--Christopher Kimball’s editorial in the May & June 2011 Cook’s Illustrated. Opening sentences.
Each issue of Cook’s Illustrated begins with a folksy editorial by Christopher Kimball, the ultra-nerd who runs “America’s Test Kitchen” with an iron fist. (One padded, however, by a Parvin Flameguard oven mitt—a best-buy at $2.66!) His editorials are genial and rambling, like any good chit-chat over the five-and-dime crackerbarrel, heh heh heh.
Contrary to what you might expect, they are not about food. The real subject of each is an idealized portrait of life in rural Vermont: firing up the woodstove at dawn; stalking deer with old friends; and, of course, treatises on the loyalty of beagles... Yep, things runs a bit slower out in Vermont—it’s a place with plenty of time to fish, to hunt, and to actually try each intricate recipe in a Cook’s Illustrated magazine. Now, I like these editorials, honestly, but the opening sentences of the current one did not so much catch my eye as make my bullshit detector explode.
First of all, Orval? Would that be Uriah’s brother? Second, EASTER HASN’T HAPPENED YET. It’s on April 24th this year, and my issue arrived two weeks ago. Third: I don’t live in Vermont, but are there really “large snowbanks” at the end of April? Possibly, but I doubt it. Late March I can see, so why didn’t he just say “still piled around on St. Gundelindis of Niedermünster’s Day,” which everyone knows is March 28 and was likely when he wrote it. Fourth, fifth, sixth, and seventh: pickup truck stuck in ice; rabbit hunting; something called a “ca-bin;” and again, some motherfucker named Orval?!?!? NO. No Christopher, this one is a mite too folksy to get out of my test kitchen.
Yet it’s a fairly standard editorial. And since they’re all like this—so rarely about food at all in a magazine devoted, in an almost religious sense, to food--one has gotta wonder what the point is. I mean, doesn’t one? Shit yeah, one does gotta. Here’s my genial, rambling guess…
The magazine is excellent: brilliant in concept and design, well-written, and just plain old awesome at what it sets out to do—which, duh, is to make people better cooks. Yet considering how so much else in culinary culture is either bad at that or is primarily a vehicle for the self-glorification of a celebrity chef, that’s actually an accomplishment. They test recipes, ingredients, and products painstakingly and authoritatively, explaining why each measly thing is better than another. Plus, there are no outside ads, giving them a degree of objectivity lacking in most modern publications. I look forward to each new issue and I’m excited—genuinely, dorkily excited—when it arrives.
But, like the Catholic Church or the Democratic Party, it is also silly, ridiculous, and occasionally obnoxious. I mean, does it really matter which garlic clove smasher or unsweetened baking chocolate I buy? And a subscription to the magazine does not get you access to the website. That costs extra. It does get you regular emails reminding you of, teasing you about, that recipe-filled website’s existence. (I caved.) Each issue comes wrapped in several pages of advertisements for other products from the Cook’s Illustrated empire. Binding the current issue are ads for:
- The website
- Gift subscriptions to the magazine
- A book called The Slow Cooker Revolution (Will Not Be Televised)
- A bound edition of Cooks Illustrated 2010 Annual
- A series of books under the heading Family Favorites
- Another series under the heading Best Recipes
- A book called Cooking for Two 2011 (purchase includes condoms that passed rigorous tests by Cook’s Illustrated staff; no, I am kidding)
- Or am I?
Within the magazine are tons of those postcard-sized subscription cut-outs, just in case one subscription per household isn’t enough—as well as ads for some other magazine called Cook’s Country. On the website, the first hits for many recipe searches are actually Cook’s Country recipes. You click one and—gotcha! You need to log-in to that website to see it, which will cost you. Though I roll my eyes, I do understand the death-from-above in-house advertising tactics: All those brownie recipes they tested weren’t free. With no outside ads, you gotta pay the staff somehow.
Behind it all is Christopher Kimball. That pickup-driving, rabbit-hunting, Orval-hanging-out with nerd is actually the Don Mega of an entire publishing world. He’s a graduate of Philip Exeter Academy and Columbia University, where he got a degree in primitive art. Hardly anyone’s idea of a rube.
That last bit is telling, I think. This is a man very conscious of how images are perceived—especially old ones. (“Primitive” means “old.” I looked it up.) The untelegenic, bowtie wearing crank who gets pissed off at bad instant-rice is, in fact, a very smart guy well aware that, to many of us, an untelegenic bowtie wearing crank is a relief. Is there a better role model to a gadget-obsessed, over-educated foodie than a lanky New Englander who just does not have time for modern citified life? Would it quite do if Kimball’s editorials showed the brilliant self-promoter (not a dis, just saying) who went to an Ivy League college in Manhattan and who runs a small and very lucrative publishing empire?
Well, OK--yes. Probably. The vast majority of famous chefs being shameless self-promoters, it probably could pay off. But Kimball saw a breech and he ably filled it. Who was catering (PUN INTENDED) to the bookish home cook not driven stovewards by the word “Bam!” or seven inches of cleavage? You know who I mean.
Kimball has studiously effaced success from his image. According to a 2003 Slate article that made (fuck!) many of the same points I am making here, his success includes: “a $25 million-a-year publishing business, a Vermont hobby farm, complete with 40-tree apple orchard, and a townhouse in Boston's trendy South End.” Yet in the magazine and on his TV show, Kimball is just a cantankerous farmer who makes his own syrup, plays the banjo and, well, happens to know what amino acids and nucleotides do. Heh heh heh. (The Slate guy, Bigshot Writesforpay, concluded that the nerd persona assures “no one would ever aspire to be Chris Kimball.” I disagree, and am leading methodically and inexorably to the opposite conclusion.)
Which brings us back to the fabricated snowbanks of 2011’s not-yet-arrived Easter. Kimball consoled his winter blues, he claims, with his favorite Vermont anecdotes. He offers six. In five of them native Vermonters encounter outsiders, and guess who wins out in each? In one, a New Yorker tries to get his Great Dane on a bus (?). Well, the Vermonter driving it won’t let the dog on. The encounter ends thusly:
The New Yorker, throwing aside all sense of common decency, shouted, “OK, you know what you can do with your bloody bus!”
Equal to the occasion, the driver replied, “If you do the same with your dog, you can get on!”
Let’s leave aside the fact no New Yorker has used “bloody” as a swear-word since Alexander Hamilton invented the ten dollar bill. (A slip for an otherwise decent writer.) What caught me about this and the other Reader’s Digest-ready anecdotes is how the hero is actually Christopher Kimball himself. And the foil? His readership. Most his readers—possibly all of them—are not native Vermonters. They are the New Yorkers and Texans and Bostonians who star in each anecdote, urban types who live far from any snowbank that could endure the month of April. They have never hunted a rabbit. They don’t own pickups. And they’ve never even met anyone named Orval.
Which is the point of each editorial. I don’t mean that he’s telling us flatlanders to shove Great Danes up our buttholes (try and try though we may). It’s not contempt he’s peddling. And though I mock the conceit of this specific editorial, I actually like the persona he offers and don’t think it’s bullshit or inauthentic. Rather, Christopher Kimball’s editorials offer a carefully crafted glimpse of the only parts of his personality that he wants us to see: a man close to the land and intimate with the seasons; familiar with animals, both domesticated and not; a man of varied and even arcane talents, but one who’s in no rush whatsoever. In 2011 America, that's already a primitive image.
“I am not you,” the editorials say. “Wouldn’t it be a relief to be me?”
Sometimes, I suppose, it would.
[Sound effect; muffled by a butt]: “Ruff! Ruff!”
Yep, even Fido here thinks so.