Saturday, November 1, 2008

Book Reviews: Gastronaut

In my mind, there is a cookbook spectrum. On one end are the uber-practical books that most people have and that you refer to when you need to figure out how to make the basics. From The Joy of Cooking to Mark Bittman's awesome How to Cook Anything (which was just updated) to the ubiquitous Better Homes and Gardens books, these tomes hold a great deal of information on how to actually prepare a meal and are the sorts of books you get when you graduate from high school and college and must start fending for yourself. On the other end of the spectrum are the fun, fancifully written cookbooks that are often a bit impractical. These are the books that you read for entertainment while shaking your head and wondering how the hell you are supposed to make some of the recipes included. Examples of these include Andy Warhol's Wild Raspberries and Helen Gurley Brown's The Single Girl's Cookbook, which includes instructions involving asbestos mats. They are funny and a great read, but you would never grab one when preparing to cook Thanksgiving dinner.

Stefan Gates's Gastronaut: Adventures in Food for the Romantic, the Foolhardy, and the Brave falls somewhere between these two extremes. A self-described "epicurean desperado," Gates's book describes some of his more interesting food-related adventures, misadventures, and experiments. Don't let the rather plain cover fool you - this is hysterical, in a very British way (and I mean that as a sincere compliment). For instance, he has a chapter entitled "How to Stage a Bacchanalian Orgy," complete with substitute suggestions for hard-to-find ingredients like dormice. He also has sections on cannibal recipes, foods that are considered aphrodisiacs, and how to cook guinea pigs. His advice includes how to gild Cheetos and sausages with edible gold and what to eat in order to produce the most flatulence.

Balancing out the recipes for head cheese are (comparatively) more practical ones for toffee fondue and tips for creating a biscuit-tin smokery. Even in these sections, Gates is able to interject a great deal of humor and wit. Overall, Gastronaut may not help you prepare a roast turkey for the first time (even though it has a recipe for turducken, which is a turkey stuffed with a chicken that is stuffed with a duck), and it will never be able to replace How to Cook Everything in terms of real-world application. However, if you are looking for a cookbook that is a lot of fun and has a few practical recipes interspersed with some crazy ones, you should definitely check this one out.