Monday, March 06, 2006

How to Read a French Fry (Russ Parsons)

I was excited about How to Read a French Fry: and Other Stories of Intriguing Kitchen Science by Russ Parsons. I had heard good things and it was on Po Bronson's recommended reading list, which also included Garlic and Sapphires and Operating Instructions, both of which I absolutely loved. That said, I felt like this book let me down.

Parson begins by saying that a lot of us don't know the very basics of cooking because we never learned through our mothers/grandmothers as they did before us, and that science can teach us things that tradition used to (and that science can't break some previous myths about cooking). There are two other people out there that I know who follow similar approaches to food: Jeffrey Steingarten, who takes the words "test kitchens" to new meanings in his books (with great wit), and Alton Brown, who combines his scientific food tests with wacky antics on his television show Good Eats (and in his cookbooks). Both present information that can be somewhat hard to understand (or to take in all at once) in humorous, entertaining ways. I think that was what was missing in Parson's book to me.

How to Read a French Fry reads more like a condensed textbook, with a lot of information in a short amount of space, so much information that it is almost overwhelming (though there are summary points at the end of each chapter). He explains, among many other things, how to make mayonnaise, what the right temperature is for deep frying, what is the best way to store certain fruit, and how to make a pie crust. I did find the chapter on meat fascinating. It reminded me of my first week working at Outback Steakhouse where my training materials included a diagram of a cow sectioned into the different cuts of meat and my "hands-on" training feeling the different thickness of raw meat (with the kitchen manager responding to my disgust wtih "don't make that face--you eat this stuff!"---oh, little did he know).

With Brown and Steingarten, you feel like you're being entertained so much that there are no bad feelings about lack of retention. With Parsons, I felt like there might be a quiz at the end.

Next book up: Don't Get Too Comfortable by David Rakoff

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