Speaking about Cookbooks…

And just when I was wondering what to post about next, I was tagged for TWO memes in the last two days. I’m very excited, because hey, who doesn’t like to be asked to talk about themself?

Today, we’re going to talk about one of my favorite subjects: COOKBOOKS. Michele at Oswego Tea was kind enough to recognize my exhibitionist need to share the dirty details of this very important facet of my life, which shouldn’t really come as any surprise considering I have an entire page of my blog devoted to my collection. If you’ve been reading for a while, you’ve also undoubtedly run across posts referencing some of my more peculiar cookbook-induced behavior. I make no apologies: call me an addict, a junkie, a connoisseur (thanks Nicky!) or a voracious reader – I have far too many cookbooks for my own good and that’s not going to change anytime soon.

1. How many cookbooks do you own?
This is a tricky, tricky question, but I’m not going to waffle and say ‘too many’. On my bookshelf in Edinburgh I currently have 51 87 129 cookbooks, and at least one winging its way to me in the mail as we speak (I seem to always have one in the mail!). I have a sizeable collection in the US as well, but the exact numbers are hard to pin down since often it’s not clear whose cookbooks they actually are – I may not have purchased them but I am undoubtedly the only person to open them in the last 15 years or so, so maybe they count as mine by now! In any case, off the top of my head I can remember about 25 that I bought or received as gifts, so… you do the math. My consumption patterns have increased over the past couple of years, however, as I’ve gotten more settled, and the collection seems to be growing by about 15-20 50 a year (yikes!). So who knows where the madness will end…

2. What was the last cookbook you bought?
eatcaribbean.jpg Last week I splashed out bought a tempting new release called Eat Caribbean by Virginia Burke. As I have a very keen interest in the anthropology of food, and since I love to travel, I’ve been consciously trying to fill in gaps in my world food expertise by buying region- and country-specific books by knowledgeable authors. This one is wonderful, containing recipes from dozens of islands (as well as information on how the same things are reinterpreted from place to place), as well as oodles of beautiful, vibrant photographs shot on location all over the Caribbean. It’ll be on my nightstand for a while!

3. What was the last food book you read?
willwrite.jpg I just ordered and am currently reading the exact book I’d been waiting for someone to write for years: it’s called Will Write for Food, by Diane Jacobs (herself a food writer). It’s basically a writer’s manual for food writers: how to write about food, how to sell your writing, how to make a living from your writing, and glimpses of the path to success many well-known food writers have taken. It’s a very contemporary (interviewed experts include Paula Wolfert, David Leite, Jeffrey Steingarten, Alan Richman, etc.) and honest (she tells you the average food writer’s income is around $32,000 a year) portrayal of a profession that many of us on the food blog circuit may be seriously contemplating. It’s so informative I may write up a proper review post once I finish with it.

4. What are five Cookbooks that hold a special place in your heart?
I froze in fear at the thought of having to answer this one. Would you ask Mozart which of his piano concertos he liked best? Would you ask your mother which of her children she likes best? I know, I know, it’s not exactly the same, but it’s hard anyway. But since you need answers, here I go:

Crazy Water, Pickled Lemons by Diana Henry
crazywater-sm.jpgI’ve been blogging A L O T (!) about this recent purchase of mine, and I honestly must say it’s moved pretty close to the top of my list for more reasons than one. Beautiful food, beautiful writing, beautiful pictures, but more than that, it is exactly the kind of book I would write myself. The food is exotic without being difficult; the recipes are regionally grounded but still free-form in their interpretation; the cooking instructions are knowledgeable but relaxed – she doesn’t seem like she would have any objections to you substituting whatever you could dig up from the bottom of your fridge to create her dishes (and believe me, I have!). And always, the results are pure magic. That’s my kind of cookbook!

