United States Food Culture, Food Reductionism, and the Evil Chris Kimball from America’s Test Kitchen

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Our mother preparing a simple and beautiful pot of pasta and beans in Calabria - no recipe just good ingredients informed by her food tradition.

How I Learned to Cook Italian Food and Creative Cooking

Like most Italians I learned to cook by watching my mother and grandmother prepare food in their home kitchens. And both woman cooked dishes that were driven by what their mothers cooked at home (and, if I had to guess, this tradition of learning how to cook at home goes back Ad infinitum in our family). Most, if not all, of the dishes I prepare and feature here on Scordo are complete, and very proud, rip-offs of my mother’s home cooking and very long food tradition.

Moreover, when I cook a new Italian dish I often ad lib as much as possible and call my mother for advice (like a good Italian boy) only when I’m completely stumped on an ingredient or step in the cooking process. One could argue that I cook by intuition (maybe even via “first principles” or a priori) and the “food tradition” I was raised within; in short, I don’t feel intimated when cooking food at home. And, in fact, it’s the aforementioned kind of cooking philosophy that we hope you, the reader of Scordo, will aim to master; viz., we don’t want you to be a slave to our recipes rather we want you and your family to make cooking and food part of your lives and the lives of your future family members. This is, in my view and more than any other current food movement in the United States, the most important thing you can do to advance the food culture in the United States (and increase your level of happiness, if needed!).

With the above said, I cringed and bit down hard on my well seasoned tongue when I read the New York Time’s article on Cook’s Illustrated and America’s Test Kitchen contrarian and acerbic founder Chris Kimball and his dyed-in-the-wool Puritan/reductionist/pragmatic (one could go on and on) view on making food at home. In the Time’s piece, Kimball asserts all sorts of hardcore food principles such as “Cooking is about putting food on the table night after night, and there isn’t anything glamorous about it” and “most cookbook authors don’t care what happens to their recipe when it enters your home.” Kimball also goes on to state that, empirically rigorous testing always leads to the best way to make food at home and that, “cooking isn’t creative, and it isn’t easy. It’s serious, and it’s hard to do well, just as everything worth doing is damn hard.”  Have you seen American’s Test Kitchen method/recipe for preparing tomato sauce (talk about hard recipes)?

When you teach young kids to love and appreciate food from a young age, then cooking at home is a natural, and un-intimidating, natural occurrence.

United States Food Culture, Food Reductionism, and the Evil Chris Kimball from America’s Test Kitchen 

In our view, Kimball’s food philosophy is akin to poisoning the food culture in the Unites States because in order for food to become important in the lives of most Americans cooking consistently at home (and this is really the end goal with food in America) it needs to be ingrained in our value system and how we view eating in relation to other components in our lives.  And changing our food value system doesn’t come about by viewing and treating preparing from scratch food at home as a science experiment with passionless rigor more akin to a repeatable task like assembling a car than feeling motivated and excited about making good food in a home kitchen every day of the week.

I learned to love food and cooking because I realized, from a very young age, that making food at home was more than following repeatable tasks and sustaining oneself with good enough tasting protein, carbohydrates, and fats. The “more” is about understanding ingredients and where they are from and how they are traditionally used or how food and drink binds families with ritual, pride, and purpose. It also helped that I was born into a family from a country situated in the “old world” where, to a certain extent, food and living well are intricately tied to one another by way of hundreds of years of tradition (and for the poor and the rich alike).

The kind of food reductionism that Kimball preaches in his TV show and magazine is sort of like candy; that is to say, his foolproof recipes on making chicken pot pie, for example, may taste ok in the short term but it’s going to leave you with a nasty emptiness of “only” having assembled a meal and not making the meal, ingredients, process, and culture around preparing food central to a home cooks (and by extension his or her families) life.

Contrary to what Kimball asserts, if the home cooks central task is only to put food on the table in some “acceptable” manner then he or she has simply eaten for the day and not created a long term food tradition and culture for his or her family.  Remember cooking is easy and creative (if not now then at some future point) and at the heart of the Italian life; heck we would even recommend you cook without a recipe, even a Scordo recipe, just as long as you celebrate a food filled life).  This is not food romanticism, rather it’s the only way to truly love food and make it part of your everyday life.

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12 Comments

  1. Well said!!!

  2. Vincent, thank you for this. The Cook’s Illustrated outlook rubs me the wrong way. The Kimball and staff attitude is patronizing, arrogant and smug…and totally joyless.

    Last weekend, in the days before a family wedding, my mother, sisters and I put together several wonderful meals. The food was delicious, of course, but the true nourishment was the fun we had chopping and stirring and tasting as we nudged one another to and fro along the kitchen counters. I hate to sound condescending myself, but the Kimball way is a bleak, business-like Yankee approach to food, with none of the sunny excitement and robust enjoyment with which we Italians celebrate our meals together.

  3. I’ve been meaning to read that article about Chris Kimball but haven’t gotten around to it. But I suspect that it confirms my own impressions about the Cook’s Illustrated philosophy. Talk about kill joys! It’s the old Puritan New England approach to food, and we all know what great cooks the Puritans were…

    Avoid at all costs their advice on Italian cooking. If you’ve ever seen what they recommend by way of ‘improvements’ to Italian dishes, or their recommendations on Italian food products, you’d cringe.

