Cooking for Dummies illustration
Illustration by Lia Kantrowitz

‘Cooking Basics for Dummies’ Is Actually the Best Cookbook Out There

In a world where everyone’s a chef, the most basic of basic knowledge has surprising value.
March 9, 2020, 11:58am

This article appears in VICE Magazine's Stupid Issue, which is dedicated to the entertaining, goofy, and just plain dumb. It features stories celebrating ridiculous ideas, trends, and products; pieces arguing that unabashed stupidity can be a great part of life; and articles calling out the bad side of stupidity. Click HERE to subscribe to the print edition.

I’m no dummy, or at least that’s what my therapist always tells me, so logic would dictate that the 1995 guidebook Cooking Basics for Dummies is not for me. In fact, by extension, none of the more than 2,600 books currently available in the Dummies series—including Turtles and Tortoises for Dummies, Amazon Fire TV for Dummies, and Backyard Homesteading All-in-One for Dummies—are meant for me, either. What could I—a known smartie—find useful in books like these, especially one about cooking?

How I came upon a copy of Cooking Basics for Dummies in the first place is somewhat beside the point, because I knew as soon as I began to parse its 464 pages that I wasn’t the intended audience. How to cook scrambled eggs? I scoffed. I’ve been making scrambled eggs since I was in diapers. Preparing a pan for baking? I practically invented preparing a pan for baking. I’ve been cooking in some form since I was a teenager. By age 32, I reasoned, the basics were now behind me.

And then I saw the Canadian Fish Rule on page 87. What the hell is that? I thought. (It’s the name for when you measure a fish steak or fillet at its thickest point and cook it for 10 minutes per inch.) I also wasn’t aware of the “kitchen triangle,” which shows up in a handy illustration on page 8. (It’s the triangle that should naturally form and be completely unobstructed as you move between your stove, refrigerator, and sink, to allow the cooking process to go more smoothly.) I had never heard of Westphalian ham (a German ham made from pigs that are fed sugarbeet mash)—one of 11 kinds of ham that are described on pages 134 and 135. As I continued to read Cooking Basics for Dummies, I realized I knew less about cooking than I thought.

“People come up to me and say, ‘Cooking Basics for Dummies? That’s insulting,’” Marie Rama, a coauthor of the book, told me by phone. “We don’t mean to insult. We mean to make you laugh!” Rama, a former pastry chef and recipe tester and now maker of plant-based Bolognese sauces, wrote the book with Bryan Miller, a former food and wine writer and restaurant critic for the New York Times. The book’s illustrations, which are a stylistic mix of New Yorker–inspired cartoon and vintage cookbook sketch, were drawn by Elizabeth Kurtzman, an artist with nearly 30 years of experience. The research and labor that went into boiling down tons of information on humanity’s most important skill—from braising meat to seasoning rice—into digestible, simplified, and straightforward language was no small feat.

When Rama and Miller got together in the early 90s to write the book, it took weeks to figure out what exactly would go into it. With all their combined cooking experience, the pair had to leave their assumptions about what constituted basic kitchen knowledge at the door. “I’ve been in the food business all my life, and sometimes you get caught up in your own little world,” Rama said. This meant that the coauthors would forget that someone coming to this book might not know the difference between an egg white and an egg yolk. “They put editors on our book who didn’t know how to cook. It was frustrating a lot of times because we’d have to tone the recipes down,” Rama explained. “We had to be really careful with our language or else our editors would come back and say, ‘What does it mean to slice an onion? I don’t know how to do that!’”

They accomplished their goal of educating and entertaining by not taking the subject matter too seriously, Rama explained. The section on pasta tips and tricks opens with, “Al dente isn’t the name of an Italian orthodontist.” In another section, the authors specifically advise the reader not to do dumb stuff: “Many knife injuries are the result of rushed, hungry people doing dumb stuff, like trying to separate frozen hamburgers or slicing through hard bagels. So rule number one is, don’t do dumb stuff!” In the illustrations, Kurtzman gives the dishes personality: above a peach tucked inside a fruit tart, a speech bubble declares, “Cozy…” And my favorite chapter headline of all: “Seeing the Pasta-bilities!”

The Dummies series officially launched in 1991 with books explaining then-mysterious computer programs like Windows 95, and Cooking Basics was the first non-computer guide in the series. The book took off, so Wiley, the publishing house, decided to branch out into other categories. Since it was first published, in 1996, Cooking Basics has been updated five times and has sold more than 460,000 copies worldwide. Rama isn’t surprised that it’s been such a success. “There are people out there who haven’t grown up in a cooking world. They haven’t worked in a test kitchen. Even my own sons will say, ‘What spices go with what food?’”

In 2020, it feels like it would be very difficult to find a person with no cooking knowledge whatsoever. According to Google Trends, since 2004, the word “foodie” has risen in popularity at an incremental but steady pace year after year, with only a slight dip this January. In 2018, the audience for Bon Appétit’s now inescapable YouTube channel tripled to 3 million—in only a year and a half. At the time this issue went to press, that number was at 5.32 million. Instagram now feels like it’s as much a home for well-plated dishes as it is for babies, dogs, and selfies, and with more than 370 million #food posts and over 217 million #foodporn photos, the proof that we’re obsessed with food is in the proverbial and literal pudding. “It’s a very different climate than when we wrote the book originally,” Rama said. “We’re all talking about food, we’re taking pictures, we’re using food as a form of entertainment. It’s a big change. There are so many books out there that aren’t these basic cookbooks.”

In talking to Rama, I realized that I had actually missed out on some of the basics in my education as a cook, and had grown too ashamed to admit it. In a world where everyone’s a chef, it takes a lot to confess that you don’t know what a papillote is (according to the book’s informative glossary, it’s the formal word for cooking things in a sealed pouch of parchment or aluminum foil). The book’s recipes, simplified so that even the most novice cook can conquer them, would be the envy of any cookbook writer; the conversion chart in the back of the book has already become a useful addition to my kitchen. (Unfortunately, and concerningly, if you need extra guidance on things like how to extinguish a kitchen fire, the book encourages you to visit a special URL on the Dummies site that reminds you to, uh, call 911.)

“I’m a roll-up-your-sleeves-what-are-we-learning-here [kind of cook],” Rama said of writing for the most basic chef. “How can we get people to relax?” The answer? Some easy jokes, goofy illustrations, and an approachable title that doesn’t sugarcoat its mission. Yes, if you’re a dummy, this book is definitely for you. But among my collection of cookbooks, from the specialized to the advanced to the esoteric and verbose, Cooking Basics for Dummies is the only one that doesn’t make me feel like I should know more than I do. And if that makes me a dummy, I’d rather be a dummy who knows how to hone my paring knife before serving a “crowd-pleasing chili” and “oh-so-trendy tiramisu” than a smartie who pretends she can.