It's not only Julia Child's books that have been topping the charts: next week Michael Ruhlman's most recent 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 the co-author of “The French Laundry Cookbook,” among other books. 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 and free cooks up to cook more precisely–free from the tyranny of badly measured tablespoons. (Or “the tyranny of recipes,” to quote from Alton Brown's book jacket blurb.) And no, Meryl Streep is not on the jacket cover; people are reading about food, even (gasp) the mathematics of recipes.
“Ratio has been the most successful book I've written,” emailed Ruhlman after Scribner leaked the NYT news 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 obsessed me for ten 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 was rather circumspect: “It's encouraging more people to cook, and that's always good.” As Rulhman spends a lot of time online (Cleveland time), we kept on asking questions:
Squid Ink: You say that the idea of ratios was mysterious and alluring: Can you expand? 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 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: Where 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, quickbreads, 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 the exact nature.
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 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 that 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 on line? 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?