Zuni Cafe Cookbook by Judy Rogers
zunicafe.jpgSince this is a tell-all, I’ll confess that I have never actually cooked anything from this book. That’s nothing unusual; many of my books have never been used in the kitchen. What’s different about the Zuni Cafe book is the sheer amount I learned from simply reading it – it’s like a master course in cooking and tasting as well as a collection of recipes. I found myself paying attention to small details after reading this book – whether my fruit was at the perfect stage of ripeness before I used it, whether I had left my sauteeing mushrooms long enough on one side to develop a lovely golden crust, and whether the size of the onion I chopped was exactly right to release its flavor in the amount of time I would be cooking it. Judy Rogers (who is the chef at SF’s Zuni Cafe) is
one of those rare authors who manage to combine decades of acquired wisdom in the ways of food and cooking with an eloquence and grace in her writing style that make you feel as if she were there looking over your shoulder, helping you to create things more masterful than you ever thought possible.

James McNair’s Favorites by James McNair
james.jpgThis one hadn’t even made the shortlist, but when I used the criteria of ‘books most used’, I realized it had to be here. I bought this hefty hardback from the bargain table in Powells Bookstore because, well, it looked like a lot of recipes for a little price. I also knew James from a couple of his single-ingredient cookbooks that my dad mysteriously owns (gifts? giveaways? who knows…), so I knew he has a flair for imaginative recipes. His ‘favorites’ book turned out to be a gem, and has probably become my most trusted multipurpose cookbook. He has recipes for absolutely everything in here, and soon after buying it and testing some of the excellent recipes inside, I started a routine when looking for a particular dish that goes something like this: "Vitello Tonnato? I bet James has a good recipe. Moroccan Bstilla? Let’s go ask James." His Creme Brulee variations and his Fried Chicken Salad have become household institutions. No matter what I’m looking for, he has it and it’s always fantastic.

Glorious Chocolate by Mary Goodbody and the editors of Chocolatier Magazine
This cookbook of mine has a long, dark and twisted history. I became seriously interested in cooking at the age of 12, and not finding fuel for my passion on my parents’ bookshelves, I turned to my local library. I checked out this book one day and became so smitten with it I knew I couldn’t give it back. Luckily for me, we were just about to move out of state, and I knew that even if I took the book and ran, they’d probably never be able to track me down. That’s exactly what I did, removing the dust jacket that had the library’s shelf number, and black marker-ing out the many telltale stamps on the pages inside. I felt like a fugitive, and believe me, I spent sleepless nights imagining myself in prison, but truly, honestly, I have gotten so much pleasure out of this book I can’t say I regret what I did one bit! (I know, I know – I should be ashamed of myself…) It’s true that this book is aging and by now many of the recipes inside are reminders of a slightly different dessert era, but they are fabulous nonetheless and I still cook from this book on a regular basis. Those folks at Chocolatier knew their stuff, even back then.

Anything by Paula Wolfert
PaulaWolfert.jpg I have more books by Paula than by any other single author, and I won’t stop until I have them all. Paula is exactly the kind of author I long to be; ostensibly she travels and collects recipes from around the Mediterranean, but really it’s so much more. She has a knack for finding never-before-heard-of recipes from regions that are awash in culinary literature; she knocks on doors and travels to remote villages to find the one person that makes something in the traditional way, often having no communication possible apart from hand gestures and tummy-patting. She’s a kind of lay culinary anthropologist, I suppose, and her books are fascinating reading on the culinary world of people and communities whose traditional foodways are slowly disappearing. Oh, and her recipes are great too.

5. Which 5 people would you most like to see fill this out in their blog?

In no particular order, the lucky people whose cookbook secrets I most want revealed are:
Bringing a little bit of aloha to the land of pasta, it’s… Rowena of Rubber Slippers in Italy!
On the backroads of America with a TV camera and a black lab, it’s… Heather of Viva Epicurea!
Fellow cookbook connoisseur and specialist in all things German it’s… Nicky of Delicious Days!
Wowing the masses with her astonishing photographic talents it’s… Keiko of Nordljus!
And finally, concocting things in his kitchen most mere mortals could only dream of it’s… Clement of A La Cuisine!

