Why Hello There, and welcome back to Kitchen Catastrophe’s Catasrophic Reviews, where Jon talks about a recent bit of food media he happened to consume, and what he thought of it. Of late, this has mostly meant food shows, but it has, from time to time, included cookbooks. And that’s what makes today’s post such a delight, because it covers BOTH. See, recently, Netflix made a TV show based on a cookbook, Salt Fat Acid Heat, by Samin Nosrat. And, wouldn’t you know it? I watched the show, (mostly) and own the cookbook (twice. We’ll…get to that), so let’s talk about it, and how you can make compelling TV out of what many consider a technical manual.
Some Technical Difficulties
First, though, I want to be clear: today’s assessment is not me at my best. I’m sorry. Things have been very chaotic for me these last few days. With Oktoberfest over, I’ve actually come down to Oregon to perform in a musical going up in…15 days now. As that short turnaround time implies, it’s a very condensed rehearsal structure, and one that has had more than its fair share of complications. Multiple housing arrangements imploded, only to return in different form, and actors had life emergencies, all of which are stressful enough when you have SIX weeks to open, not two. The cast and crew are working double time to make a great show, and I have full faith in everyone’s abilities except my own, which, as I understand it, is the default human condition.
On top of that, I am BUSHED, and have been at basically every point of watching the show itself. I watched 3/4s of it last weekend, during the day and a half I was home between the Mountains of Leavenworth and the Coast of Oregon, after a heavy Italian dinner, so I was almost dozing off by the end of the second episode. Then, two nights ago, I tried to power through the last (and also, First) episode, only to have the internet betray me. I STARTED THIS POST with 10 minutes left to watch, and only went back and finished because I… I don’t know. I was going to let it lie, and make a joke about it, and then just changed my mind. Because it’s 1 in the morning here, so I’m not thinking straight!
To be fair, knowing you’ve watched 150 minutes of something, and are giving up with NINE minutes left is more than a little maddening.
In addition, while I OWN the cookbook…well, I can’t say that I truly ‘READ’ it. I skimmed it, of course. It was a Christmas present. In fact, of the seven specific things I asked for last Christmas, it’s the only one I got, which…honestly makes it incredibly special. Historically, my Christmas list doesn’t make ANY sense to my relatives, who end up finding things LIKE what I asked for, and saying “close enough”. However, (and while I feel bad for using this excuse, I also don’t, because I assure you the nigh-daily reminders of the loss of my father hurt me more than me being unprepared in these posts hurts you, you HEARTLESS BEASTS) this winter and spring I was kind of distracted, due to my father’s illness.
I looked through it, and noted several cool things about it, and even pointed some of them out to my father while sitting at his bedside, and noted a couple recipes I wanted to try…I just then never got around to them, and the book has sat in my room in front of my computer for the last 8-9 months. Then, the show got made, I said ‘what a great little thing I could do for a post!’, and then I drove 5 hours to Oregon without taking the book with me.
1200 page back-breaking Fantasy epic? Sure! Depressing look at the decline of the American State Department? Why not? Actual book I need for work? Nah, fam, we good.
As such, I REBOUGHT THE BOOK, in digital form, a bold choice for a man who’s been living in a (honestly very nice) camper with limited internet access for three days. (A bold choice itself for a man whose only consistent workload is entirely digital, but hey, what’s boldness for if not to be liberally seasoned on all one’s dumb ideas?) And looking through it, we find the answer to my earlier question: ‘how do you make compelling TV out of what many consider a technical manual?’ The answer is: you don’t. Because that’s not what this cookbook is.
Fun fact, we’ve actually met Samin Nosrat before. Or at least, I have. See, Samin Nosrat appears in the second episode of Michael Pollan’s Cooked series, because the two have built a somewhat symbiotic relationship: Samin took Michael’s class on food journalism to learn how to write about cooking, and motivated by her presence and attitude in class, Michael ended up taking cooking lessons from her. He actually writes the foreword for her book, in which he makes an important observation, one that I’ve heard from a couple different chefs, and one that I feel sits firmly at the core of Samin’s book and show: “Recipes don’t make good food. People do.”
A message I first received from a 6’ 9” tall black man in reference to cake.
And thus it is that the components of Samin’s cookbook, and the segments of her show, are almost all related to people. Which is an important distinction. When she talks about learning cooking, and her first experiences with how salt affects a dish, she does so through a lesson taught to her by another chef at the restaurant. A description of him is as thorough and pointed as her description of the dish itself. In the show, when she goes to see an artisan soy sauce producing business in Japan, the title is not “Soy Sauce” or “X Company”, it’s the name of the man responsible for monitoring the fermenting vats.
Am I the only one who sees the lit-up roof behind the T as an accent mark?
The lessons are inextricably bound up with who is teaching them, and what they say about it. The imprints of these other chefs, these other culinary minds that have touched her and moved her to this unified theory of cooking. And that’s her thesis, by the way: the title of the book (and show) are a list of the necessary components that need to be present and managed for truly great cooking. Salt, Fat, Acid, and Heat. This is the framework she’s created working at various high-end restaurants and with culinary powerhouses for great food.
