Cooking for Geeks, Jeff Potter

<em class="BookTitle">Cooking for Geeks</em>, Jeff Potter

O’Reilly Media, 2010, 432 pages, C$43.99 tp, ISBN 978-0-596-80588-3

To repeat the obvious: Books aren’t just about their subject matter than they are about their relationship with their intended audience.  You can turn an ordinary book into a remarkable oddity simply by shifting the audience, and that’s where the genius of Jeff Potter’s Cooking for Geeks comes in.

Yes, there have been a lot of cookbooks over the past few years.  Cooking has become something cool, and cookbooks are reliably the top-selling genre of non-fiction books.  Everyone needs to eat, so the theoretical audience for cookbooks is everyone.  Who isn’t hungry for a few more delicious recipes? So when publishing house O’Reilly, specialized in technical manuals for computer experts, decides to publish something called Cooking for Geeks, you can expect some serious cooking advice for equally-serious nerds. 

One of the best things about the book is that it makes no assumptions of competence.  Geeks can learn anything, and much of the book is dedicated to re-explaining cooking from a technical perspective.  If ever you’re in the market for an explanation of food that somehow involves references to UNIX, solid engineering principles and geek-culture icons such as Mythbusters and XKCD, then, well, Cooking for Geeks is exactly what its title promises.

As may be expected from a geek-book explaining the world, Cooking for Geeks is both playful and endlessly curious.  One of the earliest exercise in the book, demonstrating how recipes aren’t sacred tests, consists in data-mining the internet for pancake recipes, and then averaging out the results into a peer-reviewed meta-recipe of sorts.  Cooking isn’t like programming in that precise syntax isn’t required (loose typing is fine), but cooking is like coding in that there are often many, many ways to get to the same results.  (It’s no accident if Cooking for Geeks contains both “don’t deviate from the recipe” and “deviate from the recipe” as fundamental advice.)  If everything else fails, you can either recompile (alter the ingredients) or go COTS (order pizza).

Potter’s assured main text is enlivened by numerous pull-outs and interviews with geek and cooking notables.  The interviews bring different voices into the narrative, explore tangential subjects or simply show how cooking is unusually well-suited to personal explorations.  All interviewees are enthusiastic about their topics, and this attitude carries over into the book’s cheerful boosterism for cooking.  Nearly every page of Cooking for Geeks brims with the typical geek attitude of endless curiosity about the world.  Compared to other introductions to cooking, Potter’s technical tangents are what makes the book worth reading.

From relatively basic beginnings, Cooking for Geeks gets quite a bit more complicated as it goes on, eventually touching upon deeply geeky cooking innovations such as molecular cuisine, sous-vide and “power-tool” cooking in which warranties get voided.  Throw in an exemplary chapter on food safety and the result is a well-rounded introduction to the culinary arts for an audience that wouldn’t necessary know where to begin in the vast, vast ocean of cooking-related information.  Potter has done the research, cleared away the confusion and presented an invaluable distillation

Will it transform anyone into a decent cook?  It depends on readers’ follow-up, of course: The danger with cookbooks, no matter the audience, is that they are read enthusiastically and then gradually forgotten without having made an impact, falling victim to the chronic lack of time that everyone (not just geeks) is belabouring under.  The same amount of time required to become a proficient coder is the same as one required to become a decent cook, and no amount of cheerleading can go against the pressures of life.  But that’s outside the book, and in the meantime Cooking for Geeks is almost exactly the best cookbook that could have worn this title.

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