Ann Hodgman, revised. And totally worth revisiting.

The other day I was at the home of Prof. P so that our kids could have a playdate. We were cautiously ignoring our kids, and making sure his young toddler, in the room with us, didn’t eat rubber bands, when we got to talking about making biscuits — real biscuits, not the kind of “making biscuits” that cats do on your lap. He asked me if I knew how to make them. “Sure!” I said, and rattled off a recipe. This led to a discussion of cookbooks, during which we perused the shelves in his dining room (lovely built-ins, by the way) that hold his family’s cookbook collection. I noticed there a shiny new paperback copy of Ann Hodgman’s Beat This! and said, “That’s a good one, I have that.” I pulled it out to admire it; I hadn’t realized it had been reprinted. It turned out that it is a new edition, heavily revised, that was done in 2011. “I bought that after I heard them talking about it on NPR,” said Prof. P., and I said, “wow, I’ll have to read this.” “You can borrow it,” he said, and I did, gratefully.

I started reading it that night. I would have finished it last night, except my husband was reading it.

The differences between this version and the original (which I read in 2007, some long years after original publication) are significant. Some recipes have gone away, new ones have been added. Because of the little rush of publicity that came with this book’s release, I assume, if you go to Amazon there are a lot of reviews of this edition, many of which are properly admiring, many of which take note of the subtle differences between editions.

And then there are the reviews by people who clearly did not grasp what this book is for, like this one:
“First off, all copies of this book, which were sent to Amazon’s Vine review program, were “Advance Reading Copies” and “UNCORRECTED proofs. This is not the final book. The pages are not numbered – and neither are references made in the text to other pages.) This was the copy I received.
Apparently Ann Hodgman is a well-known cookbook author but I was unfamiliar with her before reading through this book. Personally, I was not impressed and actually turned off by her “attitude” to concerns about even “moderately” healthy food. No, I’m not a “natural foods” addict – far from it! But here are some excerpts that you should be aware of:
On the page (of course not numbers in my copy) with the Introduction to the Introduction, she stares in HUGE print: “Anyone who’s BOTHERED by BUTTER and cream can put this BOOK down and LEAVE the store RIGHT NOW.” (Note that the CAPS are hers, not mine.)
In the recipe for Carol’s Perfect Poached Chicken-salad Chicken she states (really!): I must mention. However, that it (the recipe) doesn’t get the chicken hot enough to kill the Salmonella bacteria. So, if you happen to be a worrywart….” (A worrywart? This is UNHEALTHY!)
In her salad dressing recipes she uses RAW EGGS. (Hmm. Salmonella again!)
I love pulled pork and make it all the time in a slow cooker. I was looking forward to hers. Well you need a gas grill to make it.
There’s a nice recipe for fresh tomato sauce. Easy? Well sure, but it takes FIVE hours in the oven and you need to check every 30 minutes. So don’t leave home.
Oh yes, there is a great Roast chicken recipe. What is it? Take a chicken, stuff with three lemons; make a garlic salt paste to spread on the outside. Roast in an oven. That’s it. See, you don’t need the book now.
While this country gets fatter due to overindulging in high cholesterol, the author promotes Crisco and bacon in LOTS of recipes. So I have yet to find a reason I would buy this book. You decide but be prepared to call a doctor – especially with the Chicken salad and salad dressing recipes.”

This review was written by a guy who a) didn’t read the book closely enough and b) is really worried about everyone’s health, assuming that Hodgman is suggesting we should eat exclusively food prepared from these recipes, and that we’re all going to heart attack hell as a result. He has a) missed the point and b) needs to chill, like long-rising dough.

Look. It’s true that the organization of these cookbooks is a little odd. On the other hand, there’s an index, which is, actually, the first place I go when I’m hunting down a recipe in a cookbook, so — it doesn’t MATTER how weird  the organization of the book is. If there’s an index, we’re fine.
It’s also true that Hodgman recommends use of Crisco — but only in rare and limited situations. She’s hardly shilling for the Crisco people. In fact, at the end of the book she writes a lovely little series of pieces about specific ingredients or tools, and talks specifically about Crisco, which she uses as sparingly as possible. She clearly finds the stuff vile.

Here’s what Hodgman does really well. She takes recipes that are for normal, mundane things (like cookies) and doesn’t waste your time with crappy versions of it. She doesn’t waste time on photographs of food you don’t need. This is a book for someone who’s fundamentally comfortable in the kitchen, and wants to make things that are reliable and — for the most part — not too time consuming or difficult. (There are huge exceptions to this: the recipe for croissants? JESUS. I won’t be making croissants any time soon, and I think of myself as someone who could probably do it, if I decided to.)

Interestingly to me, her bread recipe — the World’s Best Bread — is different from the bread I make on a near-weekly basis, but the logic behind it is really similar. While my ingredients list varies from hers, and I don’t do a separate sponge (though I suppose I could) the principle of both loaves is this: use a tiny amount of yeast, and let it rise for 24 hours. In my case, I do three rises, one of them cold. This, she does not say to do. But I think we’re on the same basic wavelength. With Hodgman’s cookbook, the point is not necessarily speed, it is results. (Incidentally, this is where another Amazon reviewer is wrong. She posits that Hodgman is just a highbrow Peg Bracken. I see what she means — they both have the light, comic tone in their writing — but Bracken was all about the shortcut, the “why bother,” the canned soup. The results didn’t have to be stunningly good; they just had to be good enough. Whereas Hodgman isn’t satisfied with that: she is after superlatives, the superb loaf, the Platonic vanilla ice cream. This is not Bracken-y at all. If Bracken read this book, she’d appreciate the humor and say, “yeah, I’d like to eat that, but damned if I’m going to cook it.” And that’s ok.

Here’s what else is so awesomely cool about the new edition of Beat This!:
It’s the only cookbook I personally know of that refers casually to Nicholson Baker.


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