Reading Food : Cookbooks: A Fan's Notes

Grace Kirschenbaum is the publisher of World of Cookbooks, the International Cookbook Newsletter

Cookbook collecting is much more complex than it used to be. But it is also more rewarding and challenging. For one thing, cookbooks are more numerous and more expensive than they've ever been.

Also, today's noteworthy books aren't emanating solely from the old New York inner circle of publishers. On the contrary, they're coming from publishers all across the nation. The field has been blasted wide open!

Obviously, then, whether you collect cookbooks for practical use, for financial investment, for ethnic interest, to build a specialized collection or for pleasure, it is now necessary to be more selective and discriminating than ever before. The following are my own guidelines to the better books: the good and the great.

Great cookbooks are timeless works--unique books of which we say, "Only he--or she--could have written this." They are books that allow us to step across boundaries of time and place and experience the cuisine of another part of the world, or of parts of our own country we may never travel to. They allow us to place ourselves at a point in history other than our own, or to dine with someone who in real life would never invite us to the table.

Good books, on the other hand, are practical; like apparel, we replace them through the years, as styles of food change, new foods and ingredients are introduced, cooking methods change, new appliances change the way we cook, etc.

Here are some keys to selecting better cookbooks:

1) Credibility-- When an author has written an inordinate number of books, don't be impressed--no one turns out masterpieces in a hurry. And when an author is described as having "studied with . . ." a number of famous teachers, that can mean merely having attended workshops. Anyone with the price of admission can do that. On the other hand, when a master selects one of his students to be his assistant, as Pellaprat did with the late Josephine Araldo, that is altogether different, and a book written by someone with such qualifications would clearly say so.

You can tell a lot from a bibliography: Is the author aware of the recent pertinent books? Of older important ones? Of foreign books on the subject? Are there too many books of less importance? In one case, I discovered from studying a bibliography that recipes in a book on a specific cuisine were not collected in that region but were taken from other books; some actually came from restaurants in a different country.

2) Accountability-- The author should state how recipes were collected and over what length of time. If it is an ethnic cookbook, we want to know whether primary or secondary sources were used. An author who goes to live in a small rural Japanese village, far from the cosmopolitan centers, as Lesley Downer did for her book "Japanese Vegetarian Cooking," will not fail to state so. The author who avoids any mention of the recipe-gathering process may, by omission, be more informative than he or she realizes.

3) Originality-- Does the book break new ground? Does it question the way things have always been done and come up with a better way? Until Rose Levy Beranbaum's "The Cake Bible," every cookbook called for baking soda when a cake was made with buttermilk to temper the tangy taste, but she questioned the wisdom of that technique and found that using baking powder instead of baking soda "allows the subtle, delicious tanginess of the buttermilk to come through and results in a cake with a much finer texture."

Three new books this season also have something new to contribute. Michael Roberts' "Fresh From the Freezer" is not merely about cooking with frozen food or about how to freeze food; it shows a new approach to using a freezer in home cooking, with techniques by which certain foods can actually benefit by freezing.

Julie Sahni's "Moghul Microwave" does not just take standard Indian recipes and adapt them to the microwave. She has collected and tested traditional Indian recipes that the microwave oven does better than the conventional oven, or recipes she did not include in her previous books because they required techniques, such as sun drying, that were not practical in home kitchens but can be admirably duplicated with the microwave oven.

Sally Schneider's "The Art of Low-Calorie Cooking" so successfully turns her low-calorie recipes into gourmet food that often the low-calorie versions are better than the originals.

Here are some of my favorites, by category.

1) Ethnic and Regional Books --The best are those by authors steeped in the cuisine, as opposed to those who are outsiders, unfamiliar with home cooking and seasonal specialties, and who have gained their knowledge from cooking schools or as tourists. These authors are often unable to present food in a context of culture, in contrast to books such as "Classic Sicilian Cooking" by Mimmeta LoMonte, which not only has excellent, authentic recipes but makes us know how it must have been to grow up in Sicily.

And "Memories of Gascony" by Pierre Koffman is a look back at life on a small farm in Southwest France before those farms became modernized and mechanized. Koffman takes us through all the seasons of the year. Today he is a chef at his own highly acclaimed restaurant in London, where he cooks meals inspired by the country food he grew up with.

From Patricia Quintana's "Feasts of Mexico," about growing up in a family of gifted cooks in Mexico, we get a clear understanding of how that gift was cherished through the generations.

Among these ethnic Greats, a new author makes an appearance this season. It is Diane Kochilas, whose "The Food and Wine of Greece" goes far beyond other Greek cookbooks--not only in her passion and love for Greece, Greek food and the people of Greece but in superb recipes that are the result of years of collecting.

