BooksNew & NowThe Piglet

Was the 2016 Piglet an Oprah Conspiracy Theory?

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Partly because we're not ready to let go of The 2016 Piglet, and partly because we love a good retrospective, we asked two of our friends and former brilliant Piglet judges—the lovely Helen Rosner and Kat Kinsman—to have a conversation about what went down this year. It follows, largely unedited—because why wouldn't we preserve questions like "If you could have your life ended by one of these cookbooks, which would it be?" and musings on carb-loaded Oprah conspiracy theories? All of that and more, right this way:

Helen
I suppose the most important place for us to start is the party.
Did you go to The Piglet winner-reveal event? Sadly, I did not.

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Kat
I did not attend the party as I am eyeball deep in edits.

Helen
Mmm, eyeballs.
I was surprised by the winner!
I love The Hot Bread Kitchen Cookbook, but from the beginning, I thought of it as an underdog.

Kat
I hear there was a [podcast] confessional booth and some stubble-rubbing between Sachsmo and Shit Food Blogger.

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Adam Sachs' Version of the Piglet Origin Story (& More from his Piglet Party Speech)
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Adam Sachs' Version of the Piglet Origin Story (& More from his Piglet Party Speech)

Helen
Oh, to be a fly on that stubble.
But then to have Hot Bread Kitchen up against Made in India, which to my mind was even more underdoggy of an underdog—well, that was a final pairing I definitely didn't see coming.

Kat
I am pleased by the winner and second-guessed myself. Now kicking myself for that. Assumed it'd be The Food Lab because of, well, "Food Lab."

Helen
I also assumed that! But I thought Lauren Collins' review, where Food Lab lost out to Made in India, was utterly charming.

Kat
I can't not wonder what would have happened if Zahav and Food Lab hadn't gone up against each other at the outset.

Helen
If I knew anything about college basketball, I'd make a devastating analogy right now.

Kat
THIS IZ MAH SPORTZ
But the thing about the sports brackets: There's no room for emotional nuance. You get the high score, you advance, you win. It is not subjective.

Helen
I mean, I bring my own personal emotional nuance with me wherever I go, like those little tins of Maldon sea salt.
But if there's anyone I respect a Food Lab > Zahav judgment from, it's Phyllis Grant.

Kat
My emotional nuance is in a squishy little packet like mayonnaise.
This is why my Piglet fandom is so intense.

Helen
Kenji's dad-humor jokes aside, Food Lab is a book largely without a soul—and that's by design, I think, that sort of "Let's Be Serious, People, We're Doing Science" thing. Whereas Zahav is all soul, and maybe lacking a little bit in rigor because of it. And Phyllis is, to me, the ultimate feelings-cook.

Kat
You and I have both judged. It is, if you're doing it correctly, a labor-intensive pursuit. You MUST test the recipes.

Helen
You must! You can't go on how good it is as bedside reading, or how pretty the pictures are.

Kat
The recipes must work. There is no getting around that. BUT subjectivity is highly encouraged.

Helen
So if anyone is going to say "hey, I love the soul here, but the recipes aren't working"—I mean, Phyllis Grant is the person I buy that from.

Kat
"Cookbooks are how you learn to cook. I even put one out last year that won this very competition." —Brooks Headley

Helen
Let's talk about Brooks! I love Brooks.

Kat
There must be a degree of useful instruction. Yes. Baseline. You would have to be dead from the nipples up not to love Brooks. But there's instruction and then there's didacticism.

Helen
Wait, let's pause Brooks. I sense you have things to say about The Food Lab.

Kat
There is a kind of recipe instruction that is entirely results oriented, and I understand and respect that. There are cooks for whom that is the end-all, be-all—and who am I to say that's not valid and important? But...BUT...
I have never been especially burdened by a desire for perfection.
The only alternative to perfection is gettin' it wrong, and as a deeply anxious human person, that's waayyyy too much pressure, man.

Helen
This precise thing is, according to the judgment of Lauren Collins, what eventually did the book in.
I think in many ways, Lauren's judgment hits at the crux of every conversation about cookbooks. Or maybe even the crux of every conversation about food, period.

Kat
Let me peek back at it, one sec...

Piglet Day 12: An Underdog Takes on a Fan Favorite
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Piglet Day 12: An Underdog Takes on a Fan Favorite

Helen
She was turned off by Kenji's prescriptivism, and turned on by Meera Sodha's culinary looseness—even though Kenji's book produced great results.

Kat
Oh right! I'd actually pulled a quote from her: "What’s so wrong with the cooking of mothers and grandmothers anyway? Who can’t tolerate a floater or two in their poached-egg pot? López-Alt’s approach, flawless as its byproducts can be—do score your pork chops before pan-searing them, as he instructs—is, I realized, fundamentally at odds with the way I want to cook. To the López-Alt disciple, it might sound pre-Galilean, but maybe there is no perfect poached egg."
To me, the word that stood out was "disciples."
That was the crux for me.

Helen
Kenji does command a very vocal army, it's true.

Kat
Weirdly, like Bernie, I cannot separate the work from the fans.
I think it's easy and logical for a lot of people to support work that is based in empirical fact.

Helen
I am going to ignore your attempts to make this discussion political (though I might agree with you) and note that it seems to be an inevitability of being a certain sort of science-minded home cook. Alton Brown and Harold McGee have similarly inflexible acolytes who defend them in the comment section.

Kat
U R AFRAID OF THE BERNIE BREAUX

Helen
I have stared into the face of the abyss, my friend, and have no desire to stare again.
Suffice it to say, I would urge the people who took Lauren's decision as a PERSONAL AFFRONT AGAINST ALL THAT IS SCIENTIFICALLY OBJECTIVE IN THIS WORLD to perhaps examine whether it is okay for other people to have different opinions from you.

Kat
Kenji's book works to me on a horizontal plane. Many of the others, vertical.

Helen
Wait, tell me more about that.

Kat
So, from Food Lab, you can grok perfection for each element. If you can take those lessons and apply them to the recipes from some of the others that are more singular-minded—maybe you whip or proof or temper this with the Food Lab method, but apply it to another of these recipes—you can see through the Matrix.

Helen
I love that way of looking at it!

Kat
It will make you a better cook. It just will.

Helen
It reminds me of my most-used cookbook, Cooks Illustrated's The New Best Recipe.

Kat GODDAMN THOSE CI BOOKS

Helen
Which is the same principle: a couple hundred flawless foundational recipes.
It's worth noting that Cook's Illustrated is the crucible that birthed Mr. López-Alt. In The Food Lab, you can see both their influence on him and his rebellion against their influence.

Kat
Yes. A million times yes. Maybe it's that we look to them for process and technique, and from the others we find cultural context?

Helen
EXCEPT HERE'S THE THING:
When I was re-reading Lauren's judgment, I had this epiphany that the tension between rigor and soul is at the core of all arguments I've ever had about cookbooks.
I realized something remarkable, and that is: This year's winner, Hot Bread Kitchen, is perhaps the perfect fusion of both of those things.

Kat YUP.

Helen
It's a baking book, so necessarily it requires precision and focus from both the recipe writer and the home cook.
But it's a baking book where the lives of the women whose food it shares are just as important as their recipes.
You can read it AND you can set your watch by it.

Kat
Like Andrew said, kitchen wisdom AND social justice.
Wacky, no? Like, humans are actual multilayered nuanced lifeforms or some crap.
No hierarchy! Dogs and cats! Living together!
And the thing is, none of these recipes would have become so very definitive and essential in any of the cultures if they didn't bleeding WORK.

Helen
Three thousand years of tradition can't be wrong!
I mean, Hot Bread Kitchen is basically a global carbohydrates greatest-hits collection.

Kat
It is the Jock Jams of carbs!

Helen
Now That's What I Call Flatbread!!! vol. 23
But let us marvel, for real, at the fact that Made In India flew through all the way to the final round.

Kat
And for real and serious, I said very early in the competitions that the victories thus far were to me a harbinger of the nation's re-kindled love affair with bread.

Helen
Finally!
So glad to have bread back.

Kat
Carbphobia begone!

Helen
Like Oprah says.
I LOVE BREAD

Kat
OPRAH CONSPIRACY THEORY Will we find out tomorrow that she's the secret angel investor behind Food52 and this was all a ploy to re-bread us?

Helen
If Oprah's pumping cash into Food52 I would like to be invited to more of their parties.

Bread is IN.
Bread is IN. Photo by James Ransom

Helen
So, which overall judgment was your favorite?

Kat
I have zero patience for the "ZOMG, I'm a messy, floppity, floundery cook"-style judgments. You're an adult. Feed your damn self.

Helen
I think I know which one you're talking about.
There was one judgment this year that I ... well, let's just say I was not charmed by it.

Kat
But faves, I mean BROOKS.

Helen
Brooks!!!!
Brooks won last year, for his marvelously subversive Fancy Desserts, which looked like a zine and was really into how big its own balls were.
(It was my favorite cookbook of 2014, hands down.)

Kat
So much rigor. So earnest. Such poetry.

Helen
And then the beautiful geniuses [Editor's note: We're leaving this in.] at Food52 gave him possibly the two most feminine, elegant books of the year to judge,
which I LOVED, obviously:
Ruth Reichl and the wonderful Tara O'Brady

Kat
Did you smell a lotta gender issues at play this year? I did and I loooooooved it.

Helen
Pretty sure I smelled what you smelled.

Kat
This was in NO WAY neutral on that front which I think is marvelous, because the food conversation as a whole cannot afford neutrality right now.

Helen
One wonderful success story from the judgments this year that I want to pull out is Diana Henry's utterly wonderful A Bird in the Hand . What I just love love love love about that book is that it does not, for ONE SECOND, stray from its mandate, which is: really, really good chicken recipes.
No veggie sides. No cocktails. No desserts.
Just great recipes for chicken.
I love that it made it all the way to the semifinals on the strength of that, losing out to Hot Bread Kitchen only because the judges for that round found the chicken-only-chicken conceit to be boring in comparison.
(Though I was annoyed by how annoyed Waldman and Chabon were by the precision of Henry's measurements, failing, perhaps, to understand that they were converted from metric, because Henry is in the UK and America is idiotically still clinging to the imperial system.)

Kat
That's an interesting thing. I spent a lot of time with people's final assessments of the differences and tipping points. Almost all judges strove to find a common narrative thread—which I know I did when I judged—and it was fascinating to see where they aligned and diverged, especially in later rounds.
Any issue that is Google-able/appable, you cannot complain about. Especially math.

Helen
What I would really like is to be a Piglet judge again.
I was a judge for the first-ever Piglet, when both the tournament and I were tiny little babies.
Readers, email [email protected] and tell them you'll stop reading unless Helen Rosner gets to be a Piglet judge again.

Kat
I was sososososo stressed about being a Piglet judge in part because of how rabid/passionate/unyielding the commenters can be.

Helen
As my grandfather might have said, they sure have some fight in 'em! And I respect that!

Kat
I do too. I regularly violate my own policy of "don't read the bottom half of the internet," and when I do, it's often here because I know for damn sure that they've actually gone out, bought and cooked from the books.

Helen
Agreed. If there's one comment section I'm willing to spare in the Great Purge, it's Food52's. Generally speaking, I tended to agree with the commenters' overall opinions on the various quality levels of the reviews.

Kat
Judging was one of the hardest things I have done, because I also came down to the art vs. science divide in my two books.

Helen
I want to play a game with you.

Kat
Ready Player One

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Helen
I'm going to name a cookbook from this year's Piglet, and you're going to say the first thing that comes to mind.
GJELINA

Kat
Cali.

Helen
Ooh for me it's "lunch."
MODERN JEWISH COOKING

Kat
MMMMMMMMMMMMMMMMMMCOZY

Helen
THE FOOD OF OMAN

Kat
Aspirational.

Helen
SENEGAL
(Man, really wonderful international selection this year.)

Kat
Desire.

Helen
MY KITCHEN YEAR
(Quick sidebar to note that while that title is perfect for this book, it is the most generic cookbook title literally of all time.)

Kat
This one is complicated for me because you cannot separate it from the totality of her. It's so: RUTHY.

Helen
Ruthy! Love that word. So necessary.

Kat
Is there a prize or diagnosis for this, BTW?

Helen
The prize is that I will buy you a cocktail when I next see you. [Editor's note: We're buying.] Which I was going to do anyway but we can pretend this is why.
And the diagnosis is that you are, my dear Kat, incurably, clinically obsessed with cookbooks.

Kat
I have often predicted that the cause of my death will be cookbook teeter.

Helen
Those piles can be dangerous!

Kat
If you could have your life ended by one of these cookbooks, Helen, which would it be?

Helen
Well, the Food Lab weighs about forty-seven pounds, so I suspect death by López-Alt would be swiftest and least painful.

Kat
But in the Smiths-y "the pleasure, the privilege" way.

Helen
Ahh, fed to death? A Mr. Creosote-style ending?
For me, gotta go Zahav. Drown me in pomegranate molasses and tell my mother I loved her.

Kat
I WAS GONNA SAY ZAHAV.

Helen
Love that book. Love it so hard.

Kat
I will tell you, I was depressed for about one hour when I realized how quickly it was knocked out.
I cook frequently and often adventurously and lean heavily into cookbooks because I was not taught. But several of my favorite cookbooks are ones from which I will likely never make a recipe. The prose and story, man. I love a story with my meal. I want to know why I should give my damns and dollars over. Zahav delivers on that front more than any other this year, and everyone should go buy it.
In the Robicelli's book, too. And the upcoming No. 7 Sub book.

Helen
Ooh I haven't seen that one yet.

Kat
I have only seen a blad and they had me at blad.

Will the new No. 7 Sub book be in next year's Piglet? Should we bring Helen Rosner back as a repeat judge? Do you, too, want to be drowned in pomegranate molasses? Tell us all of the things in the comments.

Tags: judgments, conversations, tournament of cookbooks,