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Hungry Magazine - All Things Tasty
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02.02.09

For the Love of Cookbooks

Cookbook Reviews


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My wife and I likely have over 500 cookbooks. They line the bookcase shelves in the kitchen, dining room, and den. Years ago, we had a carpenter build a kitchen–long shelf a foot and a half below the ceiling, and now it’s lined with the balance of 38 + years worth of acquisitions.

We started out with a copy of the Joy of Cooking. It may have been a gift. To the best of my knowledge, neither my mother nor my mother-in-law depended upon it much. Until Julia Child came on the scene most of the home cooking came from memory or recipes scribbled on index cards.

A sojourn from NYC to Yellow Springs, Ohio and Antioch College yielded copies of all the requisite countercultural culinary classics. To this day I remain convinced that the Tassajara Cookbook’s bread recipes could be marketed to numerous national military organizations as weaponry.

Young sophisticates of the day (that being the early 1970‘s when we were not yet acronized but merely referred to as young urban professionals) interested in cooking clipped Craig Claiborne’s NY Times articles. Less focused on classic French cuisine than Ms. Child, he was a culinary explorer, drawing on his southern roots, his affinity for fresh seafood, and considerable travel abroad. As a result, over time, several of his NY Times cookbooks found their way into our collection. The International and Heritage versions were quite popular. We obtained the first and used it until its bonding frayed beyond repair. We passed on the second. His recipe for Coulibiac of Salmon, as cooked by my wife, was the triumph of 1973.

About a year later Time Magazine came out with a world cooking series that matched a basic large, slim narrative volume with a spiral-bound smaller, recipe book. This was the hot item of its time. The series embraced regional American cooking, Middle Eastern, India, Russian, Jewish, Scandinavian, and host of others. If I recall correctly, we never bought a new copy of any of them. Somehow, they were always around garage sales, remainder bins, and library book sales. Suffice it to say, that even if not individually noteworthy, a full collection was a collector’s feat.

When our daughter was born in 1975 friends gave us a copy of James Beard’s classic American Cookery. I think we may have cooked clear through that giant book. Beard was thoroughly immersed in American food, having learned the techniques and cultivated his passion at his mother’s knee. For a man of his size & girth, you’d think butter and cream should be feared. The truth was quite to the contrary, as Beard demanded them, for the integrity of his dishes were at stake.

Julia Child issued a large paperback From Julia Child’s Kitchen that we found ourselves going to more frequently than her classic Mastering the Art of French Cooking. From Julia’s Kitchen gave us some knockout recipes that we still turn to today. A chicken lasagna doesn’t sound like anything to swoon over. On the other hand, if you’re looking for some true comfort food and can’t muster up the enthusiasm needed to swoon over Mac N Cheese, this is your dish. Julia’s chili with green olives is also wonderfully offbeat.

A few years later, my late mother gave us a copy of Paula Wolfert’s classic Couscous and other Good Things from Morocco as a wedding anniversary gift. That book really opened our eyes on new cuisines and gave us a ton of energy to try new cooking techniques.

For their simple, direct, and frankly, inspired look & feel, we loved. The Union Square Cookbook, Patricia Wells’ Bistro Cooking, and Joyce Goldstein’s Back to Square One. A real standout is City Cuisine by Mary Sue Milliken and Susan Feniger, published awhile before their “Two Hot Tamales” run on early Food TV. “City” was one of our first restaurant books. It really gave us a good view of cooking as craft. The recipes are still contemporary….and they work.

We tried to cook the late Michael Field’s recipes. They were elegant and exacting. He was a bit of a prig, but we thought he had something to impart in terms of technique and intuitive food sense.

My favorite book in our collection though is the minimally Italian cookbook from American artist Edward Giobbi, Pleasure of the Good Earth. The author is an inspired cook by virtue of his deep commitment to producing as much of his own food as possible. The book took its inspiration from the fact that Mr. Giobbi lived in rural Connecticut where he was gardener, a meat curer, and a baker, a farmer raising goats, lambs, chickens, rabbits, and other smaller livestock. This book to me at least, has stood the test of time, as Giobbi’s recipes are so evocative of their ingredients’ origins. He was touting local food sources long before the current pack of food evangelists. This was not a sentimental, righteous, “back to the land” missive, but rather food presented as the clear result of man’s work, respect, and satisfaction in producing good food. I come back to this volume for simple pasta dishes. It was the first place I encountered Broccoli Rabe. It’s full of Chagall-like drawings dancing over the pages. Perhaps you’ll take my enthusiasm with a grain of salt, as it’s tough to be objective about Giobbi’s book, as I drank lots of wine every time I cooked with it.

