The Piglet2019 / First Round, 2019

Coconuts & Collards vs. Rose's Baking Basics

Coconuts & Collards

Von Diaz

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Rose's Baking Basics

Rose Levy Beranbaum

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Judged by: James Pomerantz

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James Pomerantz is a Brooklyn-based based food photographer and photo editor. His work has appeared in numerous publications including The New Yorker, New York Times, Rolling Stone, London Sunday Times Magazine and the recently published Boqueria Cookbook. As a photo editor, he can often be found at the New York Times’s food desk. Once upon a time, he graduated from Peter Kump’s New York Cooking School and worked in various restaurant kitchens before swapping his knife for a camera. He doesn’t glow like Gwyneth and he’s not as dapper as Tim Gunn. He’s never slayed a vampire and while he certainly isn’t all that, he is what he is.

The Judgment

Prologue

November 27th

“Dear James, we’re hoping you’ll be a judge for our Piglet Tournament of Cookbooks. Gwyneth Paltrow was a judge. You’ve heard of her, right? And Goop. Don’t you want to be like Gwyneth???”

December 18th

“Hi, James, we’re so glad you’re a judge this year. You’ve been awfully quiet so we just wanted to check in and see how it’s going. You seem like a Freddie Prinze Jr. fan… I Know What You Did Last Summer… She’s All ThatSummer Catch… yes, that Freddie Prinze Jr. He was a Piglet judge. Punctual, too. Should have been called HE’S All That because Freddie really is...all that. Anyway...please let us know how it’s going.”

January 6th

“James, Tim Gunn never kept us waiting when he was a Piglet judge. “

January 12th

“Give us your judgment in 24 hours or we’ll be forced to send former Piglet judge Sarah Michelle Gellar. She slayed vampires, James…get it together.”

 

And so it was: 24 hours, two cookbooks, three recipes from each. In my left hand, Rose Levy Beranbaum’s Rose’s Baking Basics and in my right, Von Diaz’s Coconuts & Collards. Mornings are when I like to bake, so I tossed Coconuts & Collards on the couch and headed into the kitchen. I’m not one to judge a book by its cover, but judging Rose’s book by its cover, I knew this morning’s baking was going to be painless: As Rose’s book notes, she is the author of The Cake Bible. She also penned The Baking Bible and The Bread Bible, both of which I own. That’s a lot of bibles, and Rose is one of the few people I think expert enough to get biblical. 

I quickly flipped through Rose’s Baking Basics, briefly rummaged through my fridge and pantry to see what ingredients I had on hand, and decided to make three things:  Carrot muffins that I hoped would satisfy my lachanophobic three-year-old son; a basic yellow layer cake with which to reward him for hopefully having eaten the carrot muffins; and some chocolate chip cookies for me to guiltily eat while contemplating what part my parenting plays in my son’s fear of vegetables.

 

A few hours later and my kitchen was as neat and tidy as ever. The only signs of the effort were the results, and so on my counter cooled a cake, some muffins, and a plate of cookies. As always, Rose’s recipes worked for me.  I especially appreciated the countless step-by-step photos and her “Baking Pearls,” the easily digestible bites of baking wisdom that Rose has acquired over the years, and which she has generously scattered throughout the book. (Forgive me, Rose, I foolishly ignored your advice to use bleached flour in the muffins to avoid a rubbery texture. Despite being a little springy, they were still delicious and my son loved them).

The cake turned out great, too, if overly domed—a symptom that I learned from one of Rose’s Pearls can be due to leaving the batter sitting for too much time, during which the baking powder activates. In the chocolate-chip cookies, I left out the suggested walnuts, added some extra chocolate chips for kicks, and followed Rose’s suggestion to brown the butter and add some golden syrup, both for some extra complexity of flavor. I ate more than I should have of the finished product, not out of guilt but because they were so good. 

 

All hopped up on sugar, I skipped back to my couch and opened Von Diaz’s Coconuts & Collards to random pages, looking for the three recipes I would sample. The first recipe I encountered was for PR Antipasto, a snack plate including salami, chorizo, olives, cheese, and bread. A few pages back… Anticuado, or a rum old-fashioned. Flicking forward… Camarones a la Vinagretta, or shrimp in citrus vinaigrette, that, aside from the addition of culantro and thyme, seemed a bit like shrimp tossed in pico de gallo. Tasty, but not the technical, challenging sort of cooking I thought I would be undertaking. I was, if I’m being honest, underwhelmed. But, still needing to burn off my sugar jitters, I made a quick trip to my local supermarket to buy everything for the aforementioned shrimp, as well as Von’s Costillas de Cerde con Salsa BBQ de Guayaba (pork ribs with guava BBQ sauce), a sticky, sweet, messy-fingered dish I was sure my kids would love.

