Evangelist of precise cooking and a fan of economical prose

Economy is the mark of a good writer, says Christopher Kimball, founder of Cook’s Illustrated. Economy is the mark of a good writer, says Christopher Kimball, founder of Cook’s Illustrated. (Keller &Amp; Keller)
December 12, 2010

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Christopher Kimball, the bow-tied founder and editor of Cook’s Illustrated, presides over what is now a small Brookline-based media empire. Its franchises include the “Best Recipe” cookbooks, the PBS show “America’s Test Kitchen,” and the magazine itself, with its dogged dedication to testing every variable of a recipe. This fall, Kimball published “Fannie’s Last Supper,” about a dinner party inspired by Fannie Farmer’s “Boston Cooking-School Cook Book.” He lives in the South End and at his farm in Vermont.

Were there literary inspirations for the Cook’s Illustrated science-lab style? Actually, there was something. There was a series of monographs from the Brooklyn Botanic Garden, badly printed black and white, about pruning trees and that sort of thing. I got them from my mother, and they’re great. I used them to learn how to prune apple trees. They were so clearly not about entertainment — they were about information. The tone was very matter-of-fact and clear, as opposed to gardening books with color pictures. Their expertise was almost enhanced by the fact that they were so cheap. That’s where I got the idea for Cook’s.

Any time you come across someone who has spent a long time doing something, their prose tends to be succinct and clear, and they don’t use a lot of adjectives. They’re not trying to sell you on something. I think that’s what attracted me to those little monographs.

What nonfiction writers do you find admirably clear?

Well, William Manchester. “The World Lit Only by Fire” is one of my favorite all-time books. He’s able to write clearly about a broad period of history. David McCullough — he’s very clear. But the best writer that nobody’s ever heard of is Gordon MacQuarrie. He was from Wisconsin, a newspaper columnist, and he wrote “Stories of the Old Duck Hunters.” His writing is absolutely crystal clear.

It’s interesting. In American writing, you often find great writing not in the novels, but in stuff around the edges. I think most novels today are pretty much garbage. There’s no economy in language anymore. Economy’s really the mark of a good writer.

Hemingway was like that. Ian Fleming was a great writer. I know they were cheap secret-agent books, but they hold up well. Larry McMurtry’s a fabulous writer. And Dickens is the all-time winner. His characters were just brilliant.

What proportion of your reading is driven by work?

I don’t read food books, in general. When I go home, I want something totally different. Like I love those dark Swedish-style mysteries. Everyone’s got a cold and smokes too many cigarettes and drinks bad coffee, and everyone’s depressed.

What books have influenced your essays that appear in each issue of Cook’s ?

“A Child’s Christmas in Wales,” Dylan Thomas. I listen to that every year. It is the most amazing use of the English language ever in history. He captures the place so fully that once you’ve read it, you’ll never forget it.

It sounds like history is a favorite area for you.

I love history. I love the Middle Ages. I love Rome; that period is fascinating. I love American history. I could read anything about Teddy Roosevelt.

There’s a fascinating book that I just read called “Frontier Medicine” by David Dary. It was about how people dealt with medicine during the Lewis and Clark expedition, or in the Wild West, and how success or failure was dependent upon whether they knew what they were doing in medicine. Because otherwise people died.

I guess it’s one thing to have a test kitchen, and another to have a test surgery.

You definitely wouldn’t have wanted to be sick in 1870, believe me.


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