An Eclectic List of Classic Cookbooks

By Sharon Kebschull Barrett
Good grief, it’s December already?
I’m always looking longingly toward winter, ready to be done with sticky summers. But as soon as December hits, I want to put the brakes on.
Especially with children, the month flies by. There’s never enough time to prepare all our special foods for Christmas and then, a few days later, make all our beach food for the trip my family’s been making over New Year’s every year since I was 10.
With all that cooking, who has time to shop?

If this sounds familiar, this column is for you. I suppose I could do a standard “what’s new in cookbooks” gift column, but frankly, I haven’t been very inspired by what’s new this year. I rarely find chefs’ book appealing (I want books I will actually use), and any decade in which an author finds bookselling success preaching the “semi-homemade” joys of Velveeta sends me running back to my old favorites — an eclectic collection, to say the least.
For new cooks, the 1997 revision of Joy of Cooking will always be a natural gift. But it’s useful even for accomplished cooks who still need basic formulas; I turn to this fairly often for dinner-dish proportions that don’t come automatically to me. For other basic cooking, I turn most often to Julia Child’s The Way to Cook (my 4-year-old loves her cranberry relish), a big but unintimidating book.
For the omnivore in your life, give a boxed set of The Complete Meat Cookbook, great especially for indoor meat cooking; the straightforward, unfussy Weber’s Big Book of Grilling; and Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone, by Deborah Madison (a disclaimer here — she wrote a blurb for my cookbooks, but I was a big fan before that).
Miami Spice still appeals years after I bought it while in cooking school in New York; it’s worth the price just for the peanut soup, a more complex, flavorful mixture than most Southern peanut soup recipes. It’s our standard lunch dish before a big Thanksgiving dinner.
Then let’s get a little less high-falutin’. I admit to loving Crazy for Casseroles; I’m always glad to have a comforting casserole after a tough week, and especially thrilled to pull one from the freezer. And as a good Lutheran, I know the worth of a solid potluck dish.
Northern friends haven’t yet learned how to say y’all convincingly? Buy them John Egerton’s Southern Food and Side Orders for some pointers; both are fine to cook from, but even better as bedtime reading (especially if you like midnight snacks, as they’ll make your stomach growl).
For some more inviting prose along with fine recipes, I periodically re-read Home Cooking and More Home Cooking, collections of Laurie Colwin’s essays. Eleven years after Colwin’s death, I still miss her distinctive style appearing each month in Gourmet magazine. In both her novels and food writing, Colwin’s sweetly witty, opinionated and passionate voice will sweep you along until you realize you’ve consumed an entire book in one sitting.
Nigella Lawson’s breezy writing, in such books as Forever Summer, might bring the culinary equivalent of a green thumb to a bumbling cook. Her relaxed style, with a real gift for turning a phrase, will inspire confidence — but look out. For truly novice cooks, some of her instructions may be too vague. Then again, one of the less-appealing aspects of recipes today is their lock-step, formulaic style; figuring out how to cook without rigid instructions may be far more useful in the long run.
For baking, a great basic book comes from the bakers at King Arthur’s flour, the King Arthur Flour 200th Anniversary Cookbook. And The Perfect Cake (previously published as A Piece of Cake), by Susan Purdy, must be one of my most-used basic baking books. I’ve written about her book before; it strikes me as one of the most pleasant cake books to use, with just the right amount of detail. (She doesn’t go on for pages with a simple recipe as some authors do — Maida Heatter comes to mind, and for that reason her recipes drive me crazy — and yet, they work and generally taste wonderful). For example, Purdy lists ingredients by weight as well as volume (that is, cups and tablespoons); while it’s always preferable to weigh your ingredients when baking, you don’t get the sense that she will be crushed if you stick to your measuring spoons. That’s just the attitude I search out.
Having said that, there is one book on my shelf that completely contradicts it. I almost never cook from the Zuni Cafe Cookbook (sorry, but I’m unlikely at this point in my life to seek out a 15-pound pig’s head for a pork stock), partly because I find its level of detail for something as basic as a hamburger a bit daunting. But I love to return to it periodically, just to get inspired again by the care taken with both ingredients and preparation. Even if I don’t cook as author Judy Rodgers wishes, I do get ideas for my own more down-to-earth creations, and her lovely writing makes me feel somehow more noble as a cook.
One book that isn’t strictly a cookbook, but well worth giving, is Jacques Pepin’s The Apprentice: My Life in the Kitchen. It’s a fast read, with a few recipes included, of an amazingly full life, with good humor and sense to all his opinions.
After you’ve blown your gift budget, consider a small gift to yourself: personalized cooking albums. It strikes me that I own very few ethnic cookbooks, and for a baker, surprisingly few baking books — and my cookbook collection overall is far from huge. That’s largely because once I’ve read a cookbook, I rarely cook regularly from it. Instead, I turn to each book for just one or two special recipes, which I’ll cook repeatedly for a few months and then forget about for years. But I routinely page through my albums filled with recipes clipped, copied, torn and printed off the Web.
I started with three albums in the 1980s stuffed mostly with newspaper recipes and some copied from the Junior League cookbooks on the shelves in the Raleigh houses where I babysat. To this day, I use the photo albums weirdly described as “magnetic” (in which a clear plastic sheet covers a sticky cardboard page). I can’t imagine ever using some of those earliest recipes I copied, but they are so stuck to the glue I can’t peel them out. That’s mostly OK, as they provide me a real history of how tastes, global and personal, have shifted in the past 20 years. Not being able to weed things out means I’m now up to eight overstuffed albums, and I happily fear eight more in the next 20 years.

Recipe: Cranberry Relish (terrific as a filling in butterhorn rolls)

Crazy for Casseroles, by James Villas (Harvard Common Press, 2003)Forever Summer, by Nigella Lawon (Hyperion Press, 2003)
Home Cooking, by Laurie Colwin (Perennial, 2000)
Joy of Cooking, by Irma Rombauer, Marion Rombauer Becker, and Ethan Becker (Simon and Schuster, 1997)
King Arthur Flour 200th Anniversary Cookbook, by Brinna Sands (Countryman Press, 1991)
Miami Spice, by Steven Raichlen (Workman, 1993)
More Home Cooking, by Laurie Colwin (HarperCollins, 1993)
Side Orders, by John Egerton (Peachtree Publishers, 1990)
Southern Food, by John Egerton (Knopf, 1997)
The Apprentice: My Life in the Kitchen, by Jacques Pepin (Houghton Mifflin, 2003)
The Complete Meat Cookbook, by Bruce Aidells and Denis Kelly (Houghton Mifflin, 1998)
The Perfect Cake, by Susan Purdy (Broadway Books, 2002)
The Way to Cook, by Julia Child (Knopf, 1989)
The Zuni Cafe Cookbook, by Judy Rodgers (W.W. Norton, 2002)
Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone, by Deborah Madison (Broadway Books, 1997)
Weber’s Big Book of Grilling, by Jamie Purviance and Sandra McRae (Weber-Stephen Products, 2001)

First published in the Independent Weekly, December 3, 2003

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