only do her characters have different, and yet equally reasonable, ways of approaching sexuality, their thoughts about it genuinely reflect the cultures they come from, which is no mean feat.) The very beginning of their acquaintance is, as is correct for a romantic farce, really unpromising; Ivan tries to pick Tej up at her workplace, and later ends up knocked unconscious for his pains. So of course their bliss by the end is correspondingly wonderful.

The only real caveat I have to my recommendation of this novel is the obvious fact that it’s the latest in a series that is now over fifteen books long and counting. There is some exposition (fairly neatly structured) toward the beginning, so the plot doesn’t depend on anything that isn’t mentioned in the book itself. But there are still two major problems with reading Captain Vorpatril’s Alliance alone. First of all, for me, a lot of the pleasure of this book was in seeing how Ivan had grown and changed since I first met him. If you’ve never read a book with Ivan Vorpatril in it before, you won’t get that, and I think the book will still be fun but less so. There’s also the fact that this book can’t help but spoil some of the previous ones. Lots of characters from other novels appear, of course, and so you learn what their general life situations are, meaning that you learn about events of previous books. As a lover of the Vorkosigan Saga, I think people shouldn’t do things that will spoil them on any Vorkosigan books, but I recognize that not everyone who reads Captain Vorpatril’s Alliance is planning on reading all the rest of the books in its series, and also not everyone minds spoilers in general. So consider yourselves warned, and choose wisely!

* Some of you may be asking yourselves what the difference is. Romance fans generally consider a book a romance novel only if romance is the focus of the plot and the leads end up in a happy relationship. So, for example, a novel with a significant romantic subplot that is nevertheless obviously a subplot probably isn’t a romance novel.