David Chang is the coolest thing that has ever happened to the pork bun. Char siu bao are the classic Cantonese-Chinese appetizer, ubiquitous in dim sum houses around the world. They’re also the signature dish for Chang’s impossibly hip restaurant in Manhattan’s East Village, Momofuku.
Chang’s cookbook, one of the best-selling of last year and also called Momofuku, contains a recipe for the pork bun that references many totems of pop culture, including Peking duck and blaxploitation films. It’s accompanied by a mouthwatering photograph: Glistening slices of light brownish-pink meat poke up beguilingly from pillowy white clouds of dough. Thin, crisp slices of cucumber and slivers of fragrant scallions adhere to the pork and to the bun. Your teeth can feel the pull of the lacquered, slow-roasted meat against the softness of the steamy bread. But should you actually attempt to make char siu bao at home according to Chang’s instructions, there’s just one small problem: The recipe doesn’t work.
The hallmark of steamed pork buns is the fluffy, almost ethereally light, and yet somehow substantial quality of the dough. If you follow Chang’s directions, your pork buns will look great, but lack the proper texture. This is because Chang’s recipe omits some vital information, such as how long to handle the dough or what it should feel like when it’s done (smooth, soft, well-combined, elastic, and no longer sticky, as opposed to the mushy, tacky mass it starts out as). He doesn’t tell you that you should form the dough first by stirring together the ingredients with a wooden spoon and then by combining with your fingers. Once the dough balls are formed, he doesn’t say how much to let the dough rise—just that you should do it for about 30 minutes. (It takes closer to 45.)
I’m not accusing David Chang of contriving to keep his char siu bao recipe a secret. He is merely a modern cookbook author. Momofuku, like so many of today’s cookbooks, is first and foremost an appealing artifact. The opening page features a quote from the Buddhist high priest Ikkyu and another from the religious authority known as Steve Martin; inside, Chang riffs on his culinary creations with casual, and occasionally profane, prose. (“Know that you need ginger scallion sauce on your noodles, in your fridge, and in your life. For real.”) However, the recipes are impossible for even an accomplished home cook to prepare on a busy weeknight. The aforementioned ginger scallion noodles require grapeseed oil and usukucki (light soy sauce), ingredients I’ll wager most working moms and dads don’t have on hand. (I know I don’t.) Another recipe calls for the cook to boil a pig’s head and recommends removing the hairy patches with a blowtorch.
Chang’s book is hardly an outlier. Take Noma: Time and Place in Nordic Cuisine by René Redzepi, the creative genius behind one of the world’s top eating places, Noma restaurant in Copenhagen. The book features recipes such as “Blueberries Surrounded By their Natural Environment,” which uses new-growth spruce tips and takes more than 50 steps to produce. Many of the recipes require a Thermomix—a cutting-edge German innovation that’s part food processor, part crock pot, and unavailable in the United States—as well as a Pacojet, an ice-cream and sorbet maker that retails for $4,000.
Last year, more than 60 million cookbooks were sold in the United States, a 9 percent increase from the previous year—making the genre one of the rare shining lights in publishing. However, the popularity of these modern kitchen manuals is only tenuously connected to the practice of preparing food for people to eat. It has become common for folks who work in the world of food to brag that they read cookbooks “like novels.” Cookbooks have become objects of kitchen, coffee table, and nightstand décor, in which useful information has been displaced by close-ups of pornographic looking turnips.
How cookbooks got this way is a little lesson in cooking in America. The earliest cookbooks in our country were decidedly utilitarian: picture-free and devoid of entertainment value. Before 1824, almost nothing beyond reprints of English recipe manuals existed in the United States. One of the first produced on these shores was written by Mary Randolph, a preeminent home economist whose The Virginia Housewife documents traditional Southern specialties like corn pone, catfish soup, and peach ice cream. “Let every thing be done at the proper time, keep every thing in its proper place, and put every thing to its proper use,” she advises readers.
These manuals, packed with sensible notes on keeping house, were needed chiefly because of a breakdown of what historians and folklorists call the “oral tradition of foodways.” “The intent was to teach the bride how to cook, making the assumption that either mom’s cooking was too old fashioned ... or perhaps mother didn’t teach her daughter to cook at all,” says Roger Adams, the special collections librarian at Kansas State University, who presides over the school’s extensive cookbook archive. “Over time, those types of cookbooks gave way to the ‘simpler, faster’ collection of recipes for the working woman/mother.” Current cookbook trends, however, are about something else entirely: social status. They signify that their owners are sophisticated foodies, well-versed in the latest trends in fine dining and the hottest star chefs.
But these fetishistic cookbooks—in addition to being intimidating and impractical—badly misunderstand how people learn to make food. To become an adept cook, you must build on a foundation of basic skills. For instance, using Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking, you might learn to make a roux and then a white sauce, building blocks in classic French dishes. You could also use a roux to enrich leftover Thanksgiving turkey pot pie or to properly thicken homemade macaroni and cheese. In aspirational cookbooks, however, recipes and techniques are presented devoid of practical context. Momofuku contains a recipe for bay-leaf butter, served on the restaurant’s homemade English muffins, but Chang doesn’t tell you anything else you might do with it or explain how compound butters could enliven other dishes. Cookbook readers “look for an entry-level recipe, then they try that out; if it works, it builds their confidence, and then they’re likely to come back to it,” says Pam Krauss, the vice president and publishing director of Rodale Books, who has edited cookbooks for more than two decades, including, perhaps most notably, Rachael Ray’s 365: No Repeats, which spent over 20 weeks at No. 1 on The New York Times’ “Advice and How-To” list.
Ray is often maligned by foodies as beyond uncool—someone who offers home cooks the lowest common denominator (how about burgers with the french fries inside the bun?). Still, say what you will about the food, Ray doesn’t throw up any barriers to entry. 365: No Repeats isn’t as gorgeous as Momofuku and contains zero ironic references to blaxploitation flicks. But it does what a cookbook should: offer engaging, well-considered solutions to the timeless problem of dinner on a busy weeknight. Spoiler alert: It’s not homemade char siu bao.
Kelly Alexander is a food writer and the author of Hometown Appetites: The Story of Clementine Paddleford. This article ran in the February 3, 2011, issue of the magazine.