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13 April 2011

Modernist Cuisine: a sceptic recants, sort of

image from www.silverbrowonfood.com I've changed my tune: I think that Nathan Myhrvold's Modernist Cuisine is worth buying.

Before you start shouting at me for being a turncoat and drinking the kool-aid, I need to explain one crucial thing: I've held the book and I've read several recipes from it.  That was enough for me.

I was very fortunate to be invited to drinks earlier this week with Nathan Myhrvold and some other illustrious individuals.  As I think is only fair, whilst I quaffed his champagne and sipped on Gibsons he took no prisoners in reminding me of my scepticism and criticism.

I blushed coquettishly and felt a tad uncomfortable, but by the time I met the man I'd had a chance to really study the book and I was mightily impressed.  Clearly immense work has gone into it as the reams of reviews of noted.  I can't say I'm certain that it is a seminal cookbook, that it will stand alongside Escoffier as a game-changer.  But I'm not sure that with the internet and so many cookbooks, anyone will ever again rise to those heady heights.

However, I do think keen amateurs and professionals can learn a lot from it and it will become an important reference guide from which techniques and ideas will trickle down into more general use.  Yes, there is a lot in there that too many of us is gobbledygook - there was something about centrifuges being required to make an egg sandwich - but the stripping down of so many techniques and then reconstituting them into recipes is useful and educational. 

The biggest problem the book has is its scarcity.  First it means those that want it are hanging around waiting.  It also means that those that want to look at it can't.  Very few people will spend several hundred pounds on a cookbook, or several cookbooks - it is afterall 6 books in one box - at the drop of the hat.  I think though that quite a few might have a similar experience as me: guffaw at the puff, but be convinced once they've had a chance to study it.

Supply is limited it seems because it has sold better than expected, but also the Japanese tsunami has played its part, Myhrvold had sourced the paper from a mill in the North East of the country.  They're no longer answering the phone.  So he's had to shift suppliers to China.

I know that some of the UK's main cookbook outlets are having significant problems getting a copy.  I also know they're a bit worried who will buy it.  My view is that given the price and scope it will remain a niche publication appealing to chefs, adventurous home cooks and cookbook fanatics.

If you don't read English and you want a copy help is at hand in the guise of Taschen.  The artbook publishers are set to release the foreign language editions of the book, the first time they have moved into food (although I understand other titles are on the way.)  French, German and Spanish language editions are due by Christmas.  I have to say, I wouldn't fancy being the proof reader on that.

Finally, a note to the wise, if you are planning on buying it and you're in the UK, there is a way to save yourself a bit of money.  Amazon.co.uk have it on their site at £375.25, down a bit from the retail price of £395.  However, Amazon.com have it on their site for $461.62 (compared to the retail price of $625) or £283.63 at current exchange rates.  They will ship to the UK.  The cheapest shipping option is $13.98 or £8.60 in real money.  So by buying from the US site the total cost will be £292.23 and ta da that's a saving of £80.  

Now, it should be noted that neither site has it in stock, which is an issue.  But, if you buy now you lock in the current price, or things might even improve, as Amazon's lowest price guarantee means that if the price drops (unlikely) then you'll get an even better deal.

And just to make you feel a bit better about buying it, at £292 for six books, that equates to £48.67 per book.  Or, 12 pence per page (there are 2,438 pages).  Which isn't such a shoddy price when you compare to it to Jamie's 30 Minute Meals, currently #1 on Amazon's Food & Drinks Bestseller list.  At its full list price of £26 and with 288 pages, it comes in at 9p per page. (OK I know, a bit spurious, but I'm trying to help you justify it.)

It all comes down to what you regard as value for money, doesn't it?

And finally, just because I enjoyed it so much and I couldn't find anywhere else to shoe-horn it in to this post, I heartily recommend reading John Lanchester's review of the book in the New Yorker.


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I was extremely impressed with the book during the four days that I had possession of it.
A stunning work. But I'll wait for the paperback.

@msmarmite if only there was a paperback one due out. 

I asked my University Library to acquire a copy of this book given that I'll be unlikely to purchase it for a few years. I'm hoping that there's a gourmand academic up there somewhere that agrees with me.

I can't imagine many unis will be buying a copy anytime soon

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