Ours is an age of political turmoil, with migrations and displacements of entire ethnic groups. Often such events result in extraordinary cookbooks that would never have been written in more tranquil periods. One of these is Najmieh Batmanglij's "Food of Life," now the definitive book on Iranian cooking: not just a recipe collection but a fond introduction to a culture and a fascinating cuisine--customs, folk tales, ceremonies, poetry, sayings and proverbs and excellent recipes. It is interesting to note that the best books on Indian cuisine, such as the works of Julie Sahni, have been done not in India, but in the U.S., England and South Africa.

2) Cross-Cultural Books --These are increasing, another inevitable result of the political unrest and displacement of peoples in our time. This season will see some truly great ones: "We Called It Macaroni" by Nancy Verde Barr is an irrepressibly nostalgic book about growing up in an Italian-American community in Rhode Island. Traditional cooking of Southern Italy meets with American inventiveness and wonderful food results.

Also new and memorable this season is Jennifer Brennan's "Curries and Bugles," a memoir/cookbook about the time of the British Raj and the Anglo-Indian cookery that evolved from that period of English and Indian history, the first book to be published in America on this cross-cultural cuisine.

3) Chefs' Books --The most common complaint about these is that they are unworkable in home kitchens. It is true that restaurant chefs have assistants who can take on some of the preparations in complex recipes. So a chef's book that is no more than recipes--and recipes too difficult for home cooks to attempt--will only end up as a dust collector on the shelf.

But there have been great chefs' books--those that express the personality, culinary philosophy and unique experience of the chef.

"Ma Gastronomie" is about Fernand Point, who was, when he died in 1955, the master chef of the 20th Century. The book not only has his signature recipes such as marjolaine, but also shows him as the extraordinary human being he was. Point drew people to his restaurant not only for his food but for his gregarious, people-loving presence.

George Mardikian, author of "Dinner at Omar Khayyam's," made Californians aware of Armenian food; movie celebrities, politicians, business tycoons and ordinary people flocked to his restaurant. His book, though poorly edited, must be considered a Great chef's book because Mardikian's expansive personality is ever-present.

More recently, there was "My Gastronomy" by Nico Ladenis from England. It is surprising that this book has never been issued in an American edition. This self-taught chef with a multiethnic background--his French-Greek parents raised him in Tanzania, and he lived in Provence before ending up in England--wrested recognition from the critics despite his arrogance and opinionated manner. His recipes are carefully perfected, such as his highly praised chicken liver mousse: "There is extraordinary tension in the kitchen each time an order for it comes in. It has been called the definitive version of a chicken liver mousse," he writes.

Other recent chef's books not to be missed are those by Mark Miller, Janos Wilder, Jasper White and Marco Pierre White. Miller's "Coyote Cafe" with his innovative Southwest recipes has his approach to food set forth, intermingled with folk tales and artwork to set a mood.

4) Single Subject Cookbooks --These can be outstanding sources of information. When a person obsessed with exploring one area of food does it well, he does a great service. "The Book of Soba" by James Udesky is the result of seven years' study of these Japanese buckwheat noodles (he actually apprenticed to soba masters). This is an unusual portrait of Japanese food culture and reveals how soba evolved from a working-class food to the basis for a sophisticated cuisine served to aristocrats.

This fall, a small publisher from Illinois--Glenbridge--will bring out the most complete book on ice creams and frozen desserts ever published in the United States. Gail Damerow's "Ice Cream! The Whole Scoop" is already creating excitement in the ice cream industry and among others who have seen advance copies.

5) Health Books --Books from health professionals are often less interesting and have less-inspired recipes than books written by sufferers themselves. Some of these authors have been so relentless in their search for answers and solutions, they have become more expert than the experts. This is especially true of books for the new 20th-Century illnesses such as candidiasis and celiac sprue (allergy to gluten-bearing grains), books such as "The 'No Gluten' Solution" by Pat Cassady Redjou, "The Gluten Free Gourmet" by Bette Hagman, "Silent Menace" by Dorothy Senerchia and "The Candida Control Cookbook" by Gail Burton.

Remember that some works are so original they defy classification. Such books are Harold McGee's new "The Curious Cook" and his previous "On Food and Cooking." Not cookbooks in themselves, their discussion of basic food principles has inspired many to go beyond previously set boundaries.

Finally, remember that in the future the books of our time will be re-evaluated, and there is a strong likelihood that some unknowns may be granted more status than those who are today considered the leaders. One example is Elizabeth Lea, whose "A Quaker Woman's Cookbook" has been reissued and newly edited by culinary historian William Woys Weaver 145 years after it was published. The editor points out that during Lea's lifetime her book was not recognized for the true compilation of folk cooking it is, while the admired work of the time--"50 Years in a Maryland Kitchen" by her contemporary, Mrs. Benjamin Chew Howard--is now acknowledged to contain much plagiarism.

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