I think everyone who reads this blog on a semi-regular basis knows my feelings in general about homemade, handmade, and getting your hands into things being a big part of my personal philosophy of being superfantastic. I’m in favor, full stop.
But that doesn’t mean I’m a fanatic or that I don’t recognize that there are a lot of lives out there that don’t work the way mine does.
And so it is that I was glad to see a book like Make the Bread, Buy the Butter suddenly become not only a best seller, but a tiny sliver of a cultural phenomenon. There are things that are really, seriously better and usually less expensive when made by hand… and there are things where the hassle hugely outweighs any benefit to the average human being. Having someone come along and quantify which is which is kind of a cool idea.
In general, I think Jennifer Reese does a pretty good job of doing just that.
Note that I said ‘in general.’ After all, Jennifer Reese is one person with amusingly phrased opinions. Your mileage – like mine – may vary. In some cases wildly so.
It’s hard to argue with her assertion that buying eggs is cheaper, easier, and a lot less hassle with neighbors and local urban authorities than raising chickens in a backyard in the city. In fact, I think that could have gone without saying, though I certainly would have missed her colorful descriptions of her experiments in the matter.
On the other hand, her conclusion about chutney is that there’s no point in making or buying it because nobody in the world actually likes chutney. Again, her prose is highly entertaining, but I’ve got a brother with a two-jar a month chutney habit. He’s got a tamarind on his back, and I think he might well enjoy making his own. Reese describes making the Cordon Rose Banana Cake from Rose Levy Beranbaum’s Cake Bible as a frustratingly picky process that resulted in a mediocre cake that nobody could possibly enjoy. That’s the cake I throw together on a dull afternoon when overripe bananas go on desperation sale at my neighborhood grocery because it’s fast, easy, and extremely popular in my crowd. Also, her scones are wildly over-fussy (though I do understand she was trying to replicate an over-fussy scone from Starbucks), and she definitely over-complicates making vanilla extract.
Reese’s method for vanilla? Split the vanilla bean, scrape out the seeds, put bean pod and seeds in small glass bottle, carefully measure the vodka, pour it over the bean and seeds, shake, let sit to do its magic. My father’s method for vanilla? Split the bean not quite in two, put it in the bottle of vodka, allow to ripen.
My other complaint with this book? Endless tiny, wry jabs at weight. Over and over again she talks about how making something too often would result in her becoming hugely fat, which is – it goes without saying, but gets said anyway – a fate worse than the death it will result in with undue rapidity. I have a feeling if I went through the book with a highlighter and marked every anti-fat comment in it, it would begin to look like those scripts back in the day when I got the lead in the school play.
Still, those quibbles aside, this is a highly entertaining book with a lot of great, pithy advice in it. It’s brimful of instructions for making things that most people would never imagine it possible to make at home. Sure, we all know that we can buy pasta makers and that home baked bread is a possibility, even if we never try doing those things for ourselves. But how many of us seriously contemplate that it’s even possible to make our own Worscestershire sauce, let alone whether or not it’s worth the effort? When was the last time you considered making your own yogurt? Curing your own Canadian bacon?
Also, the book is refreshingly free from pseudo-spirituality of the kitchen and humorless political screeds. It’s about the practical, the fun of trying out new things, and the balancing act we all have to pull off everyday between the ideal and the reality of life.
I think Reese’s attitude is best summed up by this quote from the afterword:
“Almost everything is better when homemade. While this may have started off as an opinion (though I’m not sure it did), I would now state it confidently as fact. Almost everything. But not everything. Which makes me inordinately happy. Because I think it’s reassuring that you can walk into a supermarket and buy a bag of potato chips and a tub of rice pudding that are better than you can make at home.”
While I might personally put my rice pudding up against anything found in a tub at a grocery store, there are certainly other things that I find better – and even sometimes more satisfying – to buy than to make. If you’re looking to figure out which is which in your world, I highly recommend taking a good, long look at this book… and then deciding for yourself.