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[Comments] (4) Everything Is A Design Pattern, Or, Hooray For Bookfinder: A while ago, in the used bookstore in Mountain View, I saw a magical book. It looked to have been published in the 1950s and it was a cookbook, but not just any cookbook. Instead of a list of recipes it laid out these sort of design patterns for food. I thought this was a great idea and I think it's the basic concept you need to easily teach cooking to computer geeks. To cook food you need to have the techniques and you need to have a mental map of food textures and flavors so that you can pick ingredients that go with each other and with the techniques you're using. Patterns work for both skills.

This is, incidentally, the best thing about Alton Brown's style of cooking pedagogy; he shows you the makeup of dishes, how to analyze them, and the connections between them. One of the best examples of this is that in some episode or other of Good Eats he points out that a cheesecake is structurally a custard, not a cake. It needs to be cooked in a hot bath, not just baked in a pan just because it has 'cake' in its name.

Anyway, for some reason I didn't buy that book! It cost $10 and I guess I decided it wasn't worth it. Later I changed my mind, but the last time I went to that bookstore it was gone.

Today I idly searched Bookfinder for "cooking patterns" and I found it! I don't remember the (long, unwieldy) title and I can't search for it anymore because I bought it and there are no other listed copies, but by a fortunate confluence of minds the author put "patterns" in the title so I was able to find it. And at about the same price it was being offered at the used bookstore! The $3.00 extra I'm paying to have it shipped to me I will chalk up as a "lesson learned" surcharge. The relevant lesson, of course, is: never take chances! Buy EVERY BOOK!

If I ever write a cookbook (which I might) it's going to be a synthesis of this cookbook I've got coming to me in the mail and Alton Brown's I'm Just Here For The Food. It'll be organized around the principles of recipe schemas and recipe transformations based on ingredient or technique. If you can make x, you can make y by applying a transformation. You can start slow, gradually build a repertoire you're comfortable with, but always keep experimenting within the bounds of the known if you don't want to learn a whole new skill to make something different.

I think cooking should be more like quantum chemistry and less like high school chemistry. There's always going to be a subjective element, but I think it can be factored out and that you can learn even from reading about transformations that involve stuff you don't like.

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Comments:

Posted by Olifante at Thu May 27 2004 20:00

Sounds like an interesting book, but you never got to tell us what the title is. If I understand correctly, you're praising a book by Alton Brown on Food Patterns. Bookfinder returns the following titles:

Alton Brown's Gear for Your Kitchen
I'm Just Here for the Food
I'm Just Here for the Food: Food + Heat = Cooking

Is it any of these?

Posted by Leonard at Fri May 28 2004 09:50

Unfortunately I don't know what the title is, because it's too long and obscure! I remember that it was published in 1965 and that its title was something like "A Guide To Creative Cooks: Techniques for Kitchen Creativy And 300 Recipes Grouped Into Patterns". It certainly wasn't by Alton Brown (who was probably in grade school in 1965), but I can see how you got that impression since I went straight from talking about this mysterious book to talking about Alton Brown.

Anyway, "I'm Just Here For The Food" is a great book (I updated this entry to mention it), but I think it takes the notion of 'cooking' a bit too literally. As the subtitle might imply, it only covers the food preparation methods which involve constant heat. This makes it really heavy on the meat recipes, which I rarely make. Great organization, though.

Another cookbook I think is well-organized is the Ben and Jerry's ice cream cookbook, which after each recipe throws in five to eight two-line variations on the recipe. This works very well for ice cream because there are really only two or three recipes for ice cream and thousands of recipe transformations.

"Gear For Your Kitchen" is also good, but for a different reason. It's a bunch of recommendations and criteria for evaluating kitchen equiment.

Posted by Susie at Fri May 28 2004 11:30

My sister-in-law Ashley really likes Alton Brown too. My new theory is "Check EVERY BOOK out of the library". =)

Posted by Frances at Fri May 28 2004 15:13

I learned how to cook this way in college in a food science class. The course was two semesters long, and I still have the textbook. I guess this is basically how I cook. Once you are aware of the chemistry of different ingredients, it's easy to know how they should be treated. You might take a peek at my cooking textbook next time you are home.

A lot of the little girlie home ec majors flunked this class--a core class in their major--because they couldn't think like this. They just couldn't "get" concepts like crystallization and acid/basic.


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