It is a very good thing, financially speaking, that one can try out cookbooks from the library before taking the plunge and making a purchase. I recently stopped by the Main Library for a meeting with no intention of checking anything out, and I walked out with this:
List price on that stack is $160. (Thanks library card!) Now, under no circumstances would I drop that kind of money without a lot of thought, but cookbooks do nevertheless present a perfect storm of impulse buy risk for me.
Cookbooks, after all, are:
- Aspirational: “There’s no reason I can’t learn to cook like Thomas Keller!”
- Easy to rationalize purchasing from a cost perspective: “If I learn to cook like Thomas Keller, I’ll never have to go out to eat and will save a bundle!”
- Easy to rationalize purchasing from an emotional perspective: “My family and friends will really appreciate my Kelleresque home cooking, and my daughter will visit frequently after she moves out because she’ll miss my cooking so much.”
The fact is, these are all beautiful books and may take a crucial place on someone else’s shelf. But I’m much better off having a three week fling with them.
Consider, for example, Nathalie Dupree and Cynthia Graubart’s gorgeous Mastering the Art of Southern Cooking (Gibbs Smith 2012). Southern cooking is hot right now, and this book in enough to make a Yankee like myself start to think I could start feeding my family like a grandma from Georgia. There’s a nice mix of history, culture, beautiful pictures, and stories. And then, of course the recipes — oyster stew, Coca Cola cake, cornbread, Hoppin’ John, and a whole host of everything from salads to souffles. There’s enough breadth here to justify the “Mastering the Art of…” title that makes it such a tempting volume for cooks of all stripes.
But then, I don’t really eat meat, my wife doesn’t eat fish, my daughter doesn’t eat much of either, so right there we’d be eliminating at least half of the recipes. (Who knew there was so much pork fat in Southern cooking?) And the bulk of the remainder of recipes are baked goods and desserts, and, well, with a family history of hypertension and diabetes, I probably shouldn’t cook too extensively from this volume. But reading it was a great little Southern vacation.
If you can think of cooking styles as having opposites, then you could make a great case for Timothy Ferriss‘ intense style in The Four Hour Chef (New Harvest, 2012) being the antithesis of Dupree and Graubart’s approach to gracious Southern cooking. This latest installment of Ferriss’ “Four Hour” self help series is data-driven, intentional, and chock full of strong opinions about how you should do, well, everything. These strong opinions make for a fun read, and Ferriss does present a sometimes contrarian vision of good cookery. It’s like America’s Test Kitchen on speed. Some of it is pure adventure cooking — there’s a lot of space dedicated to hunting, campfire cooking, travel descriptions, and other culinary experiences outside of most of our everyday lives.
What first appealed to me about this book was Ferriss’ confidence — this is the right way to cook, and here’s why — is what ultimately made me ready to return it after a little while. It’s an understatement to say that Ferriss is a Type A (capital A to be sure), and I’m, well, is there a Type C? I’m pretty passive is what I’m saying. I like to relax while I cook, and I don’t intend to break out the micrometer to make sure I’m grating the cheese finely enough or whatever.
Moosewood Collective cookbooks have been a part of my life for a long time; my mom had one (it might have been the original “The Moosewood Cookbook“) and a number of my favorite comfort foods came from that. The latest, Moosewood Restaurant Favorites (St. Martin’s 2013), is a glossy, souped-up compendium of 250 recipes from the legendary Moosewood Restaurant in Ithica. These books are important to a lot of people, and they preach a simple gospel of low-risk vegetarian cookery. Who’s going to argue with cheese and white carbs?
This book is packed with recipes, which could make it a great contender for purchase for a lot of people. It’s very practical — a lot of the entrees are doable in a half hour or so, and uses ingredients that you can find at a supermarket. The recipes are proven, time tested, and popular veterans from the previous books. I’m having a blast paging through it, but I’d never buy it because it would be like buying a greatest hits album when you already have all of the records. But if you don’t know Moosewood, try this one out!
