Welcome back to Kitchen Catastrophes. I’m your author and appraising eye of commercial comestibles, Jon O’Guin. Today, we’re going to do something mildly out of the ordinary: A Cookbook Review. We’ve talked about cookbooks in the past, of course, but we’ve never devoted an entire post to discussing a single cookbook. Why do so now? Firstly, because I want to, and you’re not my dad. Secondly, it seems a fitting time for it: with winter’s hold dwindling, we’re just at the edge between when people want to stay inside where it’s warm, curled up with a book, and where people are starting to step outside to garden, grill and graze.
So, let’s talk about what makes a good cookbook, and where “The American Craft Beer Cookbook” falls in that rubric, shall we? (Damn it, I REALLY want to make a Rubicon joke here, but it’s too late. The die is already cast.)
Cookbooks: the Good and the Great
So, what makes a good cookbook? That’s a complicated question, and one everyone need answer for themselves. Here’s the things I care about in a cookbook:
This is probably the most fluid and most easily discarded of my criteria, but it exists, so on the list it goes. See, if all I wanted were recipes, I have more resources for those than any chef born before 1950 could ever IMAGINE. So a cookbook is more than a set of recipes: it’s a conversation between the author and me. That conversation can take many forms (see “unity of theme” Later) but I want to have at least some of it. Specific details in recipes that tell me you’ve personally made them, or quick blurbs beforehand on where you discovered them, these are the things that make your recipes “more real” to me.
As the old joke goes, deep down, I’m actually quite shallow. Does your book look nice? Is it nice to hold, with pictures that are clear and pretty? Most of the time, this isn’t make or break. But I know there are cookbooks I own that I don’t respect, because the way they were made makes me feel like the author didn’t either.
Recipes in Middle English? How droll.
(Actually, that's super interesting to me, because I'm a huge nerd.)
So, I’ve picked up your book, and I’ve started reading it. But here’s the thing about cookbooks: I shouldn’t JUST read it. Its purpose is to drive me to COOK. To Catapult me forward with interest. I should want to buy the obscure ingredients you mention to try them out, and should be taking notes on what I need to make your recipes. How well does your cookbook drive me to make what’s in it?
Unity of Theme
This is one of the biggest make-or-break deals for me. Your cookbook has to fit itself. This can be a little tricky, so let me break it down with some examples:
America’s Test Kitchen’s schtick is that it tries recipes repeatedly until they reach acclaim in a taste test. Their approach is methodical, scientific, and precise. The American Test Kitchen cookbook discusses the various steps taken, the failures and the ‘eureka’ moments, with clean black-and-white pictures, and simple pages. It feels like an encyclopedia of food. It feels weighed, measured, and recorded.
All the weight of a College Textbook at 1/10th the cost!
The Flavor Thesaurus has no pictures. Its pages are of a rougher quality. It is a small, hardbound book. Each entry is a pair of flavors, with a description of their interactions, and sometimes a suggestion of a recipe. The book also frequently includes (See Page XXX) markers, such as the entry for “Coffee and Chocolate” saying “See Chocolate and Coffee”. It FEELS like an actual thesaurus. Like a little book you’d take down when you notice you have too much mint, and can’t decide what to do with it.
The answer is "Use it like Mint, dumbass."
So, with those points established, let’s get to the main event.
The American Craft Beer Cookbook Dissected
I’m going to start with Production Quality here. I know, I know, I started with Voice earlier. And that’s because Voice is my least important criteria. But Production Quality is something you notice starting at the cover, so in the review itself, it makes sense to start at the beginning.
I've heard it's a very good place to start.
Production Quality for the ACBC
It’s solid. The book itself has that glossy coffee-table book look. It’s heavy enough to be palpable, but easy to flip through, with between half to a third of its pages being pictures. Pictures of the food, of the breweries, of brewery staff, waitstaff, or the neighborhoods. It has a pop to the page, lot of little flourishes, colored boxes, and so on. It’s not amazing, but it’s perfectly competent and enticing.
Unity of Theme/Voice
Another departure from the earlier listing order, but stick with me here: Voice is, in the end, just a form of Unity of Theme. It’s the book (well, the author) talking to you through the book, in the theme established.
So what IS the voice of this book? Well, it’s someone almost exactly like me.
Almost. I'm pretty distinctive. I wear translucent Marvel shirts to social gatherings.
This is a book that is, above all else, excited. It’s really excited about the craft beer scene of America. Every recipe is connected to a specific producer, and each producer gets a profile along with the recipe. Each recipe comes with suggested beers to drink with the recipe, or use IN the recipe. They come with headers where the author talks about the little details of each one. “This recipe makes more sauce than you need, but it freezes well for future use.” “The Belgian Ale adds rich fruit notes…” This is your college roommate, back from their semester abroad, breaking down every restaurant they visited. It’s personal, excited, and ever-so-slightly pretentious.
Like I said a minute ago, this book comes off as someone almost exactly like me. So, of course, it speaks to me. It has a mixture of unchecked creativity and salt-of-the-earth Americana. This is a cookbook with Pork Belly Corn Dogs with Truffle Mustard sitting two pages away from a completely unadorned recipe for Hummus, whose backpage is Smoke Bologna Mousse with Chicken Skin Crostini. It’s crazy in a fun way: Where a recipe for Roasted Venison Steak with Mole Sauce takes 14 ingredients for the Mole, because that’s how complicated even faux-authentic Mole sauces are.
They even cheated by making the chocolate and beer one ingredient.
But the theme keeps it from going too crazy, because you can look at the recipe and go “Wow, that’s some bonkers stuff, but hey, apparently they sell it in Utah, so it can’t be that wild.”
This is a $20 book. Which surprised me when I checked the tag, because everything about it said $35 to me. For me, this is one of the best cookbooks I’ve ever seen at that price tag. It’s got a ton of new flavors, odd combos, and big ideas, but it all comes back to a central point: these are dishes to drink with. They represent the off-kilter new ideas of people making things like Habanero Hard Cider, and Smoked Bourbon Chocolate Stout. It’s a new frontier of American Culinary ingenuity, and that’s pretty dang cool.