And it’s why her cookbook is distinct. I mentioned in my first collection of cookbook reviews, which were…frighteningly brief, that I liked a book called the “Flavor Thesaurus” for exploring a ‘grammatical’ method of cooking: not giving you exact recipes, per se, but in explaining the relationship between the pieces. Samin goes for a similar approach: her book takes over 200 pages to get to the actual recipes in the cookbook. She spends 40 pages explaining her experiences with salt, the science of how salt works, and different varieties of salt, how to ADD salt, and so on.
Seriously, there are like, 5 pages about what dishes should be flavored with “pinches”, which with “palm dumps”, and which with ‘wrist wags’, and I didn’t make ANY of those up. (Alright, you caught me, they just call them “palmfuls”, not “palm dumps. I did make one up.)
This is the grammar SCHOOL of the technique, where the four main components are dissected in incredible thoroughness, laid as bare as can be, so that you can better employ each of them to their full potential. To refer back to my earlier cookbook review, I mention that one of the reasons I like the Better Homes and Gardens cookbook is because it has a very thorough first section, where it lays out the basics of cooking. This is also an exaggerated form of that: where Better Homes and Gardens spent 60 pages giving you the broad strokes of cooking basics, here, we’re diving deep into fundamental techniques.
The Show Must Go On
An interesting set-up for a book, sure, but how does it translate onto film (or, in this day and age, SD Card, I suppose)? Well, honestly, I have to say that it translates…interestingly.
I spoke, back when I talked about Isekai Izakaya Nobu, about the idea of hygge, the Danish concept of like, ‘coziness/charming’. A better translation would be, and this is real: “The feeling of contentment, joy, and warmth that comes from simple pleasures”. Like, the feeling you get laughing with friends on a snowy night while drinking cocoa in a toasty warm cabin, or the sensation of eating a warm bowl of soup in a knit sweater while watching the rain patter against the windows. Hygge is one of many fun words with no precise English parallel. It even has as clothing equivalent: hyggebukser are “comfy pants that you cannot wear in public, but wear all the time in your own home”. Other fun words like this include eochima, a Korean word for “the son of your mother’s friend”, referring to someone who is seemingly naturally just more skilled or successful than you, which encapsulates an attitude that every Jewish comedian completely understands. E.g. “You know, Rosa’s son is a lawyer, and she says he makes a lot of money. You’re a smart boy; why not try law school instead of this comedy thing?”
“You could be one of those aqua-farmers, and actually help people!”
I revisit the idea of hygge because I feel it ties very closely to the overall tone of the episodes of the show. It is, in some ways, the most food-porn-y of cooking shows I’ve recently watched. Not that it’s lacking in content: there’s a lot of discussion of specific ingredients and ideas, some surprisingly insightful for how simple they are. (There’s a bit where they’re talking about salting water for boiling food, and she brings up that, obviously, the ‘right’ amount of salt is dependent on the AMOUNT OF TIME the food spends in the water. A pot of rice, that simmers for 20 minutes, only needs a pinch of salt, because it’s going to absorb all of it, while green beans, who boil for only 4 minutes, and really only interact with a small portion of the pot, need water that’s been pumped up with 3-4 HANDFULS of salt)
Just DUMPING it in. Because, as she notes: “most of that salt is just going to go down the drain.”
But it’s all delivered in rather warm, comforting light, with natural angles, and soft guitar music in the background. There’s tranquil nature shots spread throughout the episodes, of waves on beaches, or sun-dappled Italian orchards, and so forth. The show FEELS comfortable and unobtrusive, to an almost worrying degree. Like, as I noted, I almost fell asleep during some of these episodes, and that is incredible for me. Maybe it was simply my mental state at the time, but this show hit me like a dose of Sonata.
The show is only 4 episodes long, and each one is around 40 minutes, so watching the entire affair will take you less time than it would take to watch the Battle of Five Armies movie again.
Ah yes, the annual family event of re-watching those well-beloved films, the Hobbit Trilogy,
Personally, I recommend both the cookbook and the show. The cookbook won a bunch of awards, and it’s got a very kitschy vibe that reads like a nicer, less factoid-obsessed version of something I would write. Or like if Good Eats were written by your eccentric Great Aunt. The show is like Somebody Feed Phil without Phil’s direct jokes and a more open attitude. (Not that Phil is close-minded, but that where Phil might question a product before eating it, Samin just tries it.) They’re both nice little balls of warmth, which is just what the doctor ordered as we move deeper into fall.
Check out the show on Netflix, and you can find the cookbook…probably at any reasonably sized bookstore, and certainly in ebook form on Google and Apple stores.
MONDAY: YOU’D THINK I’D HAVE THIS WORKED OUT, BUT I HONESTLY DON’T. IT’S GOING TO EITHER BE A PASTA DISH, OR SOMETHING KIND OF WEIRD.
NEXT THURSDAY: I’LL GET BACK TO YOU ON MONDAY.