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Thursday, February 22, 2007

Book Review - Talk Of The Table Kosher Cookbook

Recently I visited the Jerusalem International Book Fair which I wrote about in Cobwebs Of The Mind, in the post, Jerusalem International Book Fair - Flashlight Press. While there, I was handed a cook book with the request to have it reviewed in Help! I Have A Fire In My Kitchen.

I warned the person requesting the review that I would be brutally honest about the book and gave them a chance to cancel their request for the review. However, and this I say to their credit, they insisted they wanted an honest review of the book in question.

Before I enter into my thoughts on the book, I know that some readers of Help! I Have A Fire In My Kitchen have contributed recipes to this book, as will become apparent soon, since this is somewhat of a conglomeration of recipes from many home cooks and some chefs at some fine restaurants in Israel. So it kinds of puts me on shaky ground, as it is never really a great place to be when you happen to know some of the people who contributed to a book that you are reviewing.

Some parts of this review are harsh. And that does not sit well with my inner voice as I know this book was produced to aid a charitable cause. But it is being sold commercially (which means profits for the publisher), and thus by volition the publisher entered it into a very competitive market. Thus all this has to be done in measure with an eye on the cause and an eye on the "professional" look and feel of the book as well.

Nevertheless, I took some time to think about this review, and my summary, critique and evaluation of Talk Of The Table Kosher Cookbook published by Urim Publications follows.

Talk of the Table CookbookTalk of the Table Cook Book">Help! I Have A Fire In My Kitchen, as I have said numerous times, is about real people, real cooking, real recipes and real food. Some of those who submit recipes to Help! I Have A Fire In My Kitchen are "people" chefs - others can be either gourmet or the normal down-to-earth variety. Both kind of cooks are great. Both serve a purpose. The recipes in Talk Of The Table Kosher Cookbook for the most part come from the normal down-to-earth home cooks who know what it means to cook for a family.

When a community puts together a Cook Book or recipes from different sources one simply does not and should not expect the same finesse and professionalism that is apparent in the cookbooks written by the great chefs of the world and published in fine, glossy formats. Certainly one cannot expect the same finish on a cookbook from a small publisher as one of the large ones. But then again if you are going to play in the sand box - then be ready to play.

However, cook books by their nature do require certain basics. And if the cover price of a cook book is $20.00 I expect to be given $20 worth of book. Putting recipes in a hard cover on good paper is simply not good enough.

If you are looking for simply interesting and good recipes (all Kosher) then a quick perusal of Talk Of The Table Kosher Cookbook does answer and fit that bill. Some of the recipes are indeed interesting and good. Some seem to be fairly delicious unique food creations.

My problem with Talk Of The Table Kosher Cookbook is not with the recipes. My problem is with the layout and editing of this book.

The editors for this book obviously spell-checked the recipes (I would certainly hope so) and probably made some grammatical corrections. But they did not, it seems, bother to actually take a look at the recipes themselves nor at the way a "normal" reader would read them. This irks me a great deal to be honest and certainly has colored this review.

The ingredients for each recipe appear on the sidebar of the page next to the recipe (two per page). The instructions or directions for creating the plate appear in the middle. There is absolutely no mention of what kind of utensils are needed for each recipe nor is there a mention of amount of pans, bowls etc. By the way, this is my pet peeve with many cookbooks. For some reason the editors and chefs seem to take it as a normative self-understood fact that you will need 6 bowls, 7 frying pans and 15 large spoons for a given recipe. They also don't have to clean the stuff after the cooking is done and the camera, light, action is all over. This book suffers from the same malaise. Suprisingly so because most of the recipes come from home cooks! No where, it seems, did any of these home cooks deem to mention what kind of utensils one may need for which recipe.

One of the faults of the editors here can be best illustrated as follows. One recipe reads as follows: (I honestly broke out in laughter when I read this!)

Combine stock ingredients and bring to boil. Season to taste. Simmer for 1 hour. Add carp and vinegar to stock. Cook for an additional 45 minutes.
You are kidding me, right? This is what you tell a friend over the phone if you are pressed for time, your kids are about to murder each other, your other phone is ringing, and you are late for your nephew's wedding - so you are in a hurry! As a recipe, this just does not cut it. But this is the basic recipe for carp. That cannot be denied. Now someone please tell me what carp is and how I get it. And "season to taste"? What if I never made carp before? And btw, the word "cook" here is wrong. It should be actually "leave on the flame for another 45 minutes". But is it a big flame? Do I bring it to a boil? Do I keep it simmering? Why is there such a paucity on words here?

Small example. Picky? I am not sure. I have been at this long enough to know exactly what people require, what they need and what they should expect from a book on recipes - especially when it is being sold in a competitive market. And this book is geared to the home non-professional cook.

The problem lies in the fact that just placing ingredients before the cook and then giving very concise (and sometimes even terse) directions is often not enough. Home cooks have the recipes. The editors must know how to edit them and explain them to the reading public.

Cookbooks also should have pictures. Help! I Have A Fire In My Kitchen is a blog, and most often we just don't take pictures of our great recipes. Still pictures are always welcome. BUT then again Help! I Have A Fire In My Kitchen as all other blogs of its type is FREE. And all good blogs and web sites that I have seen do take the time to explain directions, utensils and ingredients.

