Not long ago, my husband liberated a nice bookcase from his home office and put it in the kitchen, and already it’s jam-packed with cookbooks. I love cookbooks. I’ve got tomes on Thai food, Indian, Midwestern (whatever that is – it was a gift), baking, and Mediterranean, among (many) others. I love nothing more than reading a new cookbook, preferably at my kitchen table, as I eat and drink a little snack. Even if what I’m having is green tea and toast, and the book is “Shakespeare’s Kitchen,” the contrast between my pathetic snack and the book’s tantalizing dishes doesn’t bother me.
Take that book, for instance. Subtitled “Renaissance Recipes for the Contemporary Cook,” it tells how to make the sixteenth century’s most popular foods. Why would anyone want to do that? Two reasons: 1) they are delicious, and 2) they allow both cook and guests to taste what people ate during a far-off time. Perhaps The Bard himself supped on Fish Bisque with Chestnuts and Artichokes, or rushed home from an opening to dig into Chicken with Wine, Apples, and Dried Fruit. And now we can, too. In fact, I made that chicken dish, and it was great.
I love lots of books. My coffee table groans under the weight of books like “Extreme Birds,” “How to Be Sick,” “iPod Touch for Dummies,” and Gerard Manley Hopkins’ poems.
Cookbooks, though, are different. They invite you in. Many have full-color photos and suggestions for dinner party menus, with instructions like “brown chicken in oil with garlic,” which my mom and I used to joke should be the first step of any supper recipe. Cookbooks are designed to entice and instruct you, and take you by the hand in doing so. (I have typed up recipes for dishes my children remember from their younger years, and occasionally include encouragement like, “Don’t be scared by this next part. You can do it.”)
It reminds me of Dr. Spock’s famous childcare book, which starts out, “You know more than you think you do.” He wanted to instill confidence in young parents. I’m not sure if a cookbook could begin with that line. In the kitchen, all too often I know much less than I think I do. I used to make all kinds of things, from shrimp scampi to crepes Suzette, but my skills have rusted with disuse. It’s hard to believe that I used to make lasagna from scratch, by which I mean creating the sauce from fresh tomatoes and frying up seasoned meat balls to chop and tuck among the layers.
My husband cooks dinner every night, but he doesn’t use recipes. About the only time I rouse myself to cook dinner is when we have friends over. Then I scour my cookbooks and my dangerously large collection of recipes copied or torn from magazines, and have to run to the store for items we don’t usually have on hand – capers, goat cheese, dried cherries. You can’t walk next door and borrow a cup of buckwheat groats, not in my neighborhood, anyway.
I love my files of recipes, but a cookbook is an all-encompassing experience. I savor the preface, because it reveals so much about the author, the chef. Julia Child’s “Mastering the Art of French Cooking,” which I bought while reading “Julie and Julia,” begins airily: “This is a book for the servantless American cook who can be unconcerned on occasion with budgets, waistlines, time schedules, children’s meals, the parent-chauffeur-den-mother syndrome, or anything else which might interfere with the enjoyment of producing something wonderful to eat.”
Her cookbook, which sounds intimidating, is actually one of the easiest to follow. Each recipe is organized with the ingredients and the pans or utensils required for each step. I made a dish from that book — Cherry Clafouti, a dessert of batter poured over fruit and then baked in the oven. It turned out perfectly, despite my forgetting to butter the baking dish.
I have acquired nearly every cookbook written by Diana Henry, a British author living in the U.S. From the moment I looked through “Roast Figs, Sugar Snow,” I knew I had to have them all. The evocative title forced that book onto my shelf. Another is “Crazy Water Pickled Lemons.” How could I resist?
Even Martha Stewart, that intimidating icon of homemaking, has found her way to my shelves. I’ve got her “Cooking School” and her “Baking Handbook.” The latter contains a recipe for a birthday cake baked in a silver bowl, then sliced into four layers separated with both custard and jam. I love marveling over its picture, and knowing that I could make it, right here in my own kitchen, if I put my mind to it.
That’s what makes cookbooks special. Not only can you read them and fantasize, you can, should you choose to, make the exact dish you’ve been reading about. All you need is the ingredients, the pots and pans, balloon whisks and egg separators, and you, too, can produce bouillabaisse, or Pumpkin Scones. I could read a book about the construction of houses or radios and still have not a clue about how to make either one. But give me the recipe for Chocolate-Chestnut Cake from Nigella Lawson’s exuberant “How to Be a Domestic Goddess,” and I’ll bet I can serve you a piece of that cake, even if the frosting is a little messy.
As a high school senior, I won a college scholarship from Betty Crocker. The test was easy for a girl who’d grown up poring over her mother’s cookbooks and helping her bake cookies. With guides like her, and these generous cookbook authors, any cook can be a goddess (or god!), producing divine food.