For my entire life, even before I could cook, I’ve collected cookbooks. And while not all great cooks love books (and surely not all great readers like to cook), there is a great intersection between those of us who love to read and those of us who love to cook. The very best cookbooks are instructional, inspirational, and entertaining.
My earliest memories are in the kitchens of my grandmothers’ homes. My maternal grandmother, Pauline McClain Hall, was not a good cook by the time I knew her (I think primarily because she had to cook for a family of six most of her life). As she grew into old age, she was a perfectly adequate cook, but mostly, she was intrigued by the food fads of the late 1960s: she loved Fresca and Tang, and always served Jell-O and canned Spaghetti-Os. And while I loved staying with her, I never learned too much about cooking from her.
One of my big desires is to write a cookbook; I have a small booklet version that’s the beginnings of it. Perhaps I’ll finish it someday. In the meantime, I’m inspired by others who’ve written cookbooks or submitted recipes to cookbook collections. I’m a huge fan of these “club” cookbooks produced by Junior Leagues, church groups, and garden clubs across the country. In my little hometown of Dimmitt, Texas, the hospital auxiliary produced one of my favorites, We Can Cook, Too, which includes a number of recipes for a Texas favorite, HUSBAND PLEASIN’ Ranch Style Beans.
In the 1960s and 1970s, when these beans were still locally produced, the label actually said HUSBAND PLEASIN’. You can see now it says APPETITE PLEASIN’ Ranch Style Beans, but we all know what it used to say. Any self-respecting cook from the High Plains of Texas can make a meal starting with this can of beans: they’re perfectly seasoned pintos in a rich, spicy sauce that is neither sweet nor cloying. They’re a staple of my kitchen.
Other friends have published cookbooks too. Kathy Starr wrote another little gem in my collection, The Soul of Southern Cooking. Kathy is from the Mississippi Delta, as is my husband. Another friend, also from the Delta, Vann Eugene Ham illustrated the cookbook, including his very kind inscription to me, on the occasion of a book-signing Kathy had at the National Archives in 1985.
We’re all so used to the lush photograph that we forget how expensive it used to be to publish a book with four-color photographs. So, to both demonstrate techniques and to brighten the pages, publishers often chose to find an illustrator.
A precious book in my collection is Betty Crocker’s Dinner for Two Cookbook: 491 Recipes and Menus including a “When Company Comes” Section. This book, published in 1960, was a wedding present to my parents. My mother reports that it was a popular gift for newly marrieds of their age. In addition to being a useful cookbook, it offers guidance for the new homemaker: it’s a lifestyle book with recipes thrown in along the way. There are sections on how to buy fresh goods and keep them from spoiling, how to buy for just two, and suggested menus. Dinner for Two has a few color plates, but the very talented Charles Harper primarily illustrated it in black and white. I always loved the drawings in this cookbook and found them so appealing and charming.
Look at the woman here applying lipstick while she’s still in her cooking apron:
And here (below), where the wife is hanging a Happy Anniversary banner to accompany her well-wrapped gift for her husband, all the while still in her apron.
Another lifestyle cookbook also comes from the shelves of my mother, the I Hate To Cook Book. Published in 1960, it was the anti-cookbook, the complete contrast from Dinner for Two. Peg Bracken thought cooking was a waste of good time. And here’s how she begins the book (I swear I heard these words come from my mother’s lips on more than one occasion):
Some women, it is said, like to cook. This book is not for them This book is for those of us who want to fold our big dishwater hands around a dry Martini instead of a wet flounder, come the end of a long day.
Whew! With a start like that, who wants to go further? Is it any wonder that women in the early 1960s were confused about their role in society? Peg Bracken published this book on the eve of the publication of Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique, when women were walking out of the kitchen, into the workforce, and claiming their lives. Some women, that is. Others sat on the sidelines and watched, confused by what they were to do with this new-found freedom. Bracken walked them through with a keen sense of humor mixed with the reality that dinner still had to be put on the table. The book was beloved by rebellious housewives across the nation.
Bracken’s premise was considered heretical: cooking is not joyful, and it should be done as quickly as possible, preferably with ingredients readily available in the cupboard. Its re-release in 2010 found a new audience with people tired of hearing about organic this and local that.
But listen to the amusing things she writes to get you into the recipes:
Speaking of cooking, incidentally, and I believe we were: one of its worst facets is grocery shopping. When you hate to cook, a supermarket is an appalling place. You see so many things that they all blur, and you finally end up with a glazed look and a chop. So, take this cookbook along when you go shopping. Then when you see a can of shrimp, for instance, it might ring a faraway bell, and you can look in your little book to see what we’d do with it, we women who hate to cook. We’d commit: HURRY CURRY.
I grew up thinking that this recipe, Hurry Curry, was authentic Indian food because it was all I ever knew. Canned shrimp, half a TEASPOON of curry powder, sour cream and frozen condensed cream of shrimp soup. Needless to say, I don’t make this for my own family, but it remained the most exotic Indian food my mother ever cooked and my father ever ate.
Contrary to Betty Crocker’s guide to life—Dinner for Two—which contains great advice about being a good hostess, Peg has a strong opinion about guests.
