Walk into any used bookstore — or if you can find it, a new bookstore — and you will find an entire aisle devoted to cookbooks. Perhaps there may be more romance novels, if it’s a used paperback store, but in most, cookbooks take up more space than anything else. Of the making of cookbooks, there is no end.
Reading a good cookbook is a pleasure and collecting them is a vice. When I got married, 40 years ago, two collections joined as one. Over the years, many have gone to feed the shelves of used bookstores and now I’m whittled down to the most essential ones. But I still love them all; many I have let go I have since rebought.
But not all cookbooks are of the same ilk. There are four distinct classes of cookbooks and they offer differing rewards.
The first group are the recipe books, and they make up by far the largest class, maybe even 80 percent of the total. Their purpose is to give homemakers directions to the preparation of the standard day-to-day fare of the family table, or to instruct how to make more exotic dishes from exotic cultures. There may be intercalary text, a few stories or some background information, but the heart of such a book is the individual recipe, divided into an ingredients list and a procedure directive.
Among the books we run from the big comprehensive volumes covering everything from soup to roasts and desserts, to the specialty book, such as have Christmas recipes, or baking secrets, or how-to for Chinese food.
And each cook has one of these compendiums as her primary source: either Craig Claiborne’s New York Times Cookbook, the Fannie Farmer Cookbook, the Gold Cookbook, or the Better Homes and Gardens New Cook Book: America’s #1 Cookbook Since 1930.
And most have a collection, too, of smaller books — a McCall’s paperback on pastries or a Southern Living collection of casseroles. Such books, often mere pamphlets, have been produced at least since the end of the 19th century.
I have lived in the South for a good portion of my life, and have come to love, even need, Southern cooking, from barbecue to Brunswick stew, from fried okra to hushpuppies. There have been Southern cookbooks from way back, when it was still OK to use an African-American mammy on the cover. Edna Lewis is a great step upwards. I have owned three editions of Mrs. Dull’s book.
As American food culture expanded, beginning in the 1970s, the range of cookbooks of exotic cuisine expanded. Julia Child taught us French; Joyce Chen taught us Chinese; Madhur Jaffrey brought us India and Diana Kennedy made us long for varieties of chile pepper we had never heard of and never even imagined.
Before then, most cookbooks were good ol’ American family fare, and magazines gave out monthly ideas for how to turn loaf bread, Jell-O packets, a can of soup, and some Shake ’n Bake chicken into a meal fit for a junior assistant vice president in charge of sales.
And from the 1920s through the 1960s, various corporations put out pamphlet-size promotional books with recipes for their products. A Jell-O cookbook; a Diamond Walnut cookbook; a Gold Medal Flour cookbook; a Sunbeam Mixmaster cookbook — hundreds, maybe thousands of them.
For anyone interested in graphic design and typography, these promotional cookbooks are a treasure trove of historical fashion. They popped up first in the years before World War I, became popular again in the 1920s, served the war effort with helpful kitchen shortcuts in the 1940s, and became hip and cartoonish in the 1960s. Each era has its look and seasoned eyes can date one from its cover alone, to an accuracy of less than five years.
A subgenre of the recipe book is the celebrity cookbook. Many of these have a short shelf life, as movie and TV stars come and go.
And television series and movies with sequels spawn similar entries. Want a Star Wars cookbook? There are at least six of them.
A Harry Potter Cookbook? Game of Thrones? Walking Dead? Outlander?
A kind of gender spread from boy-aimed Star Trek to girl-aimed Gilmore Girls, with Doctor Who in the middle, pitched to both.
For Downton Abbey, there are official and unofficial versions.
Every church has, at some point, published a spiral-bound book of the favorite recipes of its parishioners, usually with much use of crushed corn flakes and cream of mushroom soup.
