This is not placed among critical writings because, as I note below, cookbooks, like other technical manuals, are not primarily literary texts. My intention is to define a profile, a personality from the data presented, just as we sometimes do when browsing the shelves of a new friend. In this it resembles my piece titled “A Library’s Commonplaces and Curiosities” posted for May 2011. Perhaps these both belong among memoirs.
Food is surely one of the chief pleasures of life. On my list of five, food scrambles against the four others that first occur to me for the pride of second place. Though cookbooks  are, in general, non-literary, as their primary goal is not beauty in themselves, but rather the product of food on the table, each has individual stylistic characteristics and some possess considerable charm whether the reader ever brings them to the kitchen counter. Over a lifetime of consulting cookbooks, cooking, and eating, a considerable shelf of volumes that have never seen my library has accumulated in my kitchen. Each represents a particular vision of food; each has its own style, and many have charm. As a whole, the collection resembles without duplicating the patterns of my diet. In the present time, when seeking a desired recipe in isolation on the internet, printing a copy and discarding it after use has become the dominant mode of research for the practical cook, the shelves of books have acquired the additional appeal of endangered artifacts.
Though some of my cookbooks have the graces of style, wit, or originality, and others command interest due to age, exoticism, or the circumstances of their coming to me, all are fully functional. And their value is the more powerful for my generation which grew up with such an exceedingly restricted palate. In her often acerbic 1832 account of her travels, Frances Trollope had conceded that in America “The bread is every where excellent.”  Yet my own cohort, born shortly after World War II, felt Henry Miller knew what he was talking about when he wrote, “You can travel for fifty thousand miles in America without once tasting a piece of good bread.” And I am far from alone in having taken his advice: “Begin today by baking your own bread.” 
In this era of Trader Joe’s in the strip mall and organics in the Shop-rite, it is difficult to imagine how narrow the American food world was a generation or two ago. Living in the suburbs of a great American city, I never tasted pizza before my middle school years. Indeed, I never saw a fresh head of garlic until after college, though now I use it almost every day. I have read that broccoli, now common enough to be the butt of jokes, was all but unknown until after World War II, while today even a supermarket in a boring suburb will offer eight different Caribbean tubers.
During this era, even for the diet of babies, formula outpaced breast-feeding. Its very artificiality seemed to many a recommendation. My father-in-law considered margarine a scientific advance, more modern and thus preferable to butter. As a child I consumed prodigious quantities of powdered milk, but I believe economy, not modernity, was the value in this case. Instant coffee held prestige it now has lost except in remote corners of the globe where, like Spam in Asia, it yet retains a sheen of luxury altogether absent in the American home. We can only be grateful that the susceptible homemaker did not undergo a vogue for powdered eggs during the fifties. It was the age of imaginative gelatin presentations and many casseroles, often compounded with the use of a can of soup and topped with the use of dry onion soup mix. Monosodium glutamate, seasoning salt, and coarse grind black pepper were the principal seasonings favored by connoisseurs.
Admittedly, the US had not yet entered the nadir of their food experience which was to arrive only with the proliferation of fast food chains which replaced the great variety of short order places, many with engaging atmosphere even if they offered indifferent food. Now, of course, any place in the land the McDonald’s customer can pass from hungry to overfull without any actual sensation of eating at all. Those wishing to go beyond A Hundred Recipes for Hamburger during the 1950s might have come upon the works of James Beard, who catered to unfailingly hearty, middlebrow, mainstream (apparently masculine) tastes to remain on best-seller lists with only a gesture now and then toward the French cooking he fondly remembered from his youth.
Even as a suburban child I sought out food experiences beyond the Betty Crocker Cookbook. I began with a leaning toward rebellion that led me to eschew beefsteak simply because it was such an icon, particularly for men, and I had in addition inherent tendencies toward both the gourmet and the gourmand. Welcoming to tastes like Limburger and all the varieties of the piquant, I would order duck blood soup at the Warsawianka and squid at the old Diana’s in Chicago once I was in high school and able to visit these places on my own. Had I ever seen the inside of a French restaurant, I would have made mine sweetbreads even if I hadn’t known what they were. Though aware it was a sin, I relished sheer quantity of food as well. As a child I confess I raided the freezer for ice cream at all hours and repeatedly made myself nearly sick with potato chips. (This is a genuine confession because none of this has changed, though potato chips have been replaced by good bread. Throughout my life I have retained the ability to consume virtually any quantity of popcorn.)
