One of the perks of writing about food is that you get your mitts on review copies of cookbooks (as well as food-focused cultural anthropology texts and so forth). More often than not, publishers are delighted to send along a book you plan on reading and reviewing. Sometimes, however, one politely declines. A week or so ago, we wrote an email to the publisher of Nathan Myhrvold's hotly anticipated Modernist Cuisine: The Art and Science of Cooking.
The response (“… unfortunately… do not have… available…”) was perfectly reasonable though disheartening. And maybe unsurprising. Modernist Cuisine is a six-volume, 2,400-page, $625 book encyclopedia lavishly detailing experiments at the intersection of cooking and science — the sort involving water baths, centrifuges, emulsifiers, and homogenizers perfected at restaurants like Alinea and The Fat Duck. It is due to be released in March. The publisher (The Cooking Lab) is the author himself, Myhrvold, formerly the chief technology executive for Microsoft and a physics whiz who once studied with Stephen Hawking. With pockets deeper than a stock pot, Myhrvold and co-authors Chris Young and Maxime Bilet assembled a team of chefs and scientists and holed up in a laboratory in Bellevue, Washington for nearly three years.
While we would love to read it (and buy some second-hand mad scientist kitchen gadgets on eBay), Modernist Cuisine is out of our price range. As a matter of fact, it's out of nearly everyone's price range. It's the Maserati of cookbooks, the cost of a dozen high-quality hard-cover regular cookbooks. The product may be, as the website suggests, “a good value for the price,” but no non-professional chef who isn't wealthy will ever own a copy unless someone wealthy sends it over as a gift.
For the well-heeled home-cook, a copy of Modernist Cuisine will sit on the gold-gilded coffee table, a symbol of status, of belonging to the universe of understanding and valuing the elevation of food preparation to such a high level, not necessarily a tool, pages bent and wrinkled, and flecked with dried foam. Ironically, this book intends to chronicle the ways in which scientific explorations have expanded the boundaries of culinary possibility and make them, for the first time, presumably, accessible in some sense, but in its bank account-busting price tag, it risks re-emphasizing the widely-held notion that molecular gastronomy is inaccessible and often elitist.