Favorite cookbooksSeptember 17, 2009 by Susie
Every so often, people ask me “What’s your favorite cookbook?” Usually, I wince. Then I make some kind of smart-alecky answer like, “Oh, that’s like asking which one’s your favorite child? or your favorite music?” These days, I often use a different cookbook every night, improvising and borrowing with abandon. When it comes to cookbooks, I have to say my fidelity leaves something to be desired.
It wasn’t always like this. When I first got the Silver Palate Cookbook , it wasn’t just my favorite cookbook, it was my only cookbook. I clung to it as if it were some kind of culinary liferaft, my only refuge in a desert of expensive takeout. And when, at 21, I received Marcella Hazan’s Essentials of Italian Cooking for Christmas, I cooked from it every night for years, with a mania foreshadowing the era of Julie/Julia. Marcella could be pedantic and opinionated, but for someone who knew nothing in the kitchen, it was comforting to borrow someone else’s strong opinions for a while.
Marcella taught me to pay attention to the look and smell and texture of things, not just to blindly “cook 4 to 6 minutes”. I think our favorite cookbooks open our eyes and senses to a world of secret clues all around us–what it means when a simmering pan starts making that low, brittle cackle that means it’s running out of liquid. What it means when the scent suddenly explodes, like a jack-in-the-box, from the toasting spices. The way that garlic-ginger paste tastes completely different from garlic and ginger alone.
For a person who has everything to learn, knowledge is like a drug. Today, if I don’t shake and tremble in the presence of cookbooks, it’s only because they’ve taught me so much. Yet when I think about it, I realize that I’ve never stopped loving the cookbooks that were my teachers. After Marcella, there was a book called the Food of China (Deh-Ta Hsiung and Nina Simonds), which brought dumplings back into my life. There was Paul Gayler’s Passion for Vegetables, where I learned about Jerusalem artichokes. There was the little-known but wonderful Portuguese Homestyle Cooking by Ana Patuleia Ortins and the folksy, sweet Lee Bros. Southern Cookbook by Matt and Ted Lee. These days I find myself repeatedly turning to 660 Curries by Raghavan Iyer, Roy Finamore’s Tasty, and the Splendid Table’s How to Eat Supper.
I may not let myself call them my favorites, yet there they are–getting stickier and more frayed and loved with every passing week.
When you look at your own cookbooks, can you name a favorite? Or two, or three? Do you love them because they were your friends when you were lonely, or because they were the teachers that taught you the life lessons you needed to know? Did they give you the secret formula that won your spouse’s heart (and stomach)?
One thing I do know for sure is that every cookbook holds the promise of another piece of the puzzle, another mystery solved. Just as there’s always another meal, there’s always something else to learn–and there’s always another reason to celebrate how little we know.
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