All this being said about the downside of the book, I must add the following. This book seems to have been put together as a community effort for a school. That I find laudable and thus for that reason alone I would give it an A+ for effort. But unless it is my child's school or my own recipes or I really believe in the charity I am not going to spend in $20 on effort. Effort in professionally published books which make a profit for the publishers - is just not a reason to purchase something.

The recipes, as I said are fairly good. I was very disappointed with some of the chefs of the fine restaurants in Israel and what they contributed, however, assuming they were not paid for their recipe I assume they just contributed some very basic recipes. Still, professional chefs that submit recipes with their names attached to them should be a bit more circumspect about what they contribute to such a book. If this is the extent of their capability, then the food at some of these restaurants is really overpriced, and certainly the chefs need a course themselves in how to cook.

The book, since it is a kosher cook book, is divided into logical sections - Dairy, Meat, Cakes etc. Makes recipes extremely easy to find if you know what you are looking for. This the editors got right and did with brains. I like that part of the book.

Would I personally buy Talk Of The Table Kosher Cookbook? I would do it to give as a present, knowing the proceeds are going to a worthy charity if I thought that it would serve a purpose. So indeed Talk Of The Table Kosher Cookbook does make a good present to the learning cook for that reason while contributing to a worthy cause - though I have no doubt the publisher is making money off of this and that does irk me because it simply is priced way too high for what one should expect to get.

However, there are some editorial failures in this book sad to say. This does not in any way reflect upon most of the recipes contained within the book. A bit more effort in the editorial process, and yes more money invested in its publication could have made it into a wonderful cook book. However I do find it hard to justify the $20 cover price for this book. That is near 90 NIS in Israel which makes it not a cheap book to buy.

Talk Of The Table Kosher Cookbook is not a coffee table book. You will not learn how to cook from it. You will however, add some really interesting recipes into your repertoire, and with a bit more finesse turn some of these recipes into truly great dishes. It fails at being a true "real" cook book though. And that is sad because the extra effort would have turned this book into a unique gem.

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Fifty Percent (50%) of all revenue of any product purchased through
Help! I Have A Fire In My Kitchen goes to help feed needy families in Israel. The funds are donated directly to the needy families - regardless of religion, race or creed. The remaining 50% will be donated to a Rape Crises Center for Women in Israel. (For a full explanation please read this.)

One final note. Please do not write in or comment that since the book is a community, charitable effort - no matter what - it should get a great review. If it was being sold for $5 or less I would have praised it to the ceiling. After all for $5 it is a good investment. But when I see the $20 price tag - I must professionally ask what is missing and what am I paying for. In the end the recipes are for the most part passable or good, with some unique individualistic creations, and the faults of the publication process and editors should not reflect upon the contributors of these recipes.

4 Fire Comments - Click To Post A Comment:

Deborah Dowd said...

Kudos Teddy. I know people who have compiled cookbooks for charitable causes and for organizations who know they have a captive audience. Howevever they have never tried the recipes! The key to a good compilation cookbook (even without pictures)is the buyers faith that what is inside will be good. Some of my favorite cookbooks are the America's Best Recipes compiled from church and charitable cookbooks, but they test every recipe on their own to assure quality before they include it in their book.

Paula's Poetry said...

Of all the books I own ( and believe me... I own a lot) I have the most difficulty in choosing a cookbook.

I spend an extreme amount of time looking through them in the store before I purchase them. My closet is full of the charity cookbooks made for the soul purpose of fundraising. I NEVER use them because some of the recipes are incomplete or do not make sense.

You are so right when you say that just because it is beneficial to a charity, does not lessen the importance of certain criteria.

The ultimate cookbook should be filled with
Useful recipes

Step by step directions to encourage new cooks and make it less intimidating

Helpful shortcuts

Possible substitutions and variations

Pictures, if only to say..."well it sort of looks like that"

Of course that's just my opinion

B.E. Sanderson said...

I hope if they were using a recipe for carp, they gave some instructions on how to clean a carp. (I'm guessing not, since you intimated you didn't know what one was.) Unless they've come up with another use for the word carp, it's a rather large and ugly fish - related to the goldfish and the koi - and are basically bottom feeders My father used to throw them out when he'd catch them.

I also applaud you on your honest review. I don't own many cookbooks, but all of them are very clear in their language. What a shame these folks didn't put more effort into it.

Ted W. Gross said...

My problems with this book are really multi-faceted. There seems to be this attitude that since I am making a book for a charity, well it just does not have to be on par with others. That is a mistake especially when you have it published with a normal publisher who puts a hefty price tag on the book.

But let us forget the price. Obviously the women of the community were asked to give in recipes. Some took time, others just wrote in shorthand. That is legitimate. But if you are going to produce a cook book - then do it right, even if most of the profits will go back to charity.

Cooking, as much as it is individualistic, is also a science of sorts. You cannot willy nilly boil something for 45 minutes on a low flame when it has to be on a high flame for 45 minutes.

You cannot bake potatoes for 10 minutes when then need to be baked for 2 hours. Because you just are not going to be able to eat the raw potato.

The big publishers have learned that there is a lot of money in good cook books. Indeed it is a multi-billion dollar a year industry. So it is silly to produce a book - on any subject - say it is for charity and forgive all the mistakes.

My hope is that the next Charity cookbook that comes along will learn this lesson. Because some of these recipes are unique and are worthy of a good cookbook.

(And yes it hurts to have to be harsh with something that is really intended for a worthy cause.)