To those of you who collect cookbooks—you know who you are, and, let me assure you, you are not alone. When TV cooking shows began popping out all over the tube I had an uneasy feeling that the printed cookbook page was headed for oblivion. But I’ve been reading that printed cookbooks are still very much alive—more so than ever. It seems that some people feel as though having at least a few cookbooks at hand, along with maybe some cast iron and a crock of wooden spoons (preferably with some marks of usage), is comforting. Heaven knows we all need some comforting these days. And what’s great is that some of the more recent books aren’t just page after page of text and numbers. I also think of them as art books. Those ravishing food photos, colorful typography and layout, and pages of elegant idea-filled table settings: a feast for the eyes prior to the one for the palate.
When you think of it—and I do—many cookbooks today are more than merely a listing of one recipe after the other, perhaps grouped by when they are served or by their presenting ingredients. In the old days, you might get a skimpy paragraph under the title of a dish. Surely the writer knows more about how the dish was developed, by whom, who “et” it, and how easy or difficult it is to prepare. And when writers leave out at least an estimate of how many the dish serves, I get perturbed, to say the least. We called those the “headnotes.” Today, many cookbooks have been expanded to add an idea of the personality of the writer or recipe developer; these can include intriguing stories of where and how the recipe fit into the cuisine and maybe how it evolved. To me, that makes the whole business even more tempting. We want to make and taste the dish. So, the book can be classified as both an art and a history book. See what you can get when you invest in the right cookbook?
How Do You Find the “Right” Cookbook?
I know that once I find a tome that mirrors my feelings about food, you won’t see me for a while. I’ll be reading and making a list of what I plan to cook. Finding just the right, useful cookbook is a little like looking for love. You might read about a new book in a food magazine or a newspaper article, or learn about one from a fellow foodie. Over the years I’ve spent many hours in the cookbook department of bookstores here and while on vacation, thumbing and flipping through their selections. But bookstores (obviously) can’t stock everything, and I fret over what I’m missing.
Have I got a solution! I found a Web site—essentially provided by bloggers—that has all sorts of information food mavens (you and me) can use. This site roams all over the place, but it will reward you if you search diligently. It’s called Eat Your Books (www.eatyourbooks.com) and you’ll be amazed at what it covers. Amongst lots of other things (food trivia, personalities, chefs, etc.), it has information about cooking in English-speaking areas of the world. By far the most useful information for cookbook collectors is the list of new books. It seems most complete, and the best part is, each listing has a capsule review of the book and a good idea of the topics between its covers.
If you need a recipe, browse among the 3,200 I’m assured they have on file (someone figured out that’s the equivalent of sixty-five books.). Just provide an idea of a main ingredient and, like magic, you’re in business. Or dive in and make your own discoveries. They are available at no charge.
I have a friend whose house is just crammed with wonderful “stuff,” and we’ve talked a lot about collecting. According to her, you can have a single—or maybe two—examples of a “thing,” but when the number rises to three of four, well, you’ve got a collection. And you might just start adding to your modest grouping. Before you know it you need a bigger room, multiple shelves—all of that. Well-meaning friends, desperate to find something that will please you, will gift you with one or more on holidays and birthdays. They’ll even bring them to dinners that you throw. So you can’t really say “no.”
I’ve Made a Little List
With that list of books, I made my own list of “must (at least) see” books. I can decide to purchase them based on that. I thought you might like a peek.
Someone must have whispered into Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s ear because, though his previous books have been interesting, they have not been for the fledging cook. In his new book, also named after his restaurant, River Cottage Easy, almost all the recipes have just three ingredients and no dairy or wheat. He produces food that is “sweet, salty, crunchy,” “sharp, rich, crumbly,” and “hot, bland, crisp.” I’m looking forward to seeing how he pulls this off. And I’m also anxious to read a single subject book on probably my favorite food—avocados. And for something completely different, I’m waiting for Deborah Madison’s new book. She has several, all excellent. She’s known as the queen of vegetarian, by the way.
Other authors, cookbooks, and cooking methods in my queue include Annabel Langheim, the star of thirty-five cookery books in New Zealand and a TV personality there and now here. She has, yes, another book due. I am amazed at how she measures dry ingredients with an English-looking teacup. I admire Melissa Clark’s work in the New York Times and now we have a book from her called Changing the Game. Can’t wait to see how she plays off the title. I like the idea of serving food in an artful arrangement on a board or platter, and I understand a new book is due out to help with that.
And I’ll close with my favorite cookbook title of the year (so far). It’s called The Really Quite Good British Cookbook and it is filled with contributions from England’s best chefs and cooks, Jamie Oliver included. Talley ho into the kitchen.