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Opening Arguments

Julia and Rachel

Ouch. The Food Network people won't like to read this:

Anyone weary of the nonstop hype over Nora Ephron's Julie & Julia this summer had to be happy with this week's news that the fuss has not all been in vain: Julia Child's Mastering the Art of French Cooking has finally hit the top of the best-seller list, almost 48 years after it was first published. Unfortunately, that will probably send even more Meryl Streep wannabes straight to bookstores looking for food porn. And they will be sold bibles.

The inconvenient truth is that although the country's best-loved "French chef" produced an unparalleled recipe collection in Mastering the Art, it has always been daunting. It was never meant for the frivolous or trendy. And it now seems even more overwhelming in a Rachael Ray world: Those thousands and thousands of cookbooks sold are very likely going to wind up where so many of the previous printings have—in pristine condition decorating a kitchen bookshelf or on a nightstand, handy for vicarious cooking and eating.

Actually, I've learned from both Julia (got some of her videos for a birthday present once) and Rachel, although I've never actually cooked any of their recipes. Though one featured elaborate recipes that tended to take all day and one is famous for 30-minute meals, they both have provided the valuable service of getting people into the kitchen.

I'm not much of a collector, but I do have several hundred cookbooks. And I keep adding to them from the bargain-book counters and cities I visit for the first time. I'm ambivalent about them and periodically consider bundling up the whole bunch and putting them on eBay. I don't really cook much out them. Whenver I want to try something new, I just Google it. A friend, for example, wants a Mediterranean meal this weekend, and that's a cuisine I've not that much experience with. Instead of spending hours looking through my cookbooks, I just Googled "mediterranean, chicken, pasta, recipes" and immediately got a list of scores of dishes.

The way to use cookbooks is not to plan a meal with them but to just browse through them when you're in the mood until you find something that catches your interest. Then cook it at once. That way the bound volumes become part of life's adventure rather than part of its tedium.