But I’m getting sidetracked. I love my collection of these ephemera, not for their recipes, which I never use, but for their design and typography. They are an unnoticed art gallery. Others find the same in classic cars or vintage clothing, but for me, it’s the changing trends in publishing, and the cheapest source of old book design comes on the cookbook shelves of your favorite used bookstore.
The second class of cookbook is the instructional — those books whose purpose to to show how to bone a chicken or julienne a carrot. The most famous is probably Jacques Pepin’s La Technique and La Methode, with their photographic step-by-step.
Of course, the boundaries of these classes is blurry. Most procedurals also contain recipes, and even the big recipe collections give some help in the basic techniques. But it is a question of emphasis. You can look at Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking as a roster of gourmet recipes, but its greatest virtue is its explication of technique. (And no, I am not forgetting Louisette Bertholle or Simone Beck).
And it is easy to think of the perennial Joy of Cooking as a recipe book, but while I would never consider being without my own copy — which is the single volume I would keep if required to disinvest in all but one cookbook — I never cook from its recipes, but depend on it to consult on how long to cook a pork roast or how to poach a trout. For me, it is my go-to technique book. It has never let me down.
The importance of technique is that once you have learned all the basics, you can abandon all your recipes and begin cooking on your own, with full confidence that you know how.
The third type of cookbook I might call the travel book, the book that explains culture and geography through cuisine. Television has largely taken over this genre. One of the best at this was Anthony Bourdain, although his work was in TV rather than in books (although he wrote his share of them, too).
Amber Hoffman wrote The Food Traveler’s Guide to Emilia Romagna: How to Taste the History and Tradition of Italy. David Lebovitz wrote The Sweet Life in Paris. Yemisi Aribisala wrote Longthroat Memories: Soups, Sex and Nigerian Taste Buds. Fuchsia Dunlop gave us Sharks Fin and Sichuan Pepper: A Sweet-Sour Memoir of Eating in China.
There are also historical books that take us through the history of a single ingredient, such as Mark Kurlansky’s Cod: A Biography of a Fish that Changed the World and his Salt: A World History. Or Beans: A History by Ken Albala.
Kurlansky also translated Emile Zola’s novel about the food markets of 19th Century Paris: The Belly of Paris.
Finally, there are a series of books about the kitchens of famous artists — three Monet alone. Others cover Van Gogh and Matisse.
The fourth class is similar to the third, so that even the line between them is blurred, which is the food memoir and the food essay.
Bourdain had a best seller with his jaundiced look at the backstage antics of restaurants in his Kitchen Confidential. Jacques Pepin is a bit more nostalgic about the hardships of his long culinary training in The Apprentice: My Life in the Kitchen.
Three food writers wander back and forth between memoir and essay: M.F.K. Fisher, Elizabeth David, and Ruth Reichl. Fisher wrote The Art of Eating, David wrote An Omelette and a Glass of Wine, and Reichl published Tender at the Bone: Growing Up at the Table.
I feel I have to mention one of my favorite food writers, Calvin Trillin. Where others are rhapsodic, he is ironic and quirky. His essays were usually published in The New Yorker, and some were collected in three of his books on food — American Fried: Adventures of a Happy Eater; Alice, Let’s Eat: Further Adventures of a Happy Eater; and Third Helpings. The three were later published in a single volume titled The Tummy Trilogy.
The genre was born in 1825 with the publication by Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin of his Physiologie du Goût, or to give it its full title (translated): The Physiology of Taste, or, Meditations on Transcendent Gastronomy; a Theoretical, Historical and Topical Work, Dedicated to the Gastronomes of Paris by a Professor, Member of Several Literary and Scholarly Societies. Brillat-Savarin was a man who liked to eat and what is more to write about what he ate.
He is perhaps most famous for having said: “Tell me what you eat and I will tell you what you are.”
All of these books are a pleasure to leaf through, to look at the pictures, to read the introductions, to read the recipes and imagine their tastes — the way a musician can look at a score and hear the music in her head.
Of the enjoyment of cookbooks, there is no end.
Next: A history of cookbooks
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