Books about Abraham Lincoln, dogs and medicine were immensely popular years ago, so there was a publishing industry joke that the bestseller of all would be titled "Lincoln's Doctor's Dog."
In recent years, some publishing house might well have considered something titled "100 Quick and Easy Low-Fat, Low-Cal Tuscan Chicken Breast Dishes." (Maybe one did.)
I am grateful that, when I signed a contract back in 1984 to write a book about the food of the Catalan regions of Spain and France, I wasn't asked to make the recipes quick and easy or inauthentically low in olive oil and lard. Still, I was required to include at least 200 recipes.
"You've got to have a lot of recipes," my editor told me. "That's how people buy cookbooks. If your book only has 150 of them and the next one on the shelf has 175, they'll buy the other one, even if it's about some other kind of food."
As a novice in the cookbook-writing game, I had no reason to question my editor's wisdom. And I did not demur when she asked me to cut my 5,000- or 6,000-word chapter on Catalan wines to almost nothing on the grounds that, as she put it, "People who buy cookbooks aren't interested in wine." The book ended up with a three-page list of wine names and 220 recipes. (Take that, cookbook buyers!)
My new book, which I conceived as a sort of companion volume to "Catalan Cuisine," includes about 20 pages on the wines of Nice as well as the neighboring Italian region of Liguria and, though it's roughly twice as long, it has fewer than 150 recipes.
I consider this progress of a sort (though whether this progress reflects more favorably on the publishing industry or my reputation, I'm not sure) and I'm glad about the wine coverage. But I sort of wish "Flavors of the Riviera" didn't have any recipes at all.
I operate on the assumption that food is just about the most fascinating subject in the world. More than any other human motive force with the possible exception of sex--with which it is often linked, metaphorically as well as physically--our universal hunger for both sustenance and the elaboration of sustenance (for, as it were, both the goodness of grain and the frosting on the cake) has propelled and directed us as a race.
Food, directly or indirectly, has led us individually or communally to great endeavor and shameful debasement alike. It has spurred explorations, launched wars, inspired genocide and the slave trade, fed religion and invention and art. Salt and pepper have built empires and destroyed them; codfish has affected the course of human history more than gold.
These are not matters commonly treated by cookbooks, nor should they be. Few cookbook authors are scholars--I'm certainly not one--and any attempts we might make to weave serious historical or anthropological analysis into our work would probably produce little more than pseudo-academic blather dressed in olive oil and vinegar.
On the other hand, it seems to me that there is something naive about food writing that doesn't acknowledge life outside the kitchen walls. Food is created by real people in real places, and those people affect, vitally and directly, what and how and why they cook. I'm convinced that knowing at least a little about the context of food not only increases our appreciation for dishes when we taste them but makes it easier for us to cook them well.
The vast majority of cookbooks, unfortunately, treat dishes in a vacuum, as if all we need to know is how many teaspoons of sugar or ounces of sea bass to use.
When they try to flesh out their pages with little observations or anecdotes, these are often fluff of the "let me tell you a funny story about the first time I tried sushi" variety or are just plain wrong. (One best-selling cookbook not long ago informed the world with a straight face that the word "macaroni" derived from the Italian expression "Ma, carone," supposedly meaning, "But it's very expensive," which is so far off base linguistically, historically and economically it's beyond laughable.)
In general, though, cookbooks are collections of recipes, pure and simple. And although recipe collections are obviously of wide interest, they aren't really about food, any more than home renovation manuals are about architecture. Attach brace loosely to side of No. 3 panel with 2 (3/8-inch) bolts. Cook 1/2 cup minced onion in 2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil until soft. Without context, a recipe is a how-to diagram--and one, incidentally, that is designed for a skill that is a good deal more ambiguous and instinctual than simply assembling structural elements.
Of course, ancient cookery manuscripts and the earliest published cookbooks were strictly utilitarian. They were manuals or textbooks, designed (at least until the late 19th century) not for householders but for their servants and charged with passing on basic techniques of dressing, roasting and carving birds and animals; choosing and preparing (and sometimes cultivating) fruits and vegetables; combining herbs and spices. Notes on table settings, table manners and the economics of running a kitchen were often included.
They didn't need to provide cultural or historical context for recipes. The people who were using them were either a part of the tradition from which the manuals sprang or were virtual automatons whose job was to do what they were told without considering the underpinnings or broader implications.
Certain "foreign" recipes did appear in early cookbooks, of course. (In studying the Catalan and Riviera cookery traditions, I learned that the first published recipe described as Genoese, a kind of dried fruit torte, happened to appear in a 1520 Catalan-language book, "El Llibre del Coch.") But these "imported" recipes almost always used ingredients and methods familiar to the reader and were usually little more than minor variations on local themes. Parisian cooks of the 16th century might have had access to the odd Italian recipe, but they weren't learning how to cook Mexican or Chinese.
And the people for whom the earliest cookbooks were designed were cooks, by profession or by necessity--people already skilled in the basic culinary arts, who prepared food every day because they had to, not bumbling novices who needed to be coaxed into the kitchen with clever titles, glossy illustrations and hand-holding step-by-step instructions.
For that reason, specific cooking instructions were included only if they varied significantly from what a reasonable cook might expect, and exact quantities (even general quantitative guidelines) were rarely given. If a recipe began, "Take your guinea fowl," it was assumed you'd know how many birds you needed to feed the people you had to feed. And nobody ever wrote, "Season to taste," because how else would you season anything?
Even today, European cookbooks are notoriously "sloppy" by American standards. Ingredients are often listed out of order. And the lists are often incomplete, with some items not mentioned until midway through the cooking instructions (at which point they might be referred to almost as an afterthought, as if they are so obviously a part of the dish in question that the author just assumes you have them on hand).
