Much Ado About Very Little
Review © by Burton Kaplan

Cooking Fearlessly: Recipes and Other Adventures from Hudson's on the Bend
Jeff Blank, Jay Moore, with Deborah Harter
Photographs by Laurie Smith
Fearless Press
180 pp, hdbk, US$32.95 (Can $53)
ISBN 0-9672323-0-9

Cooking Fearlessly Given the renaissance of national interest in dining Texican, not to mention the wider food world's growing fascination with things piquant, it is only natural to expect to be able to cheer the appearance of a cookery devoted to same. Chef-authors Blank and Moore, of Austin's Hudson's on the Bend, have earned much attention and goodwill among their restaurant's loyal clientele and, it appears, the national food press (though there is good reason for doubt about the objectivity of the media's response, in particular the rave review in The New York Times. The reviewer knew the chefs knew of her presence because she announced herself beforehand, admit Messrs. Blank and Moore, and was served a special meal).

So it is a sore disappointment to have to report on this book. Its helter-skelter graphic presentation of ideas is fun, vividly colorful, but betimes both appealing and appalling in the same way that New York City subway cars in the 1970s and 80s both tickled and tortured aesthetic sensibilities. In a purely positive vein, however, especially noteworthy is the food photography of Laurie Smith, of Saveur fame.

So much for the appetizer and soup of this piece.

The meat of the matter is that, more often than not, the principal materials on which the authors' cookery rises - five kinds of chili peppers - yield dishes so invariably similar and one-dimensional as to belie any claim their text makes to "layered flavors." The incessant repetition of ingredients - poblanos, hatch chilies, jalapeños, anchos, and chipotles - is mind-numbing, not to mention its effect on the palate. Recipe after chili-based recipe spiked by salvos of salt produce not floods of flavor but, in at least one recipe tester's experience, diner fatigue. This is frustrating for there are times when the book seems to rise above itself to hint at more complex food ideas. These include rattlesnake cakes in a pistachio nut crust, pheasant tortilla soup, blue cheese grits, and chocolate-dipped pecan pie.

The central tenet of serious cookbook writing is to show readers how to make much out of little. Here is a title that does just the opposite. In a careful reading of the text it is hard to shake the feeling that, should you play pin-the-tail-on-the-donkey using any of the book's fifty or sixty formulations, all of the book's secrets will be instantly revealed no matter which one your pin pierces.

Unlike the heat generated in emerging Asian styles of cooking, which adds skillful dimension and complex depth to a rich array of ingredients, this collection of recipes stands not the master of its native gastronomy but its captive.

November 2001

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