There are some relatively new books that I think may have staying power in our collection long after the cuisine and its author have gone out of style or otherwise moved on. Though many might disagree, I think Jamie Oliver might be one of them, at least in terms of his Italian book. His Jamie at Home frequently makes a visit from the local library. The TV show is charming. The guy loves his food.

Despite their simplistic titles, Mark Bittman’s books should endure almost as well as the NY Times series. Aside from his terminally yuppyish romp through Spain with Mario Batali, Gwyneth Paltrow and that brunette Spanish starlet, Bittman seems like a really down to earth fellow who sees both the elegance and simplicity in food and finds them compatible with one another.

Though I see Mario Batali as a supremely skilled and creative chef, I don’t like any of his cookbooks. They don’t work for me. Simple Italian Food is only simple if you’re lucky enough to have access to the best of literally everything. No one can amass his requisite number of ramps for a casual, quick recipe. Can’t be done. If you navigate deftly, however, there are some wonderfully “simple” preparations. The other books….I have two: Babbo and Molto Mario…but use them infrequently at best. I wouldn’t buy the NASCAR book he wrote no matter how good the recipes might actually be. Can’t stand all the pandering that goes along with NASCAR.

Tragically, the same goes for grilling cookbooks. I once toiled over my Weber with Vince Staten 20 years ago and got great results. I lived the dream, bought a real BBQ smoker with separate firebox, had the tree service cut up a fallen red oak into manageable pieces, and bought a flimsy vinyl mesh baseball cap with a paving company logo on it @ K Mart. But, these the literature is mostly a testosterone fueled smokescreen. And between, Bobby Flay, Steven Raichlen, and the Jamisons, there likely is not a charcoal briquette or wood chip left to burn. I would like a copy of Smokestack Lightning though.

While cookbooks continued to get published, they have not crept their way into our collection as frequently these days. Invariably, my wife seems to find it easier to go over to the computer and search epicurious.com. This is a major bone of contention in our relationship.

That being said, I still love print. So, if any of you out there want to get me a gift, let me make your shopping a bit simpler. Stay away from the “Kindle,” or the Sony e-book machines they sell at the mega bookstores, or, for that matter, any other text storage device. When it comes to recipes, I only turn to my cookbooks. They’ve lived with me for so long I don’t know how to tell them to leave.

3 Comments on "For the Love of Cookbooks"

Danielle

Love your article. I have also been collecting cookbooks for some 20 years and am nearing about 700. I find their presence a comfort some how. The references you have made to the volumes in your collection seem to mimic mine to a tee. I don’t have all 24 in the Time-Life Series yet but I too have never paid more than 2 bucks for any one of them.
I have reluctantly started handing some, not many, of my collection down to my sons who are both working toward culinary careers. Wonder where they got that from? Hmmm.
I have to agree with you whole heartedly concerning Batali’s books. I stupidly purchased the Spain romp and was so pissed I actually returned it. I have never returned a book of any kind let alone a cookbook.
Bittman’s okay but I get a large amount of arrogance wafting from those simple recipes of his but that could just be me.
Thanks for the trip down cook book memory lane! have a great week.



ab

Bittman can be tough to nail down - sometimes I love his recipes and simplicity, other times he butchers a timeless classic with absurd minimalism. He’s somewhat like Cooks Illustrated (who once claimed that chicken stock needn’t include carrots or celery) - often helpful, but never seminal.

I really enjoy the Slow Italian book by Goldstein, fantastic recipes. Soul food!



Laurence

@Danielle: It isn’t just you. Bittman always strikes me as way too pleased with himself.

Meanwhile, our copy of James Beard’s American Cookery has to be the most beaten-up cookbook we own. It should be in every cook’s library. We’ve even given it as a wedding present.



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