As avoidance behaviors go, creating an inventory of one’s cookbooks is not as much of a waste of time as other methods of procrastinating. That I created an Excel worksheet for the task will seem to some typical of my birth sign and to others merely a little obsessive. However my list-making strikes you, the time has been well spent. I have rediscovered old favorites and noticed recipes that I overlooked when I first bought the books. For instance, a number of years ago, I would have blown past the recipes whose principal ingredient was okra not just because it was once not commonly found in the markets where I live. I leaf past them no more, thanks to Toni Tipton-Martin’s Jubilee: Recipes from Two Centuries of African American Cooking, the Netflix series High on the Hog, and a new demand for okra in supermarkets. Once reacquainted with cookbooks I haven’t opened in a while, I marveled at the previously unnoticed okra recipes in my eastern Mediterranean cookbooks. I’ve enjoyed making and eating every one of them.
For the moment, I own 242 cookbooks. That does not include my small collection of volumes of essays on food. Nor am I counting the books of food history on the shelves in my office. Those are my reference works for the university course on the world history of food I’ve taught with Andrés Reséndez for the past five years. At home, the cookbooks sit on two ranges of bookshelves next to which stand my round dining room table. Like a lot of food-obsessed people, my friends and I enjoy discussing past and future emails while consuming one. The titles on the spines of the books trigger memories of past meals and travels. Occasionally, someone will take down a volume mid-meal in order to talk about it.
When I’m by myself, I work at my dining table in the morning and idly survey the books, like a butcher eyeing a side of cow before cutting it up. Which one should I explore for that night’s dinner? My Middle Eastern, Middle Eastern-ish, and Jew-ish cookbooks take up most of a shelf at seated eye level. The Italian cookbooks (Marcella, Carla del Conte, Rachel Roddy, the Grannies) are on the same level but start a little off to the side in the first range, spilling over into the Middle Eastern section. Spain has a small delegation at the end of the Middle Eastern section. They are the books I use most often as well as stimulating the most opinions when friends notice them. Above the Italian cuisine books in the first range sit the French cookbooks, mainly by Americans, from Julia Child, Richard Olney through to David Lebovitz. On the shelf above the French are my baking books and, above them, are found the Japanese, Chinese, Vietnamese, and Burmese cookbooks. Recently, I had to shift books to make room for Kenji Lopez-Alt’s new doorstopper, The Wok, which I will work my way through over the summer.
Looking above to the higher reaches of the second range, I see the books I have grouped by their authors’ first names: Yotam, Diana, Nigella, Nigel, David, Ruth, Nancy, and Ina. I feel I know them as you do a work colleague. I don’t socialize with them outside of the kitchen, but I know their quirks, shortcuts, limits, and strengths. I’d gladly see a few of them socially if we lived conveniently near each other, although I see them enough as it is and don’t need closer contact. Diana Henry, however, is one recipe writer I can imagine regularly downing a whisky with, if she wasn’t so busy testing recipes in her kitchen. At work, however, which is to say, in my kitchen, she’s always dependable, blunt, and good company. So are Nigella and the others. I like the time-tested women. I’m happy to see them at work and leave it at that. Yotam, now a business as much as a person has a crackerjack team of recipe experimenters, who come off as a little stuck-up, to be honest. Nevertheless, his and Sami Tamimi’s Jerusalem will forever remain in my top five favorite cookbooks.
A small subset of my collection consists of celebrity or TV tie-in cookbooks from 1980 or older. No Stanley Tucci or Gwnyth Paltrow for me, although I hear the cookbook connected to the HBO series, Treme, is very good. I prefer the likes of The Sinatra Celebrity Cookbook, Aunt Bee’s Mayberry Cookbook, and Someone’s in the Kitchen with Dinah (Shore). Initially, I had a hard time believing that Sophia Loren’s two cookbooks, In the Kitchen with Love (1972) and Sophia Loren’s Recipes and Memories (1998), genuinely reflected her skills as a cook, but I’m now a believer. She offers convincing tips seemingly based on her own experience. The dishes are unfussy, traditional, and a good benchmark against which to compare modern versions of Italian classic dishes.