If quantities are given at all, they are usually sketchy, sometimes metaphorical; some Italian recipes, for instance, measure liquid by the tazza da caffe latte (a cup that you'd use for coffee with milk), rice or grated cheese by the pugno (handful) and butter by the uovo or noce (egg or walnut, respectively). Oven temperatures tend to be given as "slow," 'medium" or "hot" . . . period. And yet, somehow, despite all these obvious disadvantages, a lot of ordinary Europeans seem to be able to cook pretty darned well.
So do a lot of ordinary Americans, of course. We've got plenty of natural, instinctual cooks of our own, and the best of them are probably some of the best home cooks in the world, because they're so open to new ideas and flavors.
But all too many of us, I'm afraid, are slaves to recipes. We buy books full of them, we demand precision from them and we demand results. Nothing is worse to cookbook buyers than recipes that "don't work." (It is always the recipe's fault.)
With almost touching faith, we seem to believe that there's a right way to do everything in cooking and that if we follow well-organized, well-written culinary formulas with absolute fidelity, we will become good cooks. This, it seems to me, is a bit like saying that if you keep the colors within the lines in your coloring book, you'll be a great painter.
But some of the best and most influential food books of our time aren't cookbooks at all.
M.F.K. Fisher, Waverley Root, A.J. Liebling, Joseph Wechsberg (whose classic work on matters culinary is "Blue Trout and Black Truffles") and Ludwig Bemelmans (who wrote much about both food and restaurants in addition to his Madeline stories and extensive other prose) went at food through the life around it and were usually to be found peeking into--not out of--the kitchen. They wrote about the people who made and ate the food, about the triumphs and disappointments a meal could inspire, about the poignant resonance of flavor.
Fisher did offer recipes, sometimes quite a lot of them, in her books (although she gave them titles that would give any cookbook editor indigestion today: "How to Cook a Wolf," "Consider the Oyster," "The Gastronomical Me"). But they were common-sensical, rather than quasi-scientific, and they were surrounded by scores of pages of colorful, evocative, sometimes almost uncomfortably intimate prose.
Liebling, Wechsberg and Bemelmans rarely, if ever, published a recipe, and they approached their subject with humor and a ravenous appetite for irony as well as for real victuals (and plenty of them, please).
I doubt that Root's classics "The Food of France" and "The Food of Italy"--still rich veins of information despite some obvious misinterpretations--would find a publisher today.
Root was a kind of encyclopedist, a collector, a constructor of anecdotes, more diner than cook, more audience than artist.
He roamed the vast and varied culinary worlds of Italy and France, seemingly tasting everything, listening to every theory and tale and recounting everything he learned with considerable charm and a certain cockeyed logic. And he ended up immersing us thoroughly and deliciously in Europe's two greatest cuisines.
But he didn't give a single recipe. Instead, to the top of the Index of Foods and Dishes in each volume, he affixed the following notation: "This is not a cookbook; but a good natural cook may be able to reproduce some of the dishes here named, even though exact proportions and cooking techniques are not ordinarily given. The creations described in sufficient detail to make this possible are marked below with an asterisk."
This acknowledges a basic culinary truth: A good cook doesn't really need recipes.
Telling people how a dish is made is not the same as telling them how to make it. The former is a service to the food-loving reader; the latter is often a fool's errand.
In "Stand Facing the Stove" (Henry Holt & Co., $35), her splendid new history of "The Joy of Cooking" (a whole long book about a cookbook), Anne Mendelson compares two American recipes for pan-broiled oysters published in 1896. The first appeared in a string-tied compilation put out by the ladies of the Lafayette Park Presbyterian congregation in St. Louis to raise money for rebuilding their tornado-damaged church. Mrs. Wherritt's recipe is a single long sentence broken by semi-colons, with no quantities or cooking times given. But, as Mendelson points out, "anyone who knows how to cook can see the whole thing in a flash from her few words."
The other recipe, from the first edition of Fannie Merritt Farmer's "Boston Cooking-School Cook Book," begins with a modern-looking, if brief, ingredient list (quantities included), then gives very specific step-by-step instructions for execution of the dish. "Even today," observes Mendelson, "writers of culinary advice tend to hail the Farmer method as a self-evident improvement over the approach of a Mrs. Wherritt. In truth, it is an improvement only in a society where cookbooks are replacing cooking."
I've written three books that contain recipes (composed in a style closer to Farmer's than to Wherritt's, I admit), and I guess you can call them cookbooks if you want to. But if you really love food and understand at least something about how to prepare it, I guarantee you that you'll get more out of the prose than you will out of the recipes. And I would be very happy if my next book about food, whatever that might be, contained no recipes at all.
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Many of the great food writers of the past are still available in fine paperback reprint editions. Here are some that are still in print.
Ludwig Bemelmans: "La Bonne Table" (David R. Godine, 1989); "Hotel Splendide" (Aeonian, 1995).
A.J. Liebling: "Between Meals" (Random House, 1995).
Waverley Root: "The Food of France" (Random House, 1992); "The Food of Italy" (Random House, 1992).
M.F.K. Fisher: "An Alphabet for Gourmets" (North Point Press, 1990); "The Gastronomical Me" (North Point Press, 1989); "Serve It Forth" (North Point Press, 1989); "Consider the Oyster" (North Point Press, 1988); "How To Cook a Wolf" (North Point Press, 1988); "Here Let Us Feast" (North Point Press, 1986); "With Bold Knife and Fork" (Perigree, 1979). "The Art of Eating" [collecting "Serve It Forth," "Consider the Oyster," "How To Cook a Wolf," "The Gastronomical Me" and "An Alphabet for Gourmets"] (Macmillan, 1990).
Joseph Wechsberg: "Blue Trout and Black Truffles" (Academy Chicago, 1985).