I am today sufficiently experienced in the kitchen that I would feel confident putting together a meal from any pantry with no cookbook. I could make bread, cookies, and galettes de sarrasin without as much as a measuring cup. Yet at the time that I finished college, I had virtually no experience as a cook. Patricia and I cooked from two Chinese cookbooks which, though neither was particularly well-executed or even complete, did provide a basis for simultaneously exotic and inexpensive eating. For when I began experimenting in the kitchen, I was committed to voluntary poverty and driven primarily by a search for the very cheapest sustenance. Patricia and I pioneered the many uses of canned mackerel. We began to seek out recipes that were at once inexpensive and exotic. The fact is, of course, that costly ingredients such as sea bass or Porterhouse steak often invite only the simplest preparation while inexpensive cuts of meat and vegetarian meals often require substantial preparation. Research into cookbooks began.
As a scholar, I would be likely to begin with the so-called Apicius, whose work, sometimes called De Re Coquinaria, is a real cookbook with enough detail to use today, but it is no more than functional, launching right into recipes without a preliminary word. For reading I pick up Athenaeus, where discussions of foodstuffs wander for pages, mixing with all sorts of other civilized discourse. Chapters cover fish, vegetables, and wine, but also perfumes, “worthless philosophers,” “love of boys,” and virtually everything else under the sun. Here, just as in lived experience, the social context of dining sometimes gains prominence over the culinary aspects. It is not a bad notion of paradise, this imaginary congregation of the learned, enjoying their food and drink and each other’s clever and erudite discourse. But I drift -- neither the Latin nor Greek has been a source for my own table.
I have only occasionally used Fannie Farmer’s Boston Cooking School Cookbook which was published in 1896, though my copy dates from 1930 and is supplemented by someone’s handwritten additions, most of them Italian dishes. It includes as well no less than thirty pages of advertisements, including one for Foss’ Vanilla which the reader learns received a medal from the Massachusetts Charitable Mechanic Association and another for a carpet cleaning service that offers moth prevention.
The Boston Cooking School (whose own ad touts their classes “for men and women from sixteen to sixty”) and Farmer’s book mark the era of the origins of the home economics movement and a more scientific vision of cooking. She opens with definitions and statistics: “FOOD is anything which nourishes the body. Thirteen elements enter into the composition of the body: oxygen, 62 1/2%; carbon, 21 1/2%; hydrogen, 10%; nitrogen, 3%; calcium, phosphorus, potassium, sulphur, chlorine, sodium, magnesium, iron, and fluorine the remaining 3%.” The reader may wonder what purpose is served from learning the chemical formulae given for starch and sugar, but it must have seemed quite enlightened and modern, even as it suggested a challenging midterm examination more than an inviting spread.
During my life I have most commonly joined my fellow-countrymen in using America’s most popular cookbook, Irma Rombauer’s Joy of Cooking. Four versions now occupy my shelves – one from 1936 was my mother’s, a 1968 version has been with me since my marriage and two are subsequent revisions. These are not merely archival. Corn dodgers and thumbprint cookies, among other recipes, have lost their place in newer editions and I must seek out the volume in which they can be found. The book’s excellence is somewhat mysterious. Rombauer was far from a professional cook or author. Her own tastes were very Midwestern and middle-of-the-road. Yet she produced a work as comprehensive as could be while maintaining a beguiling if intermittent presence behind the recipes with her wit and anecdotes. Though cookbooks had existed for several hundred years, and Miss Farmer’s had attained impressive sales, most housewives worked without such resources. The Boston School taught cooks as well as matrons, while the Joy of Cooking was resolutely for non-professional domestic use, with a view toward combining general practicality with gracious entertaining.
The author was herself a consumer and the book almost accidental. In 1931 when the author was in her early fifties after the suicide of Mr. Rombauer and the collapse of the family’s fortunes, she collected recipes from personal acquaintances and self-published the volume at a local label printer. Rombauer’s clever comments and digressions, what her original subtitle called “culinary chat,” became fewer with every edition, but the content became considerably more cosmopolitan. Today it includes negi maki, kamut, and pâté maison, but not scalloped potatoes.
