“Having it all in one place”: a good enough reason to keep a cookbook?

In the days before I developed a systematic winnowing process for choosing my favorite cookbooks, I often found myself making a familiar argument, as I stood – book in hand – over the discard pile.  “But having all these recipes in one place – that’s got to be worth something, right?”

Usually the cookbook in question leans on a lot of really familiar recipes: meat loaf, roast chicken, tomato-basil-mozzarella salad.  It’s usually nicely produced, with a lot of white space in the design.  There’s probably a pretty nice photograph, and the recipe is accurate as far as it goes.  “I know how to make all of these dishes in my sleep,” I say to myself, “but still…they’re all in the same place!”    I put the cookbook on the shelf, and there it sits, for two years or the next cleanup, at which time the process is repeated.

When I decided on my 7 questions to consider when choosing a cookbook, this was nearly the 8th.  But over time, I’ve come to think of “all in the same place” as a line of last resort for a cookbook–an excuse for me to keep something pretty but completely impractical.

I think a classic example of this dilemma can be found in Martha’s American Food.  Straight-ahead recipes that probably work just fine, beautifully designed, well-illustrated–but nothing new.  Blueberry pancakes, mac and cheese, mashed potatoes, three-bean salad–I ask myself what I can still learn from these recipes, and I come up short.

It’s a credit to these book that the decision is so hard.  Couldn’t I use it as a quick reference at my beach cottage?  I wheedle.  Oh right, I don’t have a beach cottage.  Maybe I could use it when I need to quickly find a reliable recipe for something standard?  But no, I would probably do that by looking on EYB, or if I didn’t have EYB, by searching the internet.

James Peterson’s Vegetables is a nice package, too.  It’s mildly informative, and there’s a couple of simple ways to make each vegetable.  (But I already know a couple of simple ways to make each vegetable!)  Sometimes it’s a matter of a book aiming to be of such general use that it ends up covering only what you can already find on Wikipedia.  Sometimes it’s simply a matter of being too vague, as in Bake Something Great! where the word “something” is the dealbreaker, for me.  I don’t want to bake just “something”.  I want a fudgy brownie with hazelnuts and cacao nibs!  I want to learn better techniques! new ideas!  if I actually look up a roast chicken recipe, I want it to be the best ever because of a secret brining method I don’t know or an ingredient I didn’t think of–something that goes beyond “roast at 400 degrees for one hour”.

But I don’t want to be closed-minded about this.  Have you ever kept a cookbook just because it had everything in the same place?  And did you keep using it again an again, after all?  If it’s a general cookbook that’s stuck by you right through the Information Age, I’m willing to bet it’s a real keeper.

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  • lesorelle  on  May 30, 2012

    Rather than everything in one place, I confess to keeping cookbooks because they have one great recipe. As a case example, I used to have a shelf full of cookbooks by Nouveau Cuisine chefs. Now, the only one that remains is "The Table Beckons" by Alain Senderens, due solely to his recipe for Gratin de Macaroni, better known as Macaroni and Cheese (the cooked macaroni is soaked overnight in heavy cream). The thought that if this recipe is so lusciously divine, there must be others like it tucked in with it!

  • scparks  on  June 13, 2012

    That is one reason I BUY (and keep) a cookbook–that one great recipe! Besides, cookbooks are like friends…hard to UN-invite them to stay. btw the macaroni and cheese sounds wonderful…

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