I used to have a large bookcase full, top to bottom, of just my favorite cookbooks (and a few choice cooking magazines). Then we moved into an apartment half the size of our previous house. Guess what. I discovered that even most of my favorites were dispensable in exchange for the good trade in housing. The ones I parted with had to go to good homes, of course, and were a fine cause for bonding with family and friends over food in a new and different way–conversationally rather than via consumption, for a change. Still, there are some things one values above open shelf space, and a few of the ‘basics’ and a few of my personal favorites really did call out for rescue from the give-away goods enough to move with me–to all of my various domestic locations since then.
Cookbooks are far from Legal Documentation to me: I rarely follow any recipe to the letter. But they are instructional all the same, and highly inspirational. Since I depend on them so much for acting as kitchen muses, two things tend to happen–I almost always prefer cookbooks stuffed with vivid pictures as well as the recipes and descriptive tutorials, and I love cookbooks as bedtime reading and coffee-table books even more than as technical guides for my cookery, when they can stir my imagination without my being distracted by my stirring the pot. Still, I have a good number of cookbooks that are more pedagogical than pictorial and rely on them for my factual education whenever I’m in need.
My kitchen operations aren’t generally terribly sloppy, so I don’t tend to have grease marks and mustard stains all over my cookbooks. However, I am such a mad-scientist in their use that recipes not only get tweaked endlessly as I work but instantly forgotten in their current iterations if I don’t write them down, so I do desecrate my cookbooks by writing in them. They’re the only books I can think of that I have ever written in directly, but when I used to jot notes and stuff them into the pages, pretty soon I had a cookbook with a broken spine from my fattening it too much–if the book was really any good.
I’m very fond, when traveling, of finding local cooking magazines as well, because like any good picture book, they’re well enough illustrated so that I can pretty quickly translate what’s being said–okay, the Hungarian and Czech magazines are not so quickly conquered, but I can still suss out what’s going on eventually. And I love getting a taste of either the local traditions or what’s trendy there as opposed to what’s current here. Talk about tasteful souvenirs of my wanderings.
So, what are my favorites? Betty Crocker, that maven of miracles in the kitchen, is an icon of my childhood and so still keeps her place in my heart and home. For truly basic kitchen science, I’m still attached to the Joy of Cooking (Rombauer & Becker), but I like Alton Brown‘s playful yet factual approach to the chemistry and physics of it all, too. I’ve got a superb Swedish compendium (Mat Lexikonet, above) that a friend edited, not just because she’s such a dear but because in spite of having very little illustration it’s a very thorough encyclopedia of the tools, terms, dishes and ingredients commonly used in the Swedish kitchen, including all of the foods adopted and adapted from other cultures that have become part of Sweden’s rich heritage as a result of their delicious wonders. From our times spent in Sweden I have a few other great cookbooks, a couple of them also edited by our friend Birgit, and chose them primarily because while editing she would sometimes prepare the dishes for photo shoots or, better yet, test them on us who were lucky enough to visit during one of those preparatory periods. America’s Test Kitchen is also a fine source of scholarly information, and the organization’s focus on developing recipes through multiple trials and experiments makes them truly a litmus test for quality control; even though I still play with substitutions constantly I know the science behind my choices better.
For specifics that I love, I go back to a very few books regularly. For breads, I couldn’t beat Bernard Clayton‘s old standard that always gave me the right technique and proportions (in baking, of course, this is a far more fussy matter than in many other practices in the kitchen) and I could play with my variations on a theme as long as I knew precisely where and when and how that should work. My other baking go-to has remained the beautiful Country Desserts. Lee Bailey’s attention in it to lushness and depth of flavor is matched so exquisitely by the glorious photography, and frankly, I love that he emphasizes in this a laid-back approach to the dishes’ presentation that is much more in keeping with my fix-it- and-chomp-it-down mode of operation than any of those dainties that may cause me such heart palpitations when others do the decorative work but keep me waiting too long in my panting desire when they’re in my own hands in preparation. Donna Hay‘s photographers always make her cookery look even more desirable than the descriptions can do (and they can do a lot, I find), so hers are cookbooks and magazines I love to peruse for artful ideas any time.
As I do have a deep affection for pigs, living or cooked, and my kind friend Ellen knows it, she presented me with the lyrical Pork & Sons, which though filled with delectable recipes indeed, is even more a gorgeous photo album of and paean to the French farmers, chefs, butchers and eaters who revere the pig in all of its glory. International love of food–that’s half the reason for reading about it as well as eating it. And as a great admirer of the cuisines of many different cultures, I have always enjoyed reading cookbooks as a form of cultural and social and political as well as culinary history and often enjoy a meander through the tasty pages of books of Indian, German, Thai, Jewish, Italian, Japanese, Polish, Spanish or whatever other places and peoples capture my imagination at the moment. Probably one of my other greatest favorites in that realm is to peruse the local Junior League or church or social club’s cookbooks from American small towns and obscure organizations, because they too have such colorful and thought-provoking takes on what makes them who they are. I will always adore the late, lamented Ernest Matthew Mickler‘s classic White Trash Cooking as both a terrific piece of artistry and one of the most truly compassionate and funny documents of rural American cookery and culture ever to come off a press. Heart-stopping foods, perhaps, but well worth the danger for the love and laughter with which they’re garnished.
Maybe my enjoyment of that book and its cousins is really just because I’m a little trashy myself and feel so at home among the people whose crusty, hardscrabble, can-do, make-do good cheer and affections would accept pretty much anybody at the table, so long as I eat what’s put in front of me gratefully and don’t spit on the floor. White Trash is one cookbook I could never bear to write in, come to think of it, so perhaps there is something with a whiff of the sacred about great cookery books. All I know is, they’re close to my heart and so I keep ‘em close to my kitchen too.