Among the year’s must-have holiday gifts, books always get their due.
And for enthusiastic cooks, great cookbooks are bound to top their wish lists, right? I guess it all depends.
Christmases past have brought me such utilitarian classics as “Betty Crocker’s Big Red Cookbook,” trendy celebrity-chef take-offs like Jamie Oliver’s “Jamie at Home” and even the esoteric tome “L’Amateur de Cuisine,” in the original French. The givers’ intentions are commendable, of course. The problem is that I never use these books to the extent they expect.
Sure, I cook. And sometimes I need to consult an authoritative source to ensure success. But more often than not, new cookbooks provide some inspiration for new dishes or new ways of doing things. After the initial read or recipe test-run, I’m unlikely to revisit a cookbook to plan the week’s menus, or even a special-occasion meal.
Yet I am someone who wants a context for the cookbooks, authors and recipes that drive the culinary industry and shape current dialogues around food. For those of my ilk (and anyone with just too many cookbooks), there just so happens to be a source that boils down 125 of the most influential cookbooks of the past 300 years into 320 pages.
Deliciously titled “Cookbook Book,” the new title by Phaidon ($59.95) explores the genre as examples of art, cultural touchstones, life handbooks, flights of fancy, sociological tracts and self-promotion, according to a recent review by the Chicago Tribune. The book is largely made up of pages reproduced from these cookbooks, but it also features pocket histories of highlighted works, revealing a bit about authors, their intent and the context in which works were published.
There are the usual suspects, such as “Mastering the Art of French Cooking” (from 1966) by Julia Child, Louisette Bertholle and Simone Beck; “Joy of Cooking,” (from 1980) by Irma S. Rombauer and Marion Rombauer Becker; “How to Cook Everything” by Mark Bittman.
There are the “ah ha!” books: “The Art of Mexican Cooking” by Diana Kennedy; “The New York Times Cookbook” by Craig Claiborne; “Moosewood Cookbook,” by Mollie Katzen. And then there are quirky relics of the 1960s and early ’70s, including “Les Diners de Gala,” a tribute to his wife by Salvador Dali; 1964’s “First Slice Your Cookbook,” by Lady Arabella Boxer (daughter of the 18th Earl of Moray); and “Singers & Swingers in the Kitchen: The Scene-Makers Cookbook,” a 1967 book by Roberta Ashley.
And those are just the cookbooks published in English. There are cookbooks in Italian, German, Spanish, French and more. Some recipes are in English at the rear of the book in a chapter of recipe translations, although most use metric measurements. But that’s of little consequence for those of us unlikely to actually cook from the book.