The Joy of Cookbooks

And why cooking blogs suck

Photo by Brett Jordan on Unsplash

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As an early adopter of sourcing recipes on the Internet, I’m getting a little (if you’ll excuse the expression) fed up. Now, I’ll admit, there’s something magical about looking at a dish of egg whites leftover from a recipe using only yolks, hitting a few keys on your smartphone, and reaping an abundance of ideas about what to do with them. Questions that would once have involved calling your cooking obsessed friend, or leafing through dozens of cookbooks in your collection and possibly still coming up short, can now be answered in seconds.

Buy ingredients online!

This ridiculously easy access to information is one of the great assets of 21st-century cooking, but it’s not without its dark side. I refer, of course, to the ever-increasing number of overly monetized cooking blogs that recycle the same recipes while employing a minefield of pop-ups hawking everything from equipment and ingredients to adult diapers. “Oh, and please be sure to visit our YouTube channel”!

In any event, encountering the annoyances of the online recipe industry has made me nostalgic for the days when it didn’t exist. Oh, sure there were TV cooking shows and most of those TV chefs published at least one cookbook, but those shows were on PBS, hence, no commercials. (Well, maybe a pledge drive now and then.)

Fanny and Betty and Julia and James

My earliest exposure to cookbooks was back in the dark ages when the Internet was just a gleam in the eyes of Cerf and Kahn. My mother, who didn’t really cook until much later in life, owned a copy of Fanny Merritt Farmer’s revolutionary The Boston Cooking School Cookbook which, she most likely received as a wedding present. As my sisters and I grew, we acquired another classic, Betty Crocker’s Cookbook for Boys and Girls, a spiral-bound, heavily-illustrated marvel that still enchants readers today. Next on the shelf was Marian Burros and Lois Levine’s The Elegant But Easy Cookbook that finally inspired my fifty-something mother to roll up her sleeves and start entertaining.

I soon graduated to James Beard’s The New James Beard and began to see cookbooks differently, because the best cookbooks are not just a collection of recipes. They invite you into the mind of the chef. They include practical information about measurements, technique, witty prose and even philosophy.

To cook with giants

Why use a cookbook when you can get recipes online? Because a cookbook frees you from being bombarded with advertising, links to ingredients and equipment on Amazon, and banal banter that we’ve all heard before. A cookbook invites you to walk with giants. The classics among cookbooks are written with passion and style. They elevate the experience and are worth reading even if you never intend to cook a thing. Here are some choice examples:

“Just like becoming an expert in wine–you learn by drinking it, the best you can afford–you learn about great food by finding the best there is, whether simple or luxurious. Then you savor it, analyze it, and discuss it with your companions, and you compare it with other experiences.”
Julia Child, Mastering the Art of French Cooking (1961)

“Grilling, broiling, barbecuing — whatever you want to call it — is an art, not just a matter of building a pyre and throwing on a piece of meat as a sacrifice to the gods of the stomach.”

James Beard, Beard on Food (1974)

“Ham held the same rating as the basic black dress. If you had a ham in the meat house, any situation could be faced.”
Edna Lewis, The Taste of Country Cooking (1976)

“You’re buying ‘White Heat’ because you want to cook well? Because you want to cook Michelin stars? Forget it. Save your money. Go and buy a saucepan.”

— Marco Pierre White, White Heat (1990)

So, here’s a suggestion. Go to a library (yes, they still exist) or a well-stocked, used bookstore and thumb through a few cookbooks. You’ll find some clunkers, of course, but the library is most likely to stock the classics. Pick one that looks interesting and read the introduction. If it’s one of the ones mentioned above, you may find yourself sitting there all afternoon.

Old cookbooks connect you to your past and explain the history of the world.— Jose Andres

© 2020, Denise Shelton. All rights reserved.

Poet, scribbler, actor, and all around great gal. Available for freelance assignments. Visit me at denisesheltonwrites.com.

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