Putting the Food Network aside, an education in good food often means reading a few good books. From Julia Child to Anthony Bourdain, the best insights into cooking and eating well are imparted by fine writing — precise recipes, idiosyncratic advice, and creative encouragement. This week, Pasatiempo’s food writers went in search of their Proustian madeleines, highlighting our most formative and influential culinary guides.
Taking good notes
On lazy summer afternoons in our teens, my sister and I would flip through the pages of The Fannie Farmer Cookbook, the classic tome first published in 1896 as The Boston Cooking-School Cook Book and one of the regularly referenced volumes on my mother’s kitchen shelf. We’d spend hours reading recipes and poring over the informational sections about techniques and ingredients — “The Role of Salad,” “Filled Things,” and “About Cabbage,” for example — which we’d read to each other using a goofy accent that sounded like a blend of Julia Child and the Knights Who Say “Ni!” As a kid, I’d assumed Fannie Farmer was one of my great-aunts who lived on Mobile Bay in Fairhope, Alabama. But as my interest in cooking grew, I learned that after attending cooking school and writing her first book, which introduced the concept of standardized measuring cups and spoons, the Boston native started her own culinary school and lectured about diet at Harvard University.
Today, the book reads a little like a secret family album. It naturally falls open to ingredient-stained pages for coq au vin, stuffed green peppers, chicken fricassee, potato croquettes, cheesecake (with notes in my mother’s loopy cursive), lace cookies, devil’s food cake, various frostings and fillings, the “special waffles” with which I’d tempt my family and test my skills on Sunday mornings, and an herb-spiked wine-based marinade we used on the regular for grilled chicken (until I stopped eating meat at age eighteen). This is the first place I ever read detailed instructions on making stock and studied the varieties of home-churned ice cream, not to mention the illustrated section on pie. There, I’ve kept an old Post-it affixed to the page for apple pie, which tells you to “cook at 25° less” than the recipe suggests. I made copious notes in the margins around Fannie’s recipe for baking powder biscuits, including an incredulous “WHY?” beside the called-for tablespoon of sugar. The book’s spine fell off long ago, but I can still easily spot Fannie from afar, thanks to the silver strip of duct tape keeping the back pages attached.
Mollie Katzen’s Moosewood Cookbook is a little like the Stonehenge of my cookbook library: It feels like it’s always been there, and I don’t really remember how it got there. This iconic vegetarian tome, first published in 1974, has been packed into boxes countless times and crossed many a state line in the back of a truck or the trunk of a car as I moved from the East to the West and back. Making those same familiar recipes in each new house or apartment always made me feel grounded. A dedicated vegetarian living the hippie dream circa 1990, I’d carry my cotton net tote bag to the grocery store at the end of Haight Street, four blocks from my apartment, to buy ingredients for Katzen’s Gypsy Soup, tabbouleh, and mushroom-barley soup, whose humble ingredients belie their satisfying complexity. It’s particularly easy to allow yourself to scribble notes in this book, given that it’s hand-lettered and whimsically embellished by Katzen herself, right down to the copyright page. My own penciled- and inked-in notes span a couple of decades: There’s one from an early dinner party, in February 1993, noting that the ricotta gnocchi, which I had made for the very first time, were “gone in minutes” and my now-hilarious opinion that the asparagus-mushroom sauce tasted “restauranty.” The page for the Ukrainian poppy seed cake bears my repeated scribbles as I adapted it for Santa Fe’s high altitude in the new millennium. I make that mushroom-barley soup at least once a year, and I still have that tote bag, too, believe it or not. — Laurel Gladden
Finding joy through Julia
Like many young women in the 1960s, my first cookbook — a gift from my new mother-in-law — was The Joy of Cooking by Irma S. Rombauer and Marion Rombauer Becker. First published in 1931, the 850-page 1964 edition that sat on my kitchen counter for years was an overwhelming compendium of recipes and culinary advice that I used like a dictionary, opening it only when I needed a specific piece of information. The Rombauers taught me how to cut up a chicken, then offered me 77 ways to cook that bird and serve it on a properly set table.
Joy, now in its eighth edition, was (and still is) a useful book, filling much the same role for 20th-century Americans that Mrs. Beeton’s Book of Household Management (also published as Mrs. Beeton’s Cookery Book) filled in Victorian England. But there was no romance there. I never developed a fondness for the authors’ no-nonsense Midwestern twang. I never read it from cover to cover or took it to bed with me.
