When was the last time you sat down and read a good cookbook? I don’t mean when did you last look up a recipe in a cookbook, but when did you last read a cookbook? In all probability, the answer is never. Because the vast majority of cookbooks are simply unreadable. They provide about as much enjoyment and inspiration as does reading an automotive manual.
My friend Francis Fecteau—a certified and self-proclaimed food and wine snob—writes, “I hate cookbooks. Food is about so much more than mere mechanics. A cookbook should remind us first and foremost why we like to eat. Cookbooks should be held to a higher standard—they preach of a higher function, a higher purpose. It’s about more than how-to; it’s about more than self-help.”
I think Fecteau has it right. Cookbooks should be held to a higher standard, if only because they take up residence in the most important room in our house—the kitchen. Recently, I asked a number of chefs, restaurateurs and foodies to tell me which food books live up to their own high standards.
Shelly DeProto, Caffé Molise: Given the fact that we have the possibility of a war hanging over our heads and food trends are changing faster than Versace’s fall line, I’m going for the old standbys like Julia Child’s The Way to Cook and Marcella Hazan’s Marcella Cucina. It’s like hanging around my grandmother’s kitchen again.
Marguerite Henderson, cooking instructor and author of Savor the Memories: Since I have more than 500 cookbooks in my collection, I use many of them as references. Of course, my favorite would be my book, Savor the Memories. But my first book, as with many in my generation, was The Joy of Cooking, which I used religiously in my early years in the kitchen. I learned to make everything from apple pie to vinaigrettes from that book. It’s threadbare and stained, minus a back cover, but it is a staple in my library.
Dianna Goodman, Culinary Program Coordinator, Sur La Table: My favorite book is How to Cook Without a Book. Pam Anderson’s book is not about fancy food by any means, but it’s extremely practical for getting a good meal on the table in a small amount of time with the ingredients you can find in a well-stocked pantry. It made me much more confident about cooking without recipes or following exact ingredients.
Steven Rosenberg, Liberty Heights Fresh:
The Art of Eating is a compilation of M.F.K. Fisher’s titles in a single volume that is perhaps the best “foodie” reading of the 20th century. It is timeless writing about great food and the places and people it comes from, with a sprinkling of equally great recipes throughout.
Barb Hill, Snake Creek Grill: I use so many books for research and I own probably more than l50 books. A few that I seem to like more than others are Perla Meyer’s Art of Seasonal Cooking and Julia Child’s The Way to Cook. I’m very fond of obtaining vintage cookbooks as Snake Creek Grill is all about comfort food. I have one of James Beard’s first books, copyright l949, titled The Fireside Cookbook, purchased at a yard sale in Detroit for 25 cents. It’s a real keeper.
Peter Cole, Squatters: My brother gave me A Book of Middle Eastern Food by Claudia Roden 1977, after living in Abu Dhabi for a few years. The rich story of Middle Eastern food and the role it has played in culinary history is revealed in the 38-page introduction. If the all-powerful culinary gods decreed that I must choose the food of one country or region, and henceforth eat only that food, I would be hard pressed to choose between Spanish, Italian and Middle Eastern. However, I think the nod would go to Middle Eastern, as long as I could accompany my meals with a fresh-brewed beer—a safe bet requirement from any culinary god.
Aaron Ferer, L’Avenue and Tuscany: I love Cooking at Home by Julia Child and Jacques Pepin because there is so much information on each page, and even though they might sometimes differ on the preparation, the recipe is spelled out and made easy to understand and execute. The book has great instructional photographs as well.
Eric DeBonis, Paris: Here are some lines from one of my favorite food books, Honey from a Weed, by Patience Gray:
“In my experience it is the countryman who is the real gourmet and for good reason; it is he who has cultivated, raised hunted or fished the raw materials and has made the wine himself.”
“Once we lose touch with the spendthrift aspect of nature’s provisions epitomized in > > >
the raising of a crop, we are in danger of losing touch with life itself. When Providence supplies the means, the preparation and sharing of food takes on a sacred aspect. The fact that every crop is of short duration promotes a spirit of making the best of it while it lasts and conserving part of it for future use … ”
Karen Olson, Metropolitan: One of my all-time favorites is Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly by Anthony Bourdain. Every time I pick it up, I laugh! It’s a book industry folk laugh out loud at and inevitably have lived some of his same experiences. By the same token, even if you’re not in the restaurant biz, it’s hilarious. It will leave you wondering if the business is really like that?!
Letty Flatt, Executive Pastry Chef, Deer Valley Resort: I have a good collection of food books and they run in two genres: my profession and my passion. Passionately, my favorite cookbook is Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone by Deborah Madison. And in the ’70s, when other foodies were cooking their way through Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking, I was orchestrating dinner parties using Anna Thomas’ Vegetarian Epicure. This passion has been with me for a long time—close to 30 years!
Mikel Trapp, Director of Food & Beverage, Snowbird Resort: Raising triplets and feeding them quality organic foods has been quite a challenge. First Meals by Annabel Carmel has recipes for wonderful, quick, healthy meals for kids from 6 months to 5 years old. And Café Boulud by Daniel Boulud is simplicity at its finest! Quality ingredients and simple preparations—it’s about food that inspires great conversation and wine pairings with friends and family.
Hans Fuegi, The Grub Steak and Slickrock Café: My favorite writer, when it comes to describing food and drink, is Ernest Hemingway. Here a couple of good sentences from A Movable Feast. “I closed up the story in the notebook and put it in my inside pocket and I asked the waiter for a dozen ‘Portugaises’ and a half-carafe of the dry white wine they had there. After writing a story I was always empty and both sad and happy, as though I had made love, and I was sure this was a very good story although I would not know truly how good until I read it over the next day. As I ate the oysters with their strong taste of the sea and their faint metallic taste that the cold wine washed away, leaving only the sea taste and the succulent texture, and as I drank their cold liquid from each shell and washed it down with the crisp taste of the wine, I lost the empty feeling and began to be happy and to make plans.”
Matthew Anderson, Dijon and Absolute!: Recently, I have been reading Babbo by Mario Batali. After reading and cooking from Babbo basically just for fun, I realized just how innovative this guy is. He is all about the traditional and old school ways of preparing Italian cuisine and then, as we all do, adds a trademark presentation or ingredient to take something years old to become hip once again.