Vincent Price’s enormous A Treasury of Great Recipes: Famous Specialties of the World’s Foremost Restaurants is my most recent acquisition in the celebrity category. Mary and Vincent Price, both known during their lifetimes for their excellent home cooking, extracted recipes from the chefs of their favorite restaurants around the world to form this compendium. It is just idiosyncratic enough to make me believe that he and his then-wife were not only involved in producing the cookbook, but Vincent’s commentary persuaded me that he and Mary actually made most of the recipes in the book. The cooking is old-styled haute cuisine — very saucy — along with luau and ballpark fare. I acquired the book recently, after a friend of mine told me how much she had enjoyed the Prices’s recipe for “Königsberger Klops” (Meat Balls with Caper and Sardellen Sauce, p. 243) at a dinner party. According to Price, the recipe, originating in the kitchen of New York City’s Lüchow’s, calls for adding a mashed sardine to meatballs, an addition that sets these meatballs apart from all others. And I may try the seemingly straightforward “Grand Mariner Soufflé.” It’s tempting to think the selection of recipes from Brooklyn’s Gage & Tollner (“Crabmeat Virginia,” “Chicken Livers en brochette,” “Georgia Salad,” “Rice Custard,” and “Filet Mignon Caesar Augustus”) reflect the presence of Edna Lewis in the kitchen. However, she only took over that kitchen in 1988, when she was 72 years old, twenty-eight years after the first printing of the Prices’ book.
I lost track, for a while, of the cookbooks I treasure. My habit of turning first to online recipe databases, like The New York Times Cooking site, Smitten Kitchen, and Serious Eats, had the unintended effect of alienating me from my collection. To be sure, the quality of the recipes online is often of the highest. The recipes of the ever reliable and instructive Melissa Clark and Kenji Lopez-Alt both dwell mostly online. Although I own Melissa’s and Kenji’s books, I interact with them mainly through the internet. If I have an unfamiliar ingredient I don’t know what to do with, the internet has rarely failed me. Someone has not only figured out what to do with it; they’ve posted it, too. But there is something slightly evanescent about online recipes. Trying to think at this moment I write of a memorable online recipe, I can only retrieve Erin Jeanne McDowell’s “Small Batch Buttermilk Biscuits” and one or two others. The seeming infinity of recipes on the internet was making me feel like a flibbertigibbet, flitting from recipe to recipe, more, more, and ever greater variety, never landing on a recipe more than once.
Then, a few months ago, I made a commitment to myself to first look through my books for something to make instead of resorting to the convenience of an internet search. I soon noticed that my renewed commitment to hard copies of cookbooks led to a slight improvement in my cooking. I realized I was more likely to make recipes more than once — in other words, practicing them — if they were in a book rather than online. With my eye on my books, I go back repeatedly to Sami Tamimi and Tara Wigley’s Falastin, whose recipes for hummus and sautéed okra, halloumi, and tomatoes just get better and better every time I make them. Over the past twenty-five years, I must have made Dorie Greenspan’s “Boca Negra” cake in her Baking with Julia, dozens of times. Nigel Slater cooks intuitively, off the cuff, as I wish I had the skill to do, but he is a reliable guide. He writes in such a way that I am sure he welcomes scribbled notes alongside his gentle directions. Slater’s recipes point the way; they make no claim to be the destination. The “Spiced Sweet Potato Wedges” in the Gourmet Cookbook, David Lebovitz’s “Sardine Spread” in My Paris Kitchen, Rick Stein’s flatbread and his smoky white bean and bacon recipes in From Venice to Istanbul, the “Saffron Chicken & Herb Salad” in Jerusalem, the chicken with plums in Diana’s From Oven to Table, and, of course, Julia Child’s original boeuf bourguignon are as familiar to me as the photos in an old family album. If there is one book I always return to it is The Zuni Café Cookbook. I am always seeking to replicate the sensation Judy Rogers’ recipes etched into my memory the first time I made them: the asparagus and parmesan soup, the roasted chicken salad, and the duck legs braised in red wine with white beans and pancetta.
I have come to know the recipes better than I do some of my friends. Each time I made any of those recipes, I took down the book and sat with it at my dining table, applying to it the studiousness I showed many years ago to medieval manuscripts in the reading room of a Venetian archive. My cookbooks bear the signs of a lot more use than do some of the 14th-century codices I’ve examined. My cookbooks have notes in the margins, tomato and wine stains on the print, and some of them have broken spines. They are my life-tested, opinionated, wise, occasionally chatty companions, many of whom I’ve known for an awfully long time.
Meanwhile, I will keep count. I still have room on the shelves.