The Happy Rise of Cookbook Sales: Michael Ruhlman’s Ratio Hits Bestseller List
It’s not only Julia Child’s books that have been topping the charts: This week, Michael Ruhlman’s new book hits the New York Times bestseller list. Ratio: The Simple Codes Behind the Craft of Everyday Cooking, which came out this spring from Scribner, is Ruhlman’s 13th book; he’s the author of The Making of a Chef, and co-author of The French Laundry Cookbook. Ruhlman also writes the blog Michael Ruhlman: Notes From the Food World.
In Ratio, Ruhlman advances the argument that cooking with ratios can eliminate a lot of mismeasurement, as well as free chefs to cook more precisely — free from the tyranny of badly measured tablespoons. (Or “the tyranny of recipes,” to quote from Alton Brown’s jacket blurb.) And no, Meryl Streep is not on the cover; people are reading about food, even (gasp) the mathematics of recipes.
“Ratio has been the most successful book I’ve written,” e-mailed Ruhlman after Scribner leaked the NYTnews via Twitter. “I was more nervous about this book than any other; I just didn’t think people were ready for scales, or they’d think the math was intimidating. What I should have had more faith in was that an idea that had obsessed me for 10 years obsessed me for that long because it was valid, because it was mysterious and deeply alluring, and that if I explored it honestly, other cooks would find it so as well. It seems they have.”
As for the current Julia hysteria, he is circumspect: “It’s encouraging more people to cook, and that’s always good.” Ruhlman, who lives in Cleveland, spends a lot of time online, so we asked more questions:
SQUID INK: You say that the idea of ratios was mysterious and alluring. What’s mysterious and alluring about math?
MICHAEL RUHLMAN: That all of cooking, everything on a bookshelf bulging with America’s most popular cookbooks, could be reduced to a page and a half. You don’t find it magnetically intriguing? Wouldn’t you want to have a look at those two pieces of paper?
SI: What was the most interesting thing you learned while writing the book?
MR: The interconnected nature of all of our cooking, especially doughs and batters.
SI: Were there any ratios that really surprised you?
MR: The pancake-batter ratio. Because it’s really not just pancakes, it’s really an all-batter ratio. Equal-parts liquid and flour, half as much egg. With only adornments it becomes muffins, quick breads, pancakes, waffles, fritters. People tend to think of these preparations as separate and unique entities, but they are all one thing. It’s all one thing. Understanding batters taught me not to fear death.
SI: What’s up for you next?
MR: About to begin a book on salumi, a follow-up to Charcuterie; and another book, not sure of the exact nature.
SI: You say Julia Child’s legacy can be seen in the rise of food blogging? How so?
MR: I meant it in comparison to the dump-and-stir shows on TV. I don’t think any of those shows encourage you to cook. You just watch them. The sense I get from people responding to my blog and reacting to other blogs is that these people are actually cooking and sharing ideas and learning and teaching one another and most of all inspiring people. That was Julia’s true genius. When I was writing The French Laundry Cookbook, the main question I put to Thomas [Keller, French Laundry chef-owner] was, What do you want this book to do? He said, “Inspire people.” I want to inspire people to cook for themselves and for their friends and families because the more they do, the better the world will be.
SI: Do you think bloggers are the future of food in America? It sounds like it at the end of your essay. What about the future of journalism?
MR: Journalism is in trouble. Who will maintain the standards, as everything goes online? Who will keep the line between opinion and fact clear, distinct and definitive? I encourage bloggers to do some actual reporting, to get on the phone and talk to people. But I’m worried. I was unable to sell a food-issues book, one that was going to require at least nine months of reporting, for enough money to support that reporting, so I had to turn it down. I can’t do it, but I can sell a cookbook. What does that tell you?
Wheels of Fortune: Italian Bank Accepts Parmesan as Collateral
With the troubled economy and no one being quite sure when the markets will rebound, it’s a good time to invest in solid, verifiable assets. Banks in Italy take an even more pragmatic approach, accepting as collateral for loans something not only solid and verifiable — but edible, should it come to that. According to a Bloomberg news report, the warehouses of regional bank Credito Emiliano hold about 440,000 wheels of Parmesan cheese.
Accepting cheese as collateral is one way bankers can continue to finance the region’s famed cheesemakers during the recession. Credito Emiliano, located in the Emilia-Romagna region southeast of Milan, has been using Parmesan as collateral since 1953 — but it’s a practice that dates back to the Middle Ages.
The bank stores the cheeses in climate-controlled warehouses and has a separate unit, called Magazzini Generali delle Tagliate, to manage the valuable wheels. These 440,000 wheels of Parmesan are worth 132 million Italian pounds, or $187.5 million. If the loans are not repaid, the bank sells the cheese, which it maintains during the aging process, to recover its investment.
Apparently, bankers aren’t the only people who appreciate a solid investment: Earlier this year, thieves tunneled into one of the warehouses and stole 570 pieces of cheese before they were caught by police.
If you’re thinking of investing in a wheel of cheese, Norbert Wabnig, owner of the Cheese Store of Beverly Hills, which has been importing cheeses since 1967, can probably set you up.
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All Your Eggs In One Basket: Peter Schaner’s Pheasant Eggs, Quail Eggs, Duck Eggs, Emu Eggs
If you’re used to the boxes of blindingly white eggs you find at grocery stores — a dozen at a time in production-line rows, sometimes stamped, often tasteless — fresh eggs can be revelatory. Farmer Peter Schaner’s eggs, which he sells at farmers markets, are definitely so, in taste and size and color. Schaner sells much more than chicken eggs: He offers little Ringneck pheasant eggs, khaki-colored and with shells so thick he said I could carry them home in my pocket; pretty, multicolored larger eggs; chicken eggs from Rhode Island reds and Araucana chickens, a Chilean-Indian breed; smaller, dappled eggs from Guinea hens; pale, midsized eggs from Blue Swedish ducks; and gorgeous speckled eggs from Bourbon Red turkeys, a breed that comes from — you guessed it — Bourbon County, Kentucky.
Schaner says he just got about 30 Pharaoh quail, so soon he’ll be selling quail eggs. He also has emu eggs. Yup, emu. Schaner’s emus lay their eggs in November and December, so look for the giant eggs around Thanksgiving. “You have to drill a hole in them,” Schaner’s wife, Kayne Schaner, advises of the hard-shelled emu eggs this morning at the Santa Monica farmers market. “I guess you can do it with a hammer. But then you won’t have the eggs.”
“One [emu egg] is equivalent to about 75 quail eggs,” says Schaner, as he pulls boxes from the back of his truck for Corina Weibel, chef-owner of Atwater Village’s Canelé. Weibel buys duck, turkey, chicken and pheasant eggs from Schaner. The duck eggs go onto a brunch duck hash; pheasant eggs are hard-boiled and added to the niçoise salad. Schaner sells eggs to Palate Food + Wine in Glendale, too. “Palate gets them,” calls Schaner from inside the depths of his truck. “They get anything and everything.”
Jonathan Gold is busy eating — and writing about the 99 Essential L.A. Restaurants, in next week’s issue. Read Squid Ink daily.