Twitter can be a beautiful thing, for zamisdat poets, for Middle Eastern dissidents, for Newt Gingrich. It can also be a very useful emergency button. So when we recently found ourselves needing the answer to a specific question from the copy desk, we put out a call on Twitter: Does anybody have a copy of Modernist Cuisine? Because we don't. Jonathan Gold doesn't, despite two recent lunches with Nathan Myhrvold himself. The folks who reviewed it for both the Los Angeles Times and The New York Times were asked to return it from whence it came. Although you can order it on Amazon, it is now out of stock. Does Stephen Colbert have the only extant copy? Is it like the Roswell Files? Do the books spontaneously combust? If any cookbook might, it would be this one.
You can supposedly buy a signed copy on eBay for $995, but we doubt that would go over well on our expense report, assuming we had one anyway. Then lo! A late night email from a friend of a friend and fellow food blogger: she had the books. We could borrow them. She would even bring all 6 volumes, 2438 pages and 46 pounds over to us.
And thus, a few days later, an exchange in the underground parking lot of the Weekly that reminded us fondly of our drug-scoring days. The complete set, in a Samsonite rolled luggage carrier. (Note to The Cooking Lab: a nifty packaging idea.) So yes, it does exist. It is exquisitely beautiful. It does not explode, or at least hasn't yet.
And yes, for the record, Myhrvold and his team of culinary engineers suggests the use of a blow torch: (volume 2, page 196) to sear the exterior of a venison tenderloin after sous-viding it as a far better alternative to pan-roasting such a piece of meat. Myhrvold also discusses using a blow torch for flash-cooking sushi (vol. 3, p. 61); contrasts it with broiling (vol. 2. p. 21); includes it (TurboTorch or Lenox) on his list of Inexpensive but Invaluable Modernist tools (vol. 2, p. 286); and describes in happy detail How Not To Use it, which is pretty much how you'd think (vol. 2. p. 21). As Michael Ruhlman has noted, the index, at least to the first 5 volumes, is wonderful, for which we are profoundly grateful.
Modernist Cuisine is also one of the most mesmerizing books we've ever read, and we mean "read" in exactly the same way our kids said they'd read a book when they'd really just been staring at the pictures. We will be returning it soon, after a few more days of blissfully, um, reading about how to ripen pears with ethylene, how to cryo-shatter salmon for tartare, how to properly store fresh truffles with dry ice, and how to impregnate produce by vacuum-sealing (not kidding: see vol. 3, p. 390).
Oh, our favorite passage so far (from vol. 1, p. 279), since we did actually read a few bits:
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A potato impaled with aluminum rods cooks more quickly because the metal helps to conduct heat to the interior of the food. This principle inspired the "fakir grill," a Modernist device named for the Near Eastern mystics who lie on a bed of nails. The analogy is imperfect, of course, because the spikes of the grill are meant to stab the overlying food, whereas the recumbent mystics remain unscathed.
Thank you, thank you, Tomo. Disclaimer: we did not cook anything, not wanting to risk getting any deep-fried mayonnaise or microwaved pistachio sponge cake (made with nitrous oxide!) or hot blood pudding custard on the pristine pages. Nor did we want to risk lighting them on fire or blowing them up ourselves. O, the hazards of modernist cooking.