Her first commercial edition had a dust-jacket by her daughter Marion (later to assume the duties of revision) depicting St. Martha of Bethany, the one who was “cumbered about much serving” when Christ came calling and Mary sat at Jesus’ feet. On the cookbook cover Martha defeats a dragon, though I am unsure whether the monster represents kitchen drudgery or a messily turned omelet. (Martha is considered by some the patron saint of cooking and with better title to my mind than St. Lawrence whose rights are supported by his comment while being martyred on a gridiron: “Turn me over. I am done on this side.”)
Though the moralistic Sylvester Graham’s whole-grain bread recipe first appeared in The New Hydropathic Cookbook in 1855 and his followers, the Kelloggs, began making their breakfast cereals only fifty years later,  little in an American supermarket could have been called “health food.” Even the stores dedicated to such products seemed to deal mainly in overpriced vitamin supplements for the hypochondriac and the infirm and protein powders for body-builders. It would be years before Chez Panisse demonstrated that organic and healthy ingredients could be compounded into America’s most elegant meals. Yoghurt was completely unavailable most places; until the seventies we used to order yoghurt starter and stone ground whole wheat flour by mail.
As time went on, though health food became a recognized niche and then mainstream, and we did accumulate some books that linger on my shelves. The earliest stratum includes a little hardcover copy of Edna Thompson’s Yoga Cookbook (from Dagobert Runes’ redoubtable Philosophical Library, 1959), an international miscellany. A mass market of sorts had developed by the time The Yogi Cook Book appeared in 1968. Attributed to Yogi Vithaldas (who had taught Yehudi Menuhin) and Susan Roberts, this is primarily a primer on Indian cooking. I retain also Diet for a Small Planet, by the astute food policy analyst Francis Moore Lappé, the Deaf Smith book (sugarless and vegan), and several of Molly Katzen’s volumes. Though I saw it in the homes of many friends for years, I never possessed the book featuring the “macrobiotic” regime of George Ohsawa, who predicted the deaths of Marilyn Monroe and John Kennedy due to their sanpaku eyes. Brown rice and vegetables, though, was the fall-back dish in the late sixties.
Though I regularly produce whole wheat loaves with added flaxseed meal, oatmeal, and whole wheatberries, my goal in bread-baking has regularly been a French-style loaf. My mother, a farm girl, baked bread at home even while working, and I myself have long taken Miller’s advice to make bread at home. Over time, I have tried countless varieties, including maintaining sourdoughs for as much as a few years at a stretch.  Since youth I have used the unimaginative A World of Breads by Dolores Casella, though my favorite recipe from it is not a risen bread but fetayer, the Near Eastern whole wheat turnover stuffed with greens and pine nuts. I recently found in Daniel Leader’s Bread Alone a highly successful method for beginning a sourdough.
In this country, of course, France had been accustomed to pride of place among national cuisines. I have long relished the telling anecdotes and odd data available in Brillat-Savarin’s Physiology of Taste (1825), and my belief remains strong in his signature apothegm “Tell me what you eat, and I will tell you what you are,” but he expected someone to cook for him, and his book has no recipes. His “gastronomical meditations,” however, are unique in the blend of high spirits and utter seriousness with which he approaches the table. His associative essays are not unworthy successors to Montaigne’s. In the piece on fish (chapter VI, section 6) he begins with speculations on the origin of humanity from the sea, then proceeds to an anecdote about Vadius Pollio who fed his slaves to his eels. A few paragraphs later he is calculating the weight of a gross of oysters, a quantity he says was commonly eaten as an appetizer. This introduces his reminiscence of a gentleman who ate nearly four hundred as a prelude to dining. After passing through ancient fish sauces and a number of other topics, he relates the tale of a Turkish sultan who tested the sexual self-control of some dervishes who accepted the rich meat diet he provided while refusing the available “odalisques.” After some time on an equally luxurious diet of fish, however, “the too happy cenobites succumbed . . . most marvelously.” Yet he caps even this amusing story by calling fish “an endless source of meditation and surprise” and reflecting that the flood in Genesis, while a “cataclysm” to the human population must have been “a time of rejoicing, conquest, and festivity for the fishes.” Surely the French jurist would have been welcome at Athenaeus’ table; I know he would be at mine.
