I have a huge cookbook collection. I am constantly editing, but the collection grows. People give me books, I buy more. I am first in line at the cookbook booth at the Ladies Village Improvement Society Fair. I have even bought back books I donated to the L.V.I.S. That’s mental.
And this collection was never well organized until I moved. These books now reside in a little closet lined with shelves. I am proud to say they are currently arranged by nationality, single subject, resource, narrative, local, etc. I recently began to ponder, which 10 books are my absolute favorites, and why.
When I mentioned favorite cookbooks to a fellow foodie friend, he insisted that I must include Julia Child’s “Mastering the Art of French Cooking” and “Joy of Cooking.” Sorry, I seldom crack either of these open. Some of my choices are sentimental, some books I simply love for their pictures, menus, and stories. Here are five favorites.
Edna Lewis was an African-American born in Freetown, Va., in 1916. In her 80-year lifetime she published four books and worked for many years at Cafe Nicholson in New York City, where she was best known for her roast chicken and chocolate souffles. Craig Claiborne declared her book “The Taste of Country Cooking” “the most entertaining regional cookbook in America.”
The menus are mouthwatering. How does this one, for a late spring dinner, sound? Skillet spring chicken with watercress, buttered Jerusalem artichokes, garden green peas in cream, biscuits, pear preserves, and rhubarb pie. Here is another menu, this one for Christmas Eve supper: oyster stew, baked country ham, scalloped potatoes, pan-braised spare ribs, ham biscuits, wild blackberry jelly, watermelon rind pickles, yellow vanilla pound cake, hickory nut cookies, dandelion wine, plum wine, and coffee. Keep in mind that every meal that was prepared in Freetown was grown, fished, farmed, hunted, preserved, and foraged.
Aside from having so many simple but delicious seasonal recipes, this book also was my favorite because when my son was attending East Hampton Middle School he would read this book in the car every day on his way to and from school. I think there is something comforting and cozy in Edna Lewis’s manner of writing that even reached a 10-year-old boy.
Richard Sax’s encyclopedic “Classic Home Desserts” has more foolproof delicious recipes than any other dessert book I own. Mr. Sax was a prolific chef and cookbook writer and was the founding director of Food and Wine magazine’s test kitchen. Sadly, he died of AIDS at the age of 46. His book is filled with historical tidbits, entertaining quotes, and has the best pie streusel, ginger hottentots, butterscotch pudding, and lemon custard ice cream. It has fools and syllabubs and flummery, crisps, compotes, and cobblers. He even had a soft spot for ancient English recipes, which he appreciated for their “unadorned frankness.”
Douglas Rodriguez’s “Latin Flavors on the Grill” is one of my favorites because it was a gift from my brother, Sherman, and it is just so darned good. Mr. Rodriguez has been dubbed the godfather of Nuevo Latino cuisine. By the age of 13 he had his own collection of pots and pans and cookbooks. He is the author of four books and has several restaurants throughout the country. Every time I am looking for a light and spicy way to prepare fish, I turn to this book. Tuna with mango ginger lime mojo, salmon with dill chimichurri, and clams with chipotle cachucha mojo with bacon are outstanding. This book also has the best chocolate cake recipe, ever.
Martin Picard is a wild man, French-Canadian chef, author, and TV personality. His restaurant, Au Pied de Cochon in Montreal, is famous for elevating Quebec’s “muscular” food to new heights. It is loud and bawdy, a bastion of excess. Foie gras appears on the menu in every way, shape, and form. His cookbook “Au Pied de Cochon” looks more like Hunter S. Thompson’s rambling stories in Rolling Stone illustrated by Ralph Steadman. There are spatters of blood, pig’s feet, and foul language. This book was a gift from my son, who knows what I like.
Mr. Picard is an avid hunter and fisherman, as well as an expert maple syrup maker. This book is full of stories about the people who fish and farm for him, full of photographs of the messy behind-the-scenes world of restaurants, and most of all, full of Mr. Picard’s passion and love for what he does — feed the lucky gourmands who flock to Au Pied de Cochon.
The late Lee Bailey was a resident of Bridgehampton and the author of several lifestyle cookbooks. He contributed stories to Vogue and The New York Times and had a charming little housewares shop in Henri Bendel. His book “Country Weekends” transports you to the beach, to the field, and to the garden for simple, accessible meals, or as the title proclaims, “recipes for good food and easy living.” His lovage and apple stuffed roast chicken with pan gravy is my favorite go-to chicken recipe. Now imagine it accompanied by the rest of his menu, grits souffle, beet and carrot puree, flaky biscuits with parsley butter, followed by grapefruit sherbert and candied grapefruit rind! The table settings and flower arrangements are beautiful but look like something any of us could do. Or as Mr. Bailey said, “there is a kind of appealing grace in having the end result of a project, food or otherwise, seemingly brought off without strain.” The book is set up from Friday evening meals to more elaborate Saturday suppers to Sunday lunch and finally Monday diet meals. Who knew white china, wildflowers, and your back porch could make a meal feel special?
I am the kind of cookbook owner who dog-ears pages, spatters the recipes, and makes notes in the margins. Some might find this disrespectful, but when I open one of these favorite books and find a favorite old recipe that I have been preparing for over 30 years, I don’t see stains and scribbles, I see history and love and many, many meals shared with family and friends. Thanks to Edna and Douglas and Richard and Martin and Lee.