Chapter 6: Company’s Coming or Your Back’s to the Wall
When you hate to cook, you should never accept an invitation to dinner. The reason is plain: Sooner or later, unless you have luckily disgraced yourself at their home, or unless they get transferred to Weehawken, you will have to return the invitation. You know this, of course. You keep reminding yourself. But it is like telling a small boy to turn down a free ticket to the circus.
I’m always game for the circus, or at least a dinner invitation, because I greatly enjoy the “art of hospitality” and love entertaining in our home.
My other grandmother was a wonderful cook and always welcomed company. Marion Ellis Lapins, my paternal grandmother, was a wild woman. Naturally thin, she was a grand cook, an adventurous eater, a woman who loved to be in the kitchen. She had four children and a husband to feed, and she loved to try new things. She was a voracious reader who clipped recipes (until she died) everywhere from the swap column of the Los Angeles Times to Gourmet magazine. And, carefully and neatly, she organized them into binders, creating her own cookbooks. I have stacks of her cookbooks, but two are worth noting.
The first is Volume I of the Gourmet Cookbook, part of a two-volume collection of 10 years of recipes from Gourmet magazine. Much as we miss Gourmet magazine and Ruth Reichl’s wonderful annual compilation books, I think it’s grand to have this one from 1959, carefully annotated by Marion. It’s as good a cookbook as any I have: clear directions, an assumption that the cook knows what he or she is doing, pleasant illustrations, a limited number of color plates, and well-written introductions. Marion didn’t hesitate to make notes in her cookbooks, either, so I have her handwritten annotations: “Al didn’t like this” or “Add more onion.” While the Epicurious website can give us recipes, it is all these personal touches I miss.
The second is Helen Corbitt’s Cookbook. Helen was Julia Child’s chief rival when Julia was beginning her career as a professional cook. Published in 1957 when Corbitt was the director of food services for Neiman-Marcus, it was the most popular cookbook of its time. Businessmen and shoppers alike flocked to the department store’s flagship location in downtown Dallas to eat lunch at the Zodiac Room, which always begins with Helen’s signature Touch of Chicken Consommé served in tiny teacups. Upon her death in 1978, Stanley Marcus called Helen “the Balenciaga of food.” The Duke of Windsor, who’d enjoyed Helen’s food and conversation at a luncheon in Houston, pronounced her dishes “fit for a king!”
My final, favorite cookbook is The Escoffier Cook Book and Guide to the Fine Art of Cookery, by Auguste Escoffier. Escoffier’s achievements can be summed up with one statement from Germany’s Kaiser Wilhelm II when he told Escoffier, “I am the Emperor of Germany, but you are the emperor of chefs.”
I purchased this cookbook, a translation of a 1903 cookbook, as a young bride in 1983 because I thought it was the cookbook to end all cookbooks. It was on my mother’s shelf, but never opened. It was also on Marion’s shelf, and I’m sure she used hers. Its cover is jet black, which conveys the impression of something dramatic.
Interestingly, at the same time, I bought the Joy of Cooking, in its white faux leather cover. Black v. White. Impenetrable v. Accessible. While I’ve never followed one recipe in Escoffier from beginning to end, I still pull out the Joy of Cooking at least once every few months. But we could not have Joy without Escoffier. They are the bookends of textbook cookbooks: one simple, one complex. Both incredibly useful and each is better because of the contrast from the other.
Each recipe in Escoffier is numbered sequentially: the last recipe is #2984, Scallops Pariesienne. Here are the directions:
- Prepare the shells as in #2982. Wash and dry the scallops and braise them gently with white wine and mushroom liquor.
- Border the shells with garnish of Duchess Potatoes (#221) piped on by means of a pastry bag and fluted tube.
- Brush with egg and brown in over before filling. Keep hot.
- Cover bottom of each shell with a teaspoon of white wine sauce (#45) to which a little chopped truffle has been added. Fill shells with prepared scallop, alternating these with slices of cooked mushrooms. Cover with the same white wine sauce and glaze. Serve immediately.
Clearly, Escoffier is not for wimps, or people who like simple directions or simple food. But Escoffier revolutionized the professional kitchen: he simplified the menu, writing the dishes down in the order in which they would be served, and developed the à la carte menu. Escoffier was a pioneer with respect to the education of professional chefs, and this cookbook was their guide. Joy of Cooking was the guide to cooking for the rest of us.
So too with the rest of my favorite cookbooks. Some of the books on the special shelf in my kitchen are inspiring and educational, while others are aspirational and exotic. They range from the simple to the intricate, the antiquated to the modern, handmade to professional. To earn its place, a cookbook must have a history or a personal story that binds it to my family, it must inspire me, and it must feed my creativity. This is the place I go, whether I need a tasty recipe or just a good read.
Photo by Bradley P. Johnson, Creative Commons via Flickr. Post by Laura L. Willis.
“Megan Willome’s The Joy of Poetry is not a long book, but it took me longer to read than I expected, because I kept stopping to savor poems and passages, to make note of books mentioned, and to compare Willome’s journey into poetry to my own. The book is many things. An unpretentious, funny, and poignant memoir. A defense of poetry, a response to literature that has touched her life, and a manual on how to write poetry. It’s also the story of a daughter who loses her mother to cancer. The author links these things into a narrative much like that of a novel. I loved this book. As soon as I finished, I began reading it again.”
—David Lee Garrison, author of Playing Bach in the D. C. Metro