We have few authority figures we can look up to anymore. Politicians are up to their eyes in love-children and corruption. Priests reel from accusations of child-tampering. What's left? Cook's Illustrated, a bastion of goodness in a naughty world.
If you cook, you know it: first it was the no-frills, perfection-driven food magazine with the exhaustively perfected recipes, the precise line drawings, the scientific rationales. Then they morphed into America's Test Kitchen, in which they took their uncinematic show on the proverbial road. New versions of The Best Recipe and its subsidiaries come out with regularity, improving on perfection. To those of us who cook, it's a Bible — even if you're a cooking atheist. It's always amazed me that Cooks Illustrated, so ripe for parody, has never made it onto SNL - but maybe they, too, want to preserve what sacred cows modernity allows us.
Because Cook's Illustrated is principled. There are no shortcuts. There's no corruption. You can count on them to pursue the truth unwaveringly, no matter the challenges. Might they need to try 500 batches of chocolate pudding? They will. Selflessly. Describes the Washington Post,
A professional tester begins by researching historical and current recipes and making dozens of stews, pies, you name it, to construct a working recipe. It is sent to an experienced, paid Cook's tester, who tries it at home, critiques measurements and times, and might make suggestions to clarify the language. Next, the recipe is sent to 2,000 readers, known as the Friends of Cook's. Typically, several hundred of them test the recipe and fill out a survey about their experience. The goal is to make the recipe so clear and so precise (and some might say dry) that anyone who reads it can make it successfully.
And if you're willing to chop and strain and flip and wash 10 extra dishes and go the extra mile, perfection can be yours, too. It feels bad to break their rules. You know you're only cheating yourself. "I don't know why you even bothered," joked my friend when I served her a blueberry muffin and confessed that I'd skipped the step of cooking down half the fruit into a "jam" for textural and flavoral variety. But we both knew she was only sort of kidding. However good that muffin might have seemed, we knew that the Cook's team had deemed it bland and pedestrian. That we were missing out on a muffin experience of Platonic perfection, and due only to my laziness and lack of commitment.
This, of course, builds resentment. Of course, we've all had our disappointments with their recipes — sometimes our definitions of perfection just differ. For instance, their banana bread and brownies are both cakier than I like. But I've always humbly conceded that this was a difference in taste rather than a failure of their judgment — and, further, that it showed that my own preferences were somehow depraved. Sure, there were those times they perfected an already-perfect recipe, and this is always jarring, like operating under some French grading system in which a 20/20 is always out of reach.
And lately, there have been challenges to their ultimate authority. Whenever I get to talking food with my culinarily-minded friends, the subject of Cook's Illustrated comes up: is it, we ask, worth the effort? Some are steadfast in their support of the scientific method; others, like 1950s undergrads questioning authority, are defiant. "I became disillusioned with zucchini fritters," said one recently. "The spell is broken." On the other hand, another declared, "believe the hype: vodka crust and sweet potatoes actually did make the best pumpkin pie ever." 4 hours and 1 spinach lasagna later, I couldn't tell whether it was really the best I'd ever made or whether — after pureeing cottage cheese and washing and cooking and toweling the spinach and making the bechamel and soaking the noodles — I just really, really wanted it to be. In this world of uncertainty, who doesn't want answers?
Recently, Christopher Kimball, the somewhat dour, bow-tied impresario of the Cook's Illustrated empire, issued the following online challenge: "I think that only a professional test kitchen with substantial resources, strict testing protocol and lots of time can develop the very 'best' recipes. . . . So, I am willing to put my money, and my reputation, where my big mouth is" and take on all comers. And so comes a challenger: the youthful and terrific home-cooking website Food52, which takes submissions from accomplished readers and selects the most delicious recipes. The site is putting up its best entries for, respectively, chewy sugar cookies and roasted pork shoulder, and pitting them against those of America's test kitchen. (You can cast see the recipes here, and cast your vote at Slate tomorrow!)
For someone who reveres both the new and the old, this is like watching your parents fight: deeply troubling. We want our disciplinarian father and creative mother to get along! On the other hand, we all have to learn, some day, that our parents are fallible. And we can still love them.