If you haven’t already been tagged for this one, meme away! πŸ˜‰

A sidenote: No one seems to know where this meme originated. Reid at ‘Ono Kine Grindz traced it back as far as he could, only to lose the scent somewhere in cyberspace… So if you know, for goodness’ sake speak up!

8 thoughts on “Speaking about Cookbooks…

  1. Hi Melissa,Interesting list of books you have there. I do read quite a few cookbooks, but don’t really cook from them. I think I get more enjoyment out of looking at the pictures and then being inspired to try some of the techniques rather than the complete recipes.I was kinda bummed that I couldn’t find the originator of the meme. *sigh*

  2. Hi Reid – I know what you mean. I usually get inspired to try a new combination of ingredients or type of preparation and then totally disregard the recipe! Makes it hard to evaluate some of my books, but then again I figure if I learn anything at all from them they were worth the purchase. And I was also curious about where the meme started, but since it seems to have originated in the wider blogging world there’s no telling how far back it goes…

  3. Hi Melissa, nicely done! I cant wait to see your future Caribbean creations. Can I recommend that you try the Zuni chicken with bread salad recipe at least once? it is absolutely fantastic and actually gets easier every time. The 3 pages of instruction are a bit of a turn off but its worth it in the end. I’ve got that cookbook too, and its still in storage but I copied that recipe and took it with me. (and yes I admit, its the only one I ever made from the book) πŸ™‚

  4. Hi Michele – I’ve read that recipe closely, and it’s at the top of ‘what I’ll cook from this book when I get around to cooking from this book’. But maybe I’ll just have to move it from that list to the ‘what I’ll actually get around to cooking soon’ list. Thanks for the recommendation!

  5. Hi Melissa – have you decided what to cook from Eat Caribbean yet? I bought the book back in April, as I’ve been planning to cook a Jamaican meal ever since I started visiting Coyaba (a lovely Jamaican restaurant in Edinburgh that opened just over a year ago). I still can’t make up my mind thou, as there are so many tempting photos and stories and recipes in the book!! Also, Diana Henry’s publishers should pay you for promoting Crazy Water, Pickled Lemons – you’ve done such a good job! I’m really tempted to buy the book now – and it’s all your “fault”!!!

  6. Hi Pille – No, I can’t decide what to make! There is one with a really irresistible name – it’s called ‘Swanky Chicken Rundown’ – which is tempting me for that reason alone. I’m also thinking about trying my hand at authentic ‘jerk’, but the lack of a grill or barbecue is kind of putting me off. I actually have to force myself to not make more recipes from Crazy Water, Pickled Lemons (they all look so good!), because I swore I’d pay more attention to my other neglected cookbooks. And yes, I agree, I should get paid for my cheerleading – or at the very least, they should bankroll my groceries as I recipe-test my way through the entire book! πŸ˜‰

  7. Hi MelissaI am working my way through your archives (and loving loving it!). I found this post and thought I’d mention that the meme originated on the other side of Australia to me – Anthony in Perth at spiceblog started it back in May. Here’s the original link http://spiceblog.blogspot.com/2005/05/cookbooks.htmlNow I have to go read about some of this “peculiar behaviour” you mention. There can’t be someone as mad as me, can there???

  8. Hi Plum – Do I sense a fellow cookbook junkie (ahem, I mean connoisseur)? Welcome to the club! πŸ˜‰ As a matter of fact, Anthony’s meme that you mention is different from this one, though some people have ended up kind of morphing the two together. This started out somewhere in the non-food blogosphere as a ‘book meme’, but obviously what books to food bloggers want to talk about? Cookbooks! Also, Anthony’s was self-tagging, while in theory at least, this was passed on from blogger to blogger. Have you been tagged for it? I’m happy to pass the baton to you if you’re interested (especially seeing as a lot of my taggees have been a little slow on the uptake… πŸ˜‰

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