Some of the same rambling may be observed in Alan and Jane Davidson’s abridged translation of the Grand Dictionnaire de Cuisine (1873) by Dumas père in spite of the book’s dictionary format. Dumas does provide basic definitions and description, but he often goes on into anecdotes and curiosities. One would hardly guess that the article on onions, for instance, contains an account of a fist-fight between a partisan of French onions against one for the English. Under madeleines one finds not only an recipe but an narrative of a traveler in need of shelter and sustenance who knocked at an isolated country door late at night only to encounter a wild man, naked to the waist, his face smeared with flour who spoke with a “sepulchral” voice. In spite of reservations he enetered and eventually was fed most satisfyingly with madeleines and Bordeaux of the first quality.”
I do have an American version of Escoffier’s Guide Culinaire, but it is primarily a reference book for the haute cuisine hotel menus of over a hundred years ago. It allows the cook to appreciate even more the role of Julia Child in domesticating French food without compromising it. And, of course, I have her two-volume Mastering the Art of French Cooking (1961) as well as three or four of her later works. I have yet to follow one of her recipes with care and to find the end product wanting. Yet her broader cultural influence – she was the opening wedge for good eating in general and “foreign” foods in particular – surely arose from her television series. Cooking instruction may seem unsuited to television unless viewers are taking notes, but her persona found greater expressive scope on WGBH than on the printed page, and her influence has been wholly beneficial.
Elizabeth David’s writing is sufficiently polished for the reader to believe in her judgments. Her recipes, which are often presented is a charmingly casual fashion, rarely fail. She is as good with traditional British dishes as with French and Mediterranean. Though when young she had been presented at court as a debutante, her life turned out to be thoroughly Bohemian, and consistently devoted to exploring the pleasures of the table.
We soon learned that peasant cooks throughout the world had shared our interest in inexpensive ingredients. We discovered how Indian spices can make a tasty meal of anything whatever. In my tattered old Penguin edition of Dharamjit Singh’s Indian Cookery nearly every recipe has a dozen “aromatics.” (Later the actress Madhur Jaffrey produced a number of successful cookbooks, though these are impossibly assimilationist in my opinion.)
My fondness for Fes vu par sa cuisine by the redoubtable Zette Guinaudeau is surely magnified by my partiality for Morocco and for Fes in particular, but the book has much to recommend it even to those who prefer to stay at home and eschew Maghrebi dishes. Mme. Guinaudeau was a pioneer with excellent taste who resided in Fes for over thirty years. Her appreciation for the subtleties of Fassi cooking is of a piece with her skills as a sketcher of scenes of daily life. And, like Alice Toklas, she includes a recipe for majoun, that “mélange fait de drogues et dépices, de hachich et de miel.” My copy is a fascinating object itself, a 1966 reprint by J. E. Laurent of Oudaia and Rabat of their 1958 first edition. An English translation by J. E. Harris was published in 1964 with the title Traditional Moroccan Cooking: Recipes from Fez. I regret that I have not seen her more comprehensive Les Secrets des Cuisine en Terre Marocaine which I understand includes this earlier book.
For Mexican recipes we relied for years on Elisabeth Lambert Ortiz’ The Complete Book of Mexican Cooking. At some point, in a Salvation Army most likely, I picked up a 1955 copy of Josefina Velazquez de Leon’s Mexican Cook Book Devoted to American Homes, which, despite its title was printed in Mexico City. Untrained except by her mother, Velazquez de Leon came to occupy a central place in the recognition of Mexican cooking. A widow whose family’s wealth was lost in the 1910 revolution, she operated a cooking school, founded her own publishing company to put out her book and a long list of others, many with a regional focus. Her volume, directed toward Americans, unfortunately, suffers from the same defect as Ortiz’ – an overemphasis on the corn kitchen much of which might be regarded as antojitos, neglecting the rich variety of other sorts of dishes. I have only consulted from the library the best resource for those curious about other aspects of Mexican food -- Diana Kennedy’s books, The Cuisines of Mexico, The Art of Mexican Cooking, and others. Kennedy brings real delighted appreciation to the broadest range of dishes, though her recipes are sometimes more informative than functional, for instance, when she writes about the kitchen uses of ant eggs. Her emphasis on the offbeat and the wholly authentic is a useful corrective, though, and provides many recipes unavailable elsewhere. (Why is it that the narrow scope of most Mexican cookbooks is even more pronounced in Mexican restaurants? There are so very few presenting regional cuisine or even main dishes without tortillas beyond huevos rancheros and a few treatments of beefsteak.)