That night, my wife, kids, and I ate the shrimp and ribs, followed by a light dessert of muffins, cake, and cookies. Von’s dishes had been easy to make, and while the recipes contain specific measurements, the rustic nature of food allowed me to bang out the shrimp and ribs without dirtying measuring cups or spoons. 

After a struggle to put my kids to bed (for some reason, they seemed particularly hyper), I fixed myself one of Von’s Rum Old-Fashioned cocktails and settled back in on my couch. I picked up Coconuts & Collards and scanned the pages. To be fair, some of the recipes seemed more exciting than the ones I had initially selected. But, also to be fair, Von had included these simple recipes in her book and I wasn’t entirely sure why. Looking again at her PR Antipasto, I still didn’t get it. In the recipe’s headnote, I learned that “Tata” made it for her guests. Well, isn’t that nice?  Flicking forwards a few pages, a word jumped out at me: “Alzheimer’s.” Other words followed: “heart attack,” “coma,” and again, “Tata.” Well, now I’d gone and done it. I went back to page one and started to read. And before I knew it, I was fixing myself another Anticuado and reading more. 

 

Paraphrasing Von, Coconuts & Collards is about the strong, loving women in her family, and the roles food has played in their history. Lying on my couch, I learned about Von’s journey and her grandmother Tata’s from the Dominican Republic to Puerto Rico via Biloxi, Mississippi. And then, something happened: everything vanished. 

And then, I’m six, telling my Nan in England that I “smell a sandwich,” my code for wanting a snack. 

And then, I’m nine and in London, my head resting on my dog Sheba’s stomach, watching my mother dance as she cooks a Sunday roast in our green Aga. 

And then, I’m eleven, nervous and scared as the security agent at Heathrow airport holds a plastic bag of powder he found in my carry-on and looks at me skeptically as I truthfully tell him it’s my secret spice mix, my mother proudly smiling nearby. 

And then, I’m twenty, working in a New York restaurant kitchen, when my father calls to tell me my mother has had a major stroke. 

And then I’m back, forty-two years old, on my couch. My kids are asleep, my wife is near me, and I’m crying...and hungry. 

 

I have many cookbooks. A few of them, like Rose’s, make it into my kitchen. I follow the recipes (usually, for baking) and things turn out as they should. Rose’s book is pleasantly precise. Step-by-step photos, multiple systems of measurement, and Rose’s Baking Pearls help make sure that everything goes according to plan. Her book inspires kitchen confidence. I need a book like Rose’s on my shelf.  

But most of my books are for inspiration: a quick glance before I head to the kitchen and come up with my own creations. Von’s book, it would seem, is a time machine disguised as cookbook. And while I don’t know that I’ll ever cook the food in Coconuts & Collards, I would love for Von to cook it for me and tell me her stories, as we eat salami and bread and drink one too many old-fashioneds. Von inspires me to cook the food that I would want to be in my cookbook, if I were to write one: not only my food, but my mother’s food and my grandmother’s food. 

So while my book might not have a recipe for PR Antipasto, it would probably have an equally simple bacon sandwich: bread, a few rashers of bacon, butter, optional ketchup or brown sauce. And someone might read it and initially dismiss it as pointless. But then, hopefully, like I did, they’ll think about not just what to cook, but why. For reminding me why I cook, I’m picking Von’s Coconuts & Collards to advance to the next round.

 

And the winner is…

Coconuts & Collards: Recipes and Stories from Puerto Rico to the Deep South

Coconuts & Collards: Recipes and Stories from Puerto Rico to the Deep South

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Do you Agree?

16 Comments

Laura March 17, 2019
What a great review! I was definitely surprised by the winner. I still might go get one (or more) of Rose's books, as I have none!
 
Ronni L. March 15, 2019
Stellar! But let's be honest, every Piglet past seems to have had a reviewer or two who didn't bring to the table the same level of gravitas, not to mention time and attention, that those of us who use, read, and sometimes write cookbooks feel the work demands. I feared at first that was the case with Pomerantz who seemed to be leaning too heavily on quick wit and a long association with the work of Rose Birnbaum to compensate for procrastinating. My fears deepened with his initial take on Von Diaz's recipes as perhaps too simple, but then we got to the couch. Oh my! What a beautiful explication of how a heart-connected cookbook with a story to tell can change your world. As soon as the clock strikes six tonight, I'm going to make myself Von's Rum Old -Fashioned and raise it in a toast to strong women, tender men, and the way food connects us all.
 
meggan D. March 14, 2019
Woah - this review of a cookbook made me cry! Excellent writing!
 
