Monday, December 04, 2006

Book Signing with Christopher Kimball

Photo: Mimi Hiller, owner of Cookbooks Plus in Santa Clarita with cooking expert Christopher Kimball at Vromann's book signing in Pasadena

I must admit the first thing I was curious to learn was whether or not Christopher Kimball was gay. Kimball, author of The Cook’s Bible, publisher of Cook’s Illustrated Magazine and Cook’s Country Magazine, and the host of America’s Test Kitchen, had taught me how to make pot roast and banana pancakes, and I adored him. I had seen the line drawing of his likeness in his magazine resembling Where’s Waldo, and thought him cute. I was picking up a nerdy vibe from him too. I was content with that assessment: gay and nerdy. Perhaps it was the way he was always depicted with his jaunty tie and solemn expression that convinced me that he probably was. The four kids and his residence in Vermont did not dissuade me otherwise.

But when he took to the podium for his book signing one hour late at Vromann’s Bookstore in Pasadena on Nov. 15, this bubbled popped. I think it was the way, when recalling a fan letter, he said, “That sucks!” like a frat boy, convinced me that he wasn’t. And I was kind of disappointed.

That night he was especially lively and very funny—characteristics that I had not expected. He told about being tricked into taste-testing vodka instead of water first thing in the morning. There was fun with chilies with his staff, and an anecdote of an obsession with cornbread for both northern and soutern regions of the United States. He good-naturedly imitated the voice of the imitable Julia Child, and remembered that she never needed a timer in the kitchen, but was always accurate when something was done. He read letters asking for foolish advice, e.g., “Do I have to cook the potatoes in mashed potatoes?” And his wry responses, often punctuated with the word “sucks” said very emphatically. He gave his perfected ratio of milk to eggs in custard---which I have since forgotten.

He took questions from the audience: What is your favor food? Apple pie, he can eat that at every meal. He gave his opinion on the best salt. In his estimation that when salt is cooked, all of them taste the same. He told of his farm and dairy, and his love of wine and his need of it soon. He told us what the most requested recipe was. In fact, it took first and second place in the tabulation, and that was for green bean casserole; noting that America’s culinary taste may be changing, but it was changing very slowly.

I think that the most impressive thing he said was, that despite the specific objectives in his cookbooks, magazines and television program, and their methodical procedures, their very exacting ingredients and instructions, and all their care in explicit reporting, he was not interested in giving, what most would assume would be included in his thoroughness, a nutritional and caloric calculation with his recipes. This also seems contrary to the fact that he formally campaigns against the junk food being served in school cafeterias.

His philosophy is that if you eat well-prepared, delicious food made at home, that is not overly processed, you will have a good diet and maintain a healthy weight. To him flavor was of the utmost importance.

It was a revelation that the man who has taken the most scientific and analytical approach to something as subjective and interpretive as cooking, acknowledges that what was primary for him, was the sensuous pleasure food provides, and the delight to the palate.

I found his theory disarming and welcomed. But I think the crowd by the many questions about dietary substitutes was hoping he would land on the side of rigorous examination.

It was a lesson for me in the shallowness of perception and the inaccuracies of expectations that had proved me wrong the second time that evening. And I was glad of it in this case.

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