Let Them Eat Chicken
As a longtime reader of Cook’s Illustrated, I can say this with confidence: I know how to make roast chicken. Not just a roast chicken, but Easy Roast Chicken, Pan-Roasted Chicken, Grill-Roasted Whole Chicken, Crispy Roast Lemon Chicken, Crisp-Skin High-Roast Butterflied Chicken, and, in 2008 alone, Stovetop Roast Chicken, Herbed Roast Chicken, Crisp Roast Chicken, and French Chicken in a Pot, a refreshingly hands-off recipe that advises roasting the bird, covered, at an ultralow oven temperature. I can also make brownies (the fudgy kind, the cakey kind, the chewy-and-chocolaty-with-made-from-scratch-caramel kind), several types of mashed potatoes, and a mean pie crust. It all makes me, on paper, a perfect young bride—for 1954.
It’s a time warp that figures into almost every aspect of the magazine, and such anachronisms have their charms. Its kitchen tips address pressing issues like how to crush tomatoes without any splatter. Equipment tests put measuring cups and spatulas, not souped-up espresso machines, through Olympic-style trials. The ingredient taste tests, conducted weekly by 21 cooks and editors working in Cook’s Illustrated‘s sprawling offices in Brookline Village, focus solely on supermarket staples: ketchup, chicken broth, and, if they’re feeling especially wild and crazy, teriyaki sauce. I like knowing that some type-A editor is going to roast 42 chickens to figure out the "best" way to get a crispy skin.
And yet you can’t help wishing they applied that same rigor to dishes beyond steak Diane and chicken tetrazzini. This is 2008. The United States of Arugula, to borrow from author David Kamp. Pick up almost any national food magazine—Bon Appétit, Gourmet, and so forth—and you’ll know that amateur gastronomy is no longer just about recipes. It’s political. It’s an adventure. It’s sexy. It’s a lifestyle. We seek out Vermont cheeses and Japanese yuzu, and top most everything with microgreens—so long as they’re in season. Even Rachael Ray, America’s self-consciously homespun sweetheart, will get fancy and whip up a lemon-pepper ricotta spread every once in a while.
Cook’s has unapologetically, even defiantly, sat out the foodie revolution. The magazine continues to publish its predictable spate of roast chicken recipes—seven in all this year alone. And though the company has expanded, its repertoire has remained narrow. Cook’s Country, launched in 2004, makes over regional American recipes à la raspberry chiffon pie. The book division publishes eight cookbooks annually with straight-to-the-point titles like The Best Recipe, The New Best Recipe, The Best Light Recipe, and, of course, The Best Chicken Recipes. The test kitchen’s two public television shows, America’s Test Kitchen and, new this fall, Cook’s Country TV, feature dorky test cooks talking through the steps to the ultimate layer cake.
From one perspective, the Cook’s shtick seems risible: Just how many ways to roast a chicken or bake a sugar cookie does one really need? But while the glossy food magazines were publishing high-minded gastronomic essays and intricate recipes from hot chefs paired with stunning, full-color photography (Cook’s, by contrast, uses sober black-and-white illustrations), a funny thing happened: The economy tanked. As advertisers began to slash their budgets, conventional media took a major hit. In the third quarter, ad pages in Bon Appétit plummeted nearly 30 percent (from 2007’s), Gourmet‘s slid more than 25 percent, and Food & Wine‘s dipped 7 percent. When the books close on this quarter, it’s expected to be even worse.
Meanwhile, over at Cook’s, which accepts no advertising, business is better than ever. And after years of watching these nerdy recipe analysts with bemusement, some observers—including this one—are starting to wonder whether there’s a certain hidden genius to the Cook’s trademark single-mindedness.