As my affinity for Moosewood might suggest, I’m not typically drawn to chef cookbooks, at least for a long-term commitment. But they are perhaps my favorite type to check out from the library because they’re typically beautiful, exotic, and so impractical for a fair-to-middling home cook that there’s not even a little temptation to try the recipes. To me, someone like Thomas Keller is pretty much a magician. If you page through one of his books, like Bouchon (Artisan, 2004), which incidentally is supposed to be all about simple bistro-style cooking, it looks easy enough: use fresh herbs, lots of butter, cast iron cookware, the highest quality ingredients you can get, and keep things simple, and you too can have those beautifully rustic dishes captured in soft-focus closeups in the pages of the book.
It is not so! The souffle deflates, the gratin gets gooey, the vegetables are soggy, and meanwhile a pile of pots and pans takes over the sink and the surrounding counter space. I don’t even try anymore. There’s a reason chefs are chefs. I’ll stick with the couple-times-a-decade splurge at a fancy restaurant and, in the intervals between, work up an appetite by looking at chef cookbooks.
So what cookbook does merit a purchase? To tell you the truth, I haven’t bought a cookbook in a long time. I’ve actually been going steady with one cookbook for almost six years now: Mark Bittman‘s How to Cook Everything Vegetarian (Wiley, 2007). And before that came out, I had worked my way through good portion of its yellow predecessor How to Cook Everything (Macmillan, 1998). My real-life cooking ambitions are modest — I want to be a competent cook who can put tasty and healthy food on the table while staying on a budget. And as unsexy as that is, Bittman’s books fit the ticket. There are no photos, only drawings (and even they aren’t very helpful, honestly) showing close-ups of how you should hold a knife, skewer vegetables, strain fresh cheese, etc. The title is obviously a little bit hyperbolic, but this is an encyclopedic cookbook; if you cook your way through this, you’ll have cooked a bunch of food and probably know how to do the things you cook most often by heart.
This is what a well-loved cookbook looks like:
Don’t worry, it’s not a library book.
The relationship I have with this book makes me think of the classic R&B song “Save the Last Dance for Me,” written in 1960 by Doc Pomus and Mort Shuman and recorded most famously by the Drifters. (I contend that Harry Nilsson’s 1974 version, which I was pleasantly surprised to see available for free download ((with library card)) from Freegal, really captured the sadness of the lyrics better than the Drifter’s “cha-cha-cha” rendition, but really I love any version of this song.)
In the song, the narrator watches his or her beau dancing at a party with a number of other partners. From the narrator’s perspective, it’s fine to have a little fun and excitement, as long as the beau comes back for the last dance, the most important one of all. I may go and have little three-week flings with fancy new cookbooks, but that beat up green volume pictured above will always be the number one in my heart.
Here’s a little original adaptation that I imagine Mark Bittman singing to me whenever I check out a new cookbook.
Save Your Glass Pans for Me
Adapted by Dan the Librarian
Sing to the tune of “Save the Last Dance for Me”
You can can,
Any pickles or jam,
You can deglaze your pan,
With any broth you like.
With your hand,
Plate the cheese in a fan,
Try your hand at a flan,
‘Neith the pale moonlight.
But don’t forget who’s sitting at home,
Showing you how to properly shuck peas;
Oh Darling, save your glass pans for me.
Oh I know,
That the sauce is fine,
When you cook with wine,
Go on and make steamed buns.
Learn to blanch and parboil,
Try truffle oil,
But don’t give your apron to anyone.
And don’t forget who’s sitting at home,
With a foolproof method for cooking dried beans;
Oh darling, save your glass pans for me.
I suspect that a lot of you home cooks out there have a similar long-term relationship with a particular tome, and I’d love to hear in comments which book you consider to be your “main squeeze.”
-Dan, who, after 5 years of trying in vain, finally figured out that to sear something, you just leave it alone in the pan for a little longer.