I recently read an incredible cookbook that reminded me a lot of Strong Towns. Let me explain. This cookbook by Samin Nosrat is called Salt Fat Acid Heat, and it’s unlike any I’ve ever encountered. It’s not so much a cookbook as a cooking theory book.
While most cookbooks are filled with step-by-step recipes telling you to measure out a certain amount of each ingredient, assemble it in a certain way, then bake it at a certain temperature, Salt Fat Acid Heat teaches you about the foundational building blocks of good cooking (listed in the title) and how to think about using them in your own kitchen. For instance, in the first chapter, the author walks you through the chemistry and history of salt in food, discusses different sources of salt (from soy sauce to anchovies to kosher salt), and talks about when, how and where to salt your food.
Nosrat explains that she can’t tell you how much salt to put on a roast chicken, or how much salty parmesan cheese to include in a pasta sauce because she doesn’t know how big your chicken is or how long you’ll simmer your sauce for or what brand of cheese you’re using.
Rather, you must test and taste as you go to see what feels right—or in the case of raw meat that can’t be tasted before it’s cooked, taste it once it’s finished and file away the knowledge of “too much” or “too little” for next time. You may even decide that a different form of salt makes more sense or a different time to add the salt. Soon, Nosrat writes, you’ll know exactly how much salt to put in your pasta water (and your quiche and your meatloaf) every time you cook.
I love cooking, which is why I read books like Nosrat’s in my free time. But to be honest, I’m much more of a recipe cooker. Sure, I’ll whip up a stir fry or an omelet on my own, but anything more complicated and I consult a food blog or cookbook for a recipe. My husband is the opposite. He almost never uses recipes and his chicken soup is the best I’ve ever tasted (to name one of his many specialties).
It’s been a learning curve for me to begin experimenting with cooking sans recipe, yet the recipes have also taught me a lot. For instance, after reading and cooking through dozens of bread recipes over the last year, I’m getting more confident whipping up my own loaves because I understand the foundations. I know that while yeast and water are the essential first ingredients, the amount of yeast and temperature of the water can be tweaked to change the flavor and length of time it takes for the loaf to rise. Having read and cooked with enough basic recipes, I’m less afraid to try variations on those themes.
Salt Fat Acid Heat has, thus, come at a good time for me. It is teaching me extended basics and helping me to understand the science behind them—and how that effects every bite of food you eat.
So why am I writing about a cookbook for Strong Towns? Because I see a similarity here. Strong Towns offers strong citizens a foundational understanding of what works and what tools are available and ideas about how to implement them. We can’t tell you how to design a perfectly safe and economically productive street because we don’t know what your town looks like or what it needs most. But we’ll show you examples of other safe and unsafe streets and share some basic questions to consider. Then we invite you to try out these ideas in your own neighborhood and allow them to inspire completely new ideas too.
Test to find out what works. Repeat the good stuff and toss the bad. By all means, study the code books, talk to the experts and research the best practices, but at the end of the day, knowing whether you need a pinch more of this or a spoonful less of that is something only you and your town can decide.
After reading Salt Fat Acid Heat, I can’t look at a meal or recipe without considering how these four elements are present in it. This past Saturday, we went for Chinese food with my in-laws and I had a whole new appreciation for the way the sour, salty soy sauce dip complemented our warm, rich pork dumplings. As I put together a Greek chicken dish in our slow cooker later that weekend, I took what felt like a risk and loaded it up with salt and acidic lemon juice before starting the cooker. It paid off with a flavorful, balanced result.
Once you start learning about Strong Towns principles, you can’t unsee them. They impact the way you walk down a street, how you read your local news, where you choose to live… You recognize how the basic building blocks of our towns—streets, sidewalks, homes, businesses—shape their destinies and how, just as adding a spoonful of vinegar can drastically change the flavor of a soup, a small tweak like narrowing a road can make your whole neighborhood safer.
If you’d like to get a foundational understanding of Strong Towns, here are some good places to start:
After you've developed an understanding of Strong Towns' basic building blocks, it's time to experiment with them in your community. It's time to take your turn as the chef (along with your neighbors and local leaders) and build your own strong town.
If this sounds like your cup of tea, then it's time to join the Strong Towns movement.