  4. I kind of feel sorry for Kimball…he is totally not getting how food and cooking brings the family together, in the preparation of it and eating together as a family….Sunday is Pasta Day in our house, and my grown-up kids love when we are cooking together, which is not only the Pasta, but food like Chicken Cacciatore, Eggplant Parmesan, Shrimp Scampi, etc..All 5 of them have learned to cook, or help since they were knee-high and they are good cooks..My daughter-in-laws, also. It was the way I was raised,and my children and grandchildren are following in the same tradition…We are all VERY proud of that and our heritage….So happy that you have this website..We seem to have been raised the same way!! I also love your recipes and have made so many of them..I love to try new recipes and yours are never disappointing !!Thank you, Vincent..

  5. I agree with you about food culture, however it’s not the experience that many have. Chris Kimball has taken a giant step to keep it that way!

  6. Vincent–

    I think there is room for both points of view about cooking and food. I did not get a chance to finish reading the article, but I am familiar with the magazines. CI approaches cooking with a scientific point of view, for the home cook who likes cooking, and wants to feed their family well. In this time, where so many families are eating processed, frozen, ready to eat dinners, perhaps this is a way for people to cook and feel good about what they are serving in the meanwhile. Hopefully, along the way, they will have learned some tips and techniques which will carry through in some other recipe.

    There there are people, like you, I assume, that LOVE cooking and see everything they make as a sign of the love they have for their family. I am a believer that many of the world’s problems could be solved if they could just sit down at the dinner table and share their culture’s food. For many people, their fondest memories are of meals at the family table. Others simply see meal time as a way to fill their need for sustenance. I would agree with Kimball that many cookbook authors don’t care whether a recipe turns out or not–they just want to sell another book, or a pot, pan, or serving piece, or yet another kitchen gadget. I think Americans have confused being a famous chef and the marketing that goes with it with a true love of cooking.

    • joan, well said. my issue with ATK and Chris K. is his radical view on cooking (especially as it came across via the NYT mag article). I think we tend to complicate things with food in the US and our biggest issues with food (from diet to obesity and quality of ingredients to mediocre restaurants) can be traced back to the lack of an established food culture. Chris K. food philosophy complicates food prep and doesn’t seem to contribute to a sustainable US food culture.

  7. I have to differ with you, Vincent. In my family it was my Dad who was the
    Calabres and he certainly didn’t believe cooking was his province. He married
    an only child who never did more than boil water before marriage. Over many,
    many years she became a competent cook for all 12 of us kids, but she surely
    could have used some of Chris Kimball’s advice. Since I, too, initially learned
    cooking by watching my Mom and Granny, I basically learned to open cans, pour
    their contents into a pot, and heat. I also learned to fry burgers, the
    occasional piece of fish, and pork chops. I learned to hate roast beef cooked
    until completely grey and tough. After I went out on my own I began working and
    eating in restaurants and learned that food could be absolutely delicious and I
    began trying to duplicate what I ate at work. Cooks Illustrated has been a
    godsend to me because it answers all my nerdy questions about the science of the
    whys I almost always seem to have, and it answers all my questions about the
    hows as well. Thus, where before I would seize any opportunity to eat out or
    eat someone else’s cooking because I found my own lacking by comparison, now I
    am delighting in putting the techniques and science I learn from Cooks to use,
    and I’ve become the cook I might have become sooner had I come from the ideal
    situation you did. Furthermore, I don’t allow the very precise recipes that
    Cooks provides to stifle my creativity–in fact I have a very hard time
    following a recipe precisely outside of baking. I use the Cooks recipes as
    guides for ingredients and proportions and as taking off points. I think this
    is the best of what you got from your mother and other relatives, and if I had
    to get it elsewhere, I am only grateful there was somewhere I could find it. I
    really don’t care abouts Kimball’s pronouncements–in fact, I rarely watch his
    show–but after many years cooking for 15-20 while growing up, I can agree that
    there was no glamor in it; it was pure drudgery. I credit that mostly to the
    fact that I had no one skilled to learn from. I still find it occasionally
    tedious to have to cook for myself; I get tired of my own cooking. But using
    what I learn from Cooks, I have the courage and anticipation of success that
    encourages me to branch out and try new things. For that alone, Kimball and
    Cooks have my thanks.

    • The reason you agree with this robotic way of cooking is because you were not raised in a home where cooking was fun it was means of nourishment. If you woke up on Sunday mornings to the smell of fresh tomato sauce and homemade meatballs frying….your views would be different. ..I feel sorry for you.

      • That’s what I said. And yes, I might have different views if I had had a different experience, but I didn’t. Please don’t feel sorry for me. I don’t need or want that. Rather feel happy for me that I’ve found the pleasure in it

  8. Truer words have not been spoken. .thank you for putting it so eloquently. .for standing up for all traditionalist food lovers who share a passion for not only creating but for providing food to our family and friends. So sad that this baccala thinks that food is only a means of survival. Guess he has never gathered around a table of family and friends and enjoyed the joy of sharing good food, drinks and laughter. I feel sorry for him. Love love your site and so glad to see Italian tradition carried on to our next generation. Thank you.

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