It was a different story when Mastering the Art of French Cooking ( Julia Child, Louisette Bertholle, and Simone Beck) fell into my hands in 1966, the same year my first child was born. Bored and lonely in an upscale suburb of Boston, my only neighbor a depressed female engineer who was unable to find work when she followed her husband to Massachusetts, I clung to Julia’s words like a life raft, cooking my way through each section — not in the orderly way of Julie Powell, who famously took on all 524 recipes ( Julie and Julia: My Year of Cooking Dangerously, 2005), but as quiet afternoons and dinner parties beckoned. When there were no dinner parties in the offing, I cooked anyway, filling the sink with pots and the cupboards with specialized equipment like boning knives, charlotte molds, drum sieves, and fish poachers, passing my creations on to my neighbor and the postman.
I developed a lifelong love affair with butter and salt, and learned to form quenelles and mince mushrooms, line a dessert mold with ladyfingers, and bone a duck. Splattered pages mark some of my favorite recipes: the cream of mushroom and onion soups and vichyssoise I still make today. Mayonnaises and flavored butters. Quiches and carbonnades. Brown-braised onions and salade niçoise. Pots de chocolate topped with twee candied violets, clafoutis, and custards were my comfort foods.
But it soon became clear that no amount of crème anglaise could fill the cracks of a disintegrating relationship. By the time volume two of Mastering the Art of French Cooking was released in 1970, I had moved on from both the steamy kitchen and the marriage. These two books continued to travel with me, influencing not just my cooking but my shift from the kitchen to the typewriter, from parenting to publishing. I found them recently, side by side on a bookshelf, still marking recipes for riz à l’Indienne and candied kumquats, delicious reminders of a sweet and sour life. — Patricia West-Barker
A room of one’s own (with frittata)
Before I ever knew what food writing was, I read Laurie Colwin’s Home Cooking: A Writer in the Kitchen. Lurching into my teens, I haphazardly checked the book out of the library, more interested in the writer part of the title than anything else. But Colwin’s manifesto on cooking and entertaining, first published in 1988, held stores of knowledge about both food and writing — and more importantly, it demonstrated their overlapping pleasures.
In her essay “Alone in the Kitchen with an Eggplant,” Colwin describes cooking in the kind of tiny studio apartment I came to rent over and over again in adulthood — a room of one’s own, in which an artist need not starve. “Dinner alone is one of life’s pleasures,” she writes, reminiscing about the simple yet luscious meals she devised on a two-burner electric stove. Eggplant was her favorite — stewed or sautéed with lemon and tamari, with garlic and honey, with fried onions and Chinese plum sauce. No matter what she whipped up, Colwin’s enthusiasm for reinventing one beloved ingredient was inspirational.
The essays in Home Cooking also presaged the kind of host I became (like Colwin, I held dance parties; like Colwin, my downstairs neighbor pounded on the ceiling with a broom handle to get me to turn down the jams). The impromptu dinner parties I threw for other writers in grad school were inspired by Colwin’s approach to entertaining. Her advice? Learn a few simple dishes, and learn them well: roast chicken, frittata (“the ingredients are limitless”), a good potato salad (she swears by Hellman’s mayonnaise, cut with lemon juice).
Tamar Adler’s An Everlasting Meal: Cooking with Economy and Grace (2011) rounded out the edges of my education. Adler, too, elevates the humble frittata: “Once you have a frittata made, it can be any part of the day’s eating.” But for me, the real revelation in Adler’s book came from her insistence on eliminating food waste: using “the bones and shells and peels of things” to achieve culinary grace through economy. She advises saving boiled broccoli trunks and scallion tops for stem pestos, soaking mint stems in red wine vinegar for minty vinaigrettes, simmering citrus peels in simple syrup to mix into seltzer or cocktails, and using the leftover herb-and-garlic-infused olive oil from sautéed vegetables for dressings and soups. Adler’s book is the reason I wince on the rare occasion I purchase stock at the grocery store, knowing how much more satisfying it is to coax a broth from the bag of vegetable scraps, eggshells, and chicken carcasses I keep in the freezer.
Both Adler and Colwin recommend other food writers: Colwin led me to Elizabeth David and Marcella Hazan; Adler is fond of MFK Fisher and Harold McGee — and both manage to elevate the act of feeding oneself to a whimsical art. Adler advises that a perfectly cooked bean means that the barest flutter of a breath can rustle its thin skin; Colwin introduced me to the summer staple of cold cucumber soup whirled up