On cook books, common sense and Lidia Bastianich

The title reads Lidia’s Commonsense Italian Cooking, but the cover picture seems illogical. On the left are some cracked egg shells with the eggs in the centre front and a near-full open carton on the right. Lidia isn’t pictured, but the matronly hands reinforce her presence. This image inducts the cook into Lidia’s brand of Italian ‘common sense’.

At first glance, Commonsense stands apart from Bastianich’s other books. There is no dust jacket. The image is printed directly on the cover, which is divided into two distinct textures. The bottom is matte and slightly bumpy, like a child’s primer. The top, with the photo, has a high-gloss finish. These attractively juxtaposing surfaces invite the shopper to touch the book, their tactile experience transitioning the potential cook from observer to participant. This action mirrors the relationship that Bastianich wants the reader to have with the recipes, ‘these recipes are not written in stone. They are meant to be a guide’(Bastianich, xix). Both the cook and the reader should personalise their experience of Commonsense: the former should add their own inflections to the dishes, the latter should impose their own face onto the book’s images and ideologies. When the individual combines these two perspectives, they enter into Bastianich’s world and assume her logic as their own.

If the reader/cook should customise their interaction with Commonsense and its recipes, Bastianich’s other books are portrayed as overtly hers and, consequently, not open to alterations. The covers of these books give Lidia the authority to be challenged by contextualizing her within the symbolic realm of Italian food. Whether offering up an abundant plate of spaghetti al pomodoro or standing proudly over a kitchen table, her body language illustrates her command. Possessive titles, such as Lidia’s Italy in America and Lidia’s Family Table, reinforce her dominion over these spaces and items. Commonsense cannot blatantly assert the same possession because Bastianich cannot own ‘Italian cooking’. Yet, Lidia doesn’t give up her knowledge as quite so easily. In her foreward she discusses how her history in the kitchen has given her the authority to teach the reader about common sense, ‘it is all about Grandma’s kitchen table … I decided I never wanted to leave that table, but stay close to it for the rest of my life. And so I remained in the kitchen.’ (Bastianich, xv). This tale imbues Bastianich with ‘authenticity’: of family, of eating, of time and of space. Food may not be mentioned, but the meals within the pages become signs of these ideas. Combined, these images, titles and introduction illustrate Bastianich as a kitchen authority without the fuss of restaurants and complicated recipes.

While this most recent book continues the tone of her previous works, the cover suggests that this volume presents cooking as a step in development of a greater whole rather than as a completed action. Unlike a family-sized plate of pasta or table piled with heirloom tomatoes, the food presented on Commonsense is not ready for consumption. Although eggs could be eaten raw, cultural conditioning means Bastianich’s American audience won’t see a just-cracked egg and think of food. Unlike rich pasta and ripe tomatoes, there is no temptation. Yet the egg communicates a message that a finished pasta dish cannot: it requires the reader to transform the raw ingredient into a tempting dinner by integrating into Lidia’s common sense.

Reading the image from left to right illustrates a ‘progression’ from cracked egg, to yolk and white, to carton full of eggs. Evidently, this pattern is not temporal. Instead, the movement from left to right show an increase in numbers; Lidia’s common sense concerns addition. Starting from the left the image presents: one cracked egg, two parts of the egg (yolk and white), three eggs waiting to be cracked, four empty spots in the carton and plenty of whole eggs. Bastianich emphasises addition’s importance in the introduction, ‘don’t be afraid to make substitutions. Don’t be afraid to add or subtract’ (Bastianich, xix). Although substitution and subtraction result in an equal or lesser number of ingredients, they add the cook’s personal inflection and can thus be seen as an addition. This horizontal analysis suggests that Commonsense argues for cooking as a passage from fewer variances to more.

Examining both portions of the cover together suggests that these additions aren’t actually up to the reader, but up to Lidia. If the upper half of the cover represents the book’s assertion — that cooking is about addition — Lidia’s name in 72 point font on the bottom half implies that these additions belongs to her. The font size allows Lidia to own the space on the cover that she doesn’t in the title. Yet the portion of the cover she occupies is also notable. Away from the corners, the reader’s eye is drawn directly to Lidia, allowing her name to provide meaning for the entire cover. Since her name is connected to the picture of logic, the common sense doesn’t come from the cook, it comes from Lidia.

Although the title emphasises Lidia, the line separating the authors from the title suggests that Bastianich the author and Lidia the cook are two separate characters. Existing at the bottom of the image and easy for the eye to skip, the bar implies that the names contained below do not negate and do not assert. After writing, Bastianich does not engage in the dialogue of Commonsense. Yet the italicised ‘and’ in the bottom left hand corner raises doubt as to Bastianich’s initial involvement with the book and its common sense. At the very bottom of the cover is her daughter’s name, a Bastianich as well, placed out of the way so as to not interfere with Lidia’s additions. Ultimately, Lidia the character, and her additions, guides the cook toward the proper use of Commonsense.

All this serves to present Lidia’s interpretation of the non-traditional cookbook. Despite Commonsense’s claim to encourage the cook to alter a recipe according to their tastes and refrigerator contents, the head notes clarify that the variations have already ocurred in Bastianich’s test kitchen. When describing a mozzarella and celery salad she notes that the non-traditional ingredients, ‘[are] a fresh and tasty alternative. Especially in the winter months, when tomatoes are not at their best’. While the alternative ingredient — celery as opposed to tomatoes — reinforces the importance of substitution, the switch is already completed and codified event. The incorporation and naming of the new into the recipe title suggests that common sense exists outside of the amateur cook’s kitchen and resides inside professional space. Like myriad other contemporary cookbooks that claim to stir up a new world of cooking and eating[1], Commonsense uses pre-changed recipes to fashion a false world of gastronomic innovation.

If Commonsense belongs to the self-mastering guide genre, the book allows Bastianich to tap into the foodie atmosphere and expand her empire. The absence of a dust jacket may be unique for the Lidia canon, but matches cookbooks such as Silver Spoon, Momofuku and Plenty. But the physical appearance is a small token of the trend that promotes DIY titles like Commonsense. As cooking is increasingly seen as a way to save oneself and family from the ravages of the industrial food system, and the problems that come with it, the number of cookbooks promising to give readers the keys to good, everyday cooking increases. Yet these books must necessarily withhold ingredients and techniques to preserve their mystique and enable the market for cookbooks to continue. Without home cooks seeking to find inspiration and new recipes, the cookbook publishing industry would be severely limited. Commonsense demonstrates this tension well. The reader is encouraged to contribute their perspective, encouraged to touch and understand the supposedly unique brand of logic presented within its covers. At the same time, the division of knowledge, codified alterations and subtly illustrated logic division prevent the cook from fully mastering these recipes. Ultimately, its Lidia’s own knowledge and teachings that make Commonsense the logical trendy step for the Bastianich brand.

[1] ‘Buvette is more than a place; it’s also a feeling and an idea. It’s a way to cook, entertain, and live. It’s a recipe for living more meaningfully.’ (Buvette) ‘Cooks should be taught not only how to replicate but also how to innovate’ (The Secret Recipes)

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