Days 1 and 2 of The Piglet have come and gone, and there's a lot of talk in the comments—some great, some heart-warming, some a little cranky. What follows is a mostly unedited transcript of my gchats with Charlotte Druckman, co-founder of the Piglet and my partner in crime, to catch her up on what's happened so far. (If you're just getting up to speed, read the two judgments here.)
me: how's rosie pawstein?
charlotte: she's well. she’s currently obsessively guarding the kitchen cabinet where either a mouse once was or is. i have my special electronic death traps at the ready. waiting for it. i love all creatures
me: except for mice
charlotte: but not city mice I KILL THEM
me: die! so now that we've established ourselves as sympathetic, caring human beings should we talk about our commenters?
charlotte: yes yes!
me: have you read the most recent comments? so far, it seems like these are the negative cumulative points: julie [klam] doesn't like to cook, and why would we pick a judge who doesn't like to cook?
charlotte: and they don't get the pairing
me: correct, yes.
charlotte: (also they think her slamming British food was not necessary, but i liked it) (it was a sweet kind of mocking and she clearly loved the books)
me: totally! and it was a way for her to start off with some levity which, to be honest, is the whole point: death to dry cookbook reviews!
charlotte: just this idea that only professional cooks/chefs could be valid as judges of cookbooks, which up until very recently, were ONLY about home cooking and then even when it is a professional, that he or she has to do it by himself and can't have any biases about food going in is ridiculous.
me: so that's the thing overall, i think the piglet is being misunderstood in a very large way
charlotte: me too. but i'm trying to understand why, because it wasn't misunderstood when we first started. and if anything i think we've become more sensitive to the needs of regular home cooks.
me: you think that back in 2009, people still got that the point was to have real people cooking from cookbooks, and not just chefs?
charlotte: it was very clear. when we started, it was really our way of geeking out on how much we love cookbooks, and how much we love good writing, and how much we love great criticism—and the kind of criticism that's driven by the specific point of view of its critic. we weren't looking at objectivity—that relationship between a person and her cookbook is SO TOTALLY SUBJECTIVE, because people cook differently. so having these very different people tell us about their experiences with these cookbooks and how they cook becomes a really cool way to think about how cookbooks function in the real world.
me: yes, and in a way, it makes the question "how did that book win over another?" so completely irrelevant in the piglet, because it's all about the judge's point of view and perspective and experience.
charlotte: when i understand why the person judging it liked or didn't like it, i have a better sense of whether or not i'd actually cook out of a cookbook. if someone who is afraid of baking tells me he loved a baking book, that's a pretty great endorsement.
me: okay but let's look at julie's review in that context for a second
charlotte: yes, julie's review is a great example, and brooks's is too, actually
me: so april loses, a girl and her greens loses, but it loses because julie kept returning to violet over and over. because she felt a connection to it, and it gave her a confidence
charlotte: it was a book that made her want to cook yes. and it gave her comfort—both the book itself and what the recipes yielded
me: exactly. or she kept returning to think about its recipes in relation to others she knows, loves, bakes with. but here's the thing that kills me april losing is not our call to the world for people to NOT buy or cook from or read or enjoy a girl and her greens we read so many comments that are like “okay fine, but i’ll still read x losing book,” as if to lose is to be dismissed.
charlotte: of course not. our call to the world is for people to consider buying every single book we nominated. we think they all deserve to be on peoples' kitchen shelves, depending on what sorts of things people cook at home. once they're nominated, we see them all as winners, and then the fun begins
me: there is a cookbook for everyone in this tournament, no matter who keeps advancing. julie's review is one of my personal favorites precisely because she is NOT a know-it-all cook
charlotte: what we don't do is put a book that is extremely difficult to cook from unless you're a professional in the hands of a regular person. or really, in the tournament at all. not because we think it's not a good cookbook, but we're celebrating books that are meant to be cooked from by BOTH professionals and amateurs, and this is why we include a range of judges
me: and they're written for everyone. thus, they should be tested by everyone
me: i love that she doesn't know what a spider is. if we were doing this tournament for only the people who did know, what would be the point?
charlotte: having just written a cookbook, I've become a lot more sensitive to that stuff. things you just assume everyone knows.
me: like salt varieties. tiny things a ton of very experienced cooks would just glaze over
charlotte: we'd also be doing something that's completely wrong for Food52— its amazing foundation is one of enthusiastic home cooks.
me: it makes me think about our content as a whole. like, we publish articles on how to peel a mango. we ALSO publish things on how to build a croquembouche. that's a little representative of how we approach judge selection and cookbook reviews, i think
charlotte: it's why i take umbrage when i see Food52 folks making comments about how Julie Klam shouldn't be allowed to judge
charlotte: or when they confuse her lack of confidence with a disdain for or dislike of cooking there is so much joy in that judgment
me: but it's in letting that come through i think we're all very quick to judge the judges are they asking the right questions? testing the right recipes?
