About those menus...

You know those "suggested menus" offered by many cookbooks?  Where they tell you what goes with what, from starters to salads to mains to sides to sweets, and what wine you should serve with what?  And often they have a picture to go with it - of the whole beautiful spread, sometimes being elegantly nibbled by an octet of attractive people whose clothes are conspicuously cooking-stain-free? You know, those menus?

Maybe it's just that I'm a cantankerous old mule, but: I do not like them, Sam-I-Am.  Here's an example of a menu in Heather Christo's Generous Table, which was published approximately 5 minutes ago:

  • Cauliflower soup
  • Asparagus Walnut Pesto Linguini
  • Halibut en Papillote
  • Lemon Tart with an Almond Shortbread Crust
  • Coconut Sorbet 

Now let me be clear - I have nothing against Heather Christo or these really quite-delicious-looking recipes.  I just don't like having someone put them together for me.  When I see a previously-composed menu, I feel:

  • Exhausted: Even though I'm not afraid of making multi-course meals, somehow seeing somebody else's menu all tied up in pink ribbons only emphasizes for me the amount of work it's going to take to pull it off, especially because it's usually printed across from some posh-looking table setting which itself took an hour to set up.
  • Like a Groupie: I can totally understand worshipping a cookbook author so fervently that I want to cook every recipe in their book.  But do I honestly want to reproduce, bite for bite, the very menu that was served to that author's lucky friends, knowing that even if I pull it off, it can only aspire  to be being as good as the original?
  • Resentful : Who has time to plot and plan a five-course meal?! (OK, in point of fact, five course meals- or at any rate, five-dish meals happen pretty regularly when my friends get together.  But we all pitch in, is the point, so that even if half of us are stuck late at soccer practice or drama rehearsal, stuff will get made and shared.)
  • Uncreative :  Maybe I want to follow a few recipes to the letter.  But isn't it my job to figure out what goes with what, and what's right for the occasion and my guests and the time of year? With 128,788 recipes at my fingertips, isn't it the least I can do to pick and choose what we're going to eat?

Needless to say, feeling pressured by the menus in a cookbook that  I may have received for free in the first place is, as my son would say, a First World Problem. And after all,nothing's stopping me from cherry-picking any recipe I like from anywhere and putting as little or as much effort as I like into it.    But I can't help but wonder if there are better souls than I - less neurotic, more ambitious, less easily distracted - who follow those menus to the letter, never losing their good humor in the process.

If you know one, let me know - and tell me when to show up for dinner.  I'll be there, contributing a bunch of flowers, and nothing else.   

9 Comments

  • PatriciaAnn  on  5/7/2013 at 6:12 PM

    The only menus I really consider are ones that are broken down in to realistic make-ahead time slots; otherwise, they are impossible to assemble. Also, I no longer buy new cookbooks unless they have make-ahead tips, freezing instructions and gluten-free options. I've called several publishers to let them know how I feel and recently, one actually began giving make-ahead tips. My call was worth the effort!

  • wmhinshaw  on  5/7/2013 at 6:26 PM

    I don't see suggested menus as anything but an idea of what to serve with the dish. I like them for that.

  • ellabee  on  5/7/2013 at 6:31 PM

    Possibly it's your professional overexposure? When I was just learning to cook, Anna Thomas' menu ideas and discussion of how to put together menus in Vegetarian Epicure (and Book 2) taught me a lot, though I think I may have followed her exact menu only once or twice. I also greatly appreciate menu suggestions when starting in on unfamiliar cuisines; Rick Bayless' Authentic Mexican and Julie Sahni's Classic Indian Cooking are two examples that come to mind with helpful what-goes-with-what notes.

  • Jane  on  5/8/2013 at 9:10 AM

    I've never followed a complete suggested menu in a cookbook but I do like it when authors suggest other sides to go alongside the dish. Amanda Hesser's The Essential New York Times Cookbook is especially good at this. If the author suggests an accompaniment, we do include this in the EYB index to make it easier to plan a menu.

  • Richard  on  5/8/2013 at 9:34 AM

    Wow, seriously? It's a suggestion. Someone makes a recommendation to you or suggestion and you feel exhausted, uncreative, and resentful? You're really searching hard for a reason to be upset with the world!

  • Denise Landis  on  5/8/2013 at 9:47 AM

    Here's another point of view: There are a variety of cookbooks to serve different needs and desires. I see no reason to resent the existence of any one type of book. The reason I wrote a book http://www.amazon.com/Dinner-Eight-Great-Friends-Family/dp/B0046LUG76 of menus with wine suggestions is that I wanted to show how a mix of simple and complex recipes can make it easier to plan a dinner party. But they are suggestions, meant to be helpful. And I wish more cookbooks had wine pairings. it's not meant to be snobbery, but helpful. Each course in my book has three suggested wines (by type, not a specific wine) ranging from inexpensive to more so. This kind of thing works for some, not for others. No reason to be resentful if it doesn't work for you. :) You can find me on Twitter at @TheCooksCook. Cheers, ~ Denise

  • sisterspat  on  5/8/2013 at 10:11 AM

    I must say I am with Richard on this one. I enjoy my very sizable cook book collection, have learned so much from reading and trying new things. I think a menu is helpful, take what you want from them, be creative and just enjoy cooking for friends and family. Life is "way to short" for such a silly complaint.

  • tsusan  on  5/9/2013 at 8:46 AM

    Friends, I hoped the tone of this entry wouldn't be too offputting, but it seems I struck a nerve. Perhaps "resentful" was too strong a term to include. My intent was mostly just to point out a feature I don't myself care for much, without disparaging those who do; nowhere do I suggest the menus shouldn't be included. Of course I simply skip over the menus, just as you say, and it's not a burden. It was a complaint in the spirit of how one might complain that one's coffee was cold, or that one got a paper cut - without suggesting it's anybody's fault or that the world needs to change to alleviate my discomfort. Indeed, sisterspat is spot on - it was a "silly complaint," and that's the spirit in which it was intended. But I apologize if that's not what came across.

  • susan g  on  5/9/2013 at 2:12 PM

    Life is too short (sisterpat) -- we need some silliness!

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