Among my other surveys of national cuisine I count Claudia Roden’s A Book of Middle Eastern Food (especially good for use legumes and grains in main dishes), Fiona Dunlop’s Medina Kitchen with its excellent pictures, Food from the Arab World by Marie Khayat and Margaret Chase Keating (published, oddly, in Italy), a delightfully old-fashioned Hungarian Cookery Book by Károly Gundel, The Complete Greek Cookbook by Teresa Yanilos, The Spanish Cookbook by Barbara Norman, Joza Břízová's Czechoslovakian Cookbook (one of an admirable series that translates for English-speakers a wide variety of popular cookbooks), Gretel Beer’s Austrian Cooking and Baking, Monica Bayley’s Black Africa Cook Book, Sky Juice and Flying Fish: Traditional Caribbean Cooking by Jessica B. Harris (source of “blessed bullas,” a most satisfying bread-like cookie), At Home with Japanese Cooking by Elizabeth Andoh , New Cantonese Cooking by Yin-Fei Lo, Susan Anderson’s Indonesian Flavors, and Jenny Grossinger’s Jewish Cooking for unpretentious Ashkenazi dishes.
And then we have as well a collection of single recipes, some handwritten, most on clippings from newspapers and magazine, food coop and daycare newsletters, more and more of course from the internet. Oyster-shucking instructions I have never successfully followed, Jamaican jerk, Chinese moon cakes, cannabis cookies, marrons glacés, the Story of Pecans, natural remedies from the Emma Goldman Clinic, lots of sourdough, carrot ginger soup, How to Make Yoghurt at Home, Sprout Your Own Beans, my mother’s shipwreck stew and kolaches and what she called Mrs. O’Donoghue’s bread, fried sage leaves, cantaloupe ice, sorrel punch, and Ethiopian spice tea.
A meal is like a book in that it embodies a vision. The cooking patterns of an individual are an oeuvre, a body of work that cannot avoid significant patterns. Further, the kitchen usages of a country or a region relay a sense of place, an identity, more effectively than photographs. Through cookbooks the cook may in a sense recreate a culture with immediacy. Varying values emerge not only through religious, aesthetic, and intellectual systems, but also through a prediction for wheat, rice, or cassava, for steaming or sautéing, for rose water, capsicum, tarragon, or the mysterious asafetida. Reading a novel, one consistently measures the author’s vision against one’s own lived experience, but the user of a cookbook can add to the enriching pleasure of temporarily inhabiting the consciousness of another the substantial benefit of a meal on the table, new in some way to one’s palate, with its own rewards. These may be more modest but they are surely also more dependable that those available from volumes of more metaphysical inclination.
1. Cookbook and cook book are both used by equally careful writers. Cook-book or cookery book sound out-of-date or British to Americans.
2. In Domestic Manners of the Americans. She adds, “They rarely enjoy it themselves, as they insist on eating horrible half-baked hot rolls, both morning and evening” which leaves the reader wondering both whether she was speaking of biscuits and, more mysterious, who ate the excellent bread. Mrs. Trollope was certainly not shy about ridiculing Americans, but, then, perhaps, as an Englishwoman, she was not really familiar with good bread.
3. Miller’s comments are from “The Staff of Life” in Remember to Remember.
4. It may seem ironic that American breakfast cereal began as a health food promoted by men who wished to promote a diet that would most effectively suppress sexuality. Since T. Coraghessan Boyle's 1993 comic novel The Road to Wellville and the subsequent movie, their practices, including the use of machines of their own invention which rapidly administered enemas of water and then of yoghurt.
The term “health food” dates only from the twenties.
5. In California I was once given one that was said to date from Gold Rush days. The responsibility of such a legacy kept me going on that one a year and a half. Its antiquity was doubtless a fable, and in my hands it eventually succumbed to neglect.