charlotte: i want to look at hers and Brooks's together, because there's something else in it, aside from the shared joy, that speaks to what we're doing. both of them told us exactly who they are, as cooks, from the start. Brooks taught himself so much of what he knows from cookbooks. so he's a professional, but he came to cookbooks as a student, like most people do, at home or, yes, often, in professional kitchens. And we watched Julie learn from her cookbooks. but what I loved was that we had a very clear understanding of their respective relationship to cookbooks before their judging even began. again, that allows you, as a reader, to think about how you might use those books.
me: right—and the difference in how they both approached their books speaks to the varied experiences of cookbook audiences at large
me: we don't all read and cook and experience the same way, and that's the problem with reading a million cookbook reviews from the same author, the same tester—you get one version.
charlotte: no. and the best cookbooks are the ones that don't treat us like we do.
me: if a book can be loved in the kitchen of a comedian, and a chef, and a blogger, and a radio host THAT is saying something
charlotte: one of the reasons we started the piglet was to celebrate the cookbooks that don't fit, that don't always fall into some neat and tidy little category on the bookstore shelf, or that maybe have a lot of weird tags. since the tournament started, the market has exploded and there's more room for things that are weirder or more specialized which is great. but to try and critique them as though they do fall into those neat and tidy categories of old? eh. that's not so interesting to me.
charlotte: so maybe now we have more to choose from, and maybe now we're applying our own less traditional approach to some more traditional cookbooks
me: it also means that matching them up isn't tidy anymore either. that you might find greens and senegalese food and vegan cooking all on the shelf next to each other
charlotte: either way, though, if we've done our job right, you've walked away knowing more about 16 great cookbooks and the people who stepped up to judge them.
me: CLAPS because yes that is the whole point. that's what i say about our site and our content as a whole: if we've taught one person one thing that day, we're okay. that's why we're here.
charlotte: and again, to those people who are confused as to why or how a senegalese cookbook could be judged against a book on making pizza at home, it's not about whether senegalese food is better than pizza. duh. it's about whether or not (and how) each book lived up to the promise it put out. did it deliver on its word?
me: well, it's the question we ask judges to answer: what, to you, makes a cookbook great? and is this one?
me: so greens versus a baking book that's not the approach
charlotte: the only bias we expect relates to pleasure. which did you enjoy cooking and eating from? that's where you can put them next to each other in a more direct way
me: yes. which will you keep in your kitchen, on your shelf?
charlotte: but again, since each judge lets us know what he does or doesn't like going in we're able, as readers, to understand that bias at the end, if there was one. we understand why Julie chose Violet. and we understand why Brooks (and his team of competent and opinionated cooks) went with Ruth's book
me: mhm but we can totally concede that it can be a tough job to look at such different books in that context. i've done a lot of judge coaching, but in a good way: they want to do the books justice
charlotte: our judges are troopers you're in the trenches with them now. but i used to have to walk them through it. i'd say, think of each cookbook as presenting you with a thesis, and then ask yourself it was proven. take each one at its word, and see if it kept it, then think about which one you'd want to keep
me: and also: did this book live up to YOUR criteria of an excellent cookbook, whatever that may be
charlotte: YES, that too and that means even if the food of Oman isn't your thing, you can still judge its excellence but no you're not forced to pick it if the Tex Mex cookbook was just as well-executed and you couldn't stop making the fajitas
me: do you find the recipes fine but damn, you can't get past the fact that the whole thing is a graphic novel and it's so distracting? then okay. that counts.
charlotte: i love it when judges get into the art direction. it's part of the whole.
me: it's one of my favorite things. even if i don't agree. like brooks: glossy pages?!?! hell no. but i love that he has a strong opinion
charlotte: my mom is big into the piglet. she reads each judgment, thoroughly. she was really curious about Brooks's preference for the glossy pages
me: we should ask him to write that ode because honestly, it makes no sense to my brain
charlotte: yes. i try to make my dad read them too.
me: i think my dad would appreciate julie's. it does a lot to take cooking down from whatever pedestal many people think it's sitting atop
charlotte: his comment about the matte vs. glossy situation was that "matte's the trend now." thanks Dad. it turns out he pays attention
me: ha, dad's right. i think we should add a category to the judgments: "did our parents like this review?"
charlotte: YES I want my parents to be piglet judges
me: CAN WE HAVE A FAMILY LIGHTNING ROUND
charlotte: YES that would be The Very Best
me: seems like we have some good next steps
charlotte: I hope the Food52 community continues to share opinions, but I also hope, maybe, they trust us a little more. That they trust the process, and allow for—or better, embrace—some of the kookiness. there are, as of the last two years, a lot of places they can go for generic reviews of cookbooks. The Piglet is special because it celebrates what's eccentric in cookbooks and the people who use them (which is all of us)
charlotte: And it showcases some brilliant writing and humor, and what we think are the best cookbooks of last year. We're having fun! If this wasn't fun, I promise, it wouldn't still be happening.
me: the fact is, too—and i hope this isn't getting lost—is that we do this because we love these books so dearly. every one of them. no part of the process or the judging is carried out to slight the books. in that way, we have a lot in common—us and our dissenting commenters (and our happy ones!)
me: can we sing kumbaya now?
charlotte: yes. But we will maybe just change the lyric to "kabocha" just to keep it food-focused
me: ha it is playing in my head right now it works