Cookbooks As Non-fiction

As most everyone knows, the paradigm for searching for recipes has undergone a dramatic change over the past several decades. Today, if I need to search for a recipe, I go online and use a search engine, and within a very small fraction of a second I have all kinds of offerings from websites and blogs.

I usually select several recipes and print them off. From these I will either choose one with what I think has the most promise, or I might construct a composite recipe trying to use the best ingredients and techniques from the assembled pages. What I very seldom do is consult the dozens of cookbooks I have sitting on the shelves of my library. The good old-fashioned cookbook has been relegated to the backroom of my culinary reference choices.

Cookbook publications have been around a long time. According to my research, the first cookbook on record was written in 1639, although there are probably recipes written on the walls of caves (…take the flesh of a woolly mammoth, place it in a vessel containing the juice of rotting berries, cook over a fire…). Every cook has several favorites, but Anthony Lane, a reviewer for The New Yorker magazine, has a different perspective on cookbooks. He writes:

“Cookbooks, it should be stressed, do not belong in the kitchen at all. We keep them there for the sake of appearances; occasionally, we smear their pages together with vibrant green glazes or crimson compotes, in order to delude ourselves, and any passing browsers, that we are practicing cooks; but in all honesty, a cookbook is something that you read in the living room, or in the bathroom, or in bed.”

There are hundreds of thousands of cookbooks, but there are some that have become classics, and like classic novels, the classic cookbook has stood the test of time. Many do actually read, as Lane says, “more like novels than home-improvement manuals” and are teasingly incomplete. Such is “the delight and the frustration of the classic cookbook. It should tell you almost everything but not all that you need to know, leaving a tiny crack of uncertainty that can become your own personal abyss.” This forces the cook to get creative, and the result is a unique dish with his/her own signature.

Cookbooks hold a special place in my heart. I love to collect them, and I like to be surrounded by them. Like Anthony Lane, I love to read them. My perfect Sunday afternoon is football on the television, chili simmering on the stove, a cookbook in my lap to read between naps, and the promise of a beer at 6 p.m. to pair with the chili.

If you like to read about cooking, here are some suggested reads:
The Pat Conroy Cookbook – Pat Conroy (also wrote The Prince Of Tides)
Secret Ingredients – David Remnick (The New Yorker Book of Food and Drink)
New Orleans – Lee Bailey (Good Food and Glorious Houses)