Raye P. March 12, 2019
Every year our Piglet Group...Herd? Flock? Anyway, we get together and each pick one or two of the 16 cookbooks and then make one or two recipes from our choices to bring to a feast. Without realizing it, I picked the two cookbooks in this particular bracket. And I have actually read them both, cooked out of both of them, and purchased one of them. In fact, one of my chosen dishes for the feast is Von’s Camarones a la Vinagretta. I have baked her Besitas, which are delicious! And her Picadillo, which, like Von, I ate as cold leftovers, standing in front of the open fridge door. It was that good.
And yet...To win the bracket, I chose Rose’s book. Both books are so good; they really are, but after I’d read and enjoyed it, I didn’t feel like buying Von’s. I did feel like buying Rose’s. And I’m glad I did. Just yesterday I baked her Basic Hearth Bread. I’m a fairly accomplished home baker and bread baking is a true love, but I still learned new tricks and truths making this recipe. And the bread is good!
But...I loved this review. I love Rose’s book because I learn about baking, and she helps me become better at it. I love Von’s book because I learn about Von...and also because I am not familiar with Puerto Rican cuisine, so it’s an adventure. As a straight up cookbook, Rose wins. As an autobiography cookbook, Von wins.
Tough choice, and one which really depends on who is doing the judging.
So, well done, James, and thanks for the humor and heart.
Even though my bracket it shot...
 
Anne J. March 12, 2019
I'd borrow the Von Diaz book from the library and buy Rose's, becuase who has that much shelf room in the kitchen? That being said, I still treasure Amanda Hesser's The Cook and the Gardener (although it doesn't live in the kitchen) and was once brought to my knees by an Isle Flottant, which is something my grandmother once made for my birthday. So, thanks for the funny and useful review, by far the best in this series.
 
stefanie March 11, 2019
Sounds like James had an Anton Ego moment! This review perfectly balanced wit and emotion, with evocative writing that did both books justice.
 
Sheila March 11, 2019
What a great review! I felt so sad that he was going to review Von's book based on 3 quickly selected recipes, without reading the stories. Ahhhh, feeling so much better by the end!
 
zooeybechamel March 11, 2019
This was my favorite review so far. It's brilliant! It has wit, it's funny, it's informative and it captures both books perfectly. Plus it's a bit emotional without being lame. (which is hard to achieve). Well done James Pomerantz! I really hope you'll write that hypothetical cookbook at some point.
 
362Heather March 11, 2019
I 100% agree. For a judge who admittedly procrastinated and whipped everything up in 24 hours, he did better than most judges can do in months. I am not the sappy kind, but he wrote so beautifully (about what appears to be equally beautiful writing) that I too was a bit teary-eyed. He did a wonderful job. This is my favorite review thus far. If Pomerantz wrote anything, a blog even, I'd read that. See here Mr. Pomerantz, consider writing a blog. Sincerely, a non-lachanophobe Heather
 
zooeybechamel March 11, 2019
haha, let's start a petition Heather :)
 
Joan O. March 11, 2019
I love Rose and her books but totally agree with the judges reasoning and decision of which book to move on. What a fun and enjoyable review.
 
txchick57 March 11, 2019
F52: You're doing the same thing you did last year. You can tell who won by looking at the picture. Mix it up.
 
362Heather March 11, 2019
Not only the pictures, but I reach the piglet review through my blog feed app, Feedly, and the titles that Food52 gives the articles completely blows it. Which if Food52 still had functionality to email the piglet reviews this wouldn't even be a talking point, because the blog reading app would be rendered obsolete. However, back to the main issue at hand, the whole point is to read the article not knowing which book won so that we can objectively read through the judge's process! Here was today's title "This Already Genius Cookbook Is Also a Magical Time Machine". Now what home cook with a passing regard for cookbooks does NOT know who Mrs. Beranbaum is? Answer: few. And anyone who knows Rose and her INCREDIBLE cookbooks knows she wears many hats and is many kinds of wondrous, but also knows that there isn't a shot in heck she sets out and creates a time machine cookbook. Please Food52, stop giving it away via the titles! I recognize that it might be hard to re-photograph the books, but you can't possibly tell me that it's too tough to change the titles..... Here's a go from a pre-med with no editorial background "Piglet Day 5".
 
Jesi N. March 11, 2019
I'm not getting that from the pictures at all... the tipped-over book isn't always the winner, and when the photo shows each book standing upright, that tells you nothing. (Point taken about the article titles, but the photos seem neutral to me.)
 
rosalind5 March 11, 2019
The *second* book to be reviewed is almost always the winner. This was a great review, like all the reviews so far, but I so wish that someone would break the - first book great!, OMG second book even greater! - review arc.
 
Vivian March 11, 2019
Rose's The Cake Bible is one of my all-time favorite cookbooks, so I come in to this match-up with huge bias! But a moving, heartfelt story still wins over technical perfection for me any day.

Thanks for the review, I will definitely be checking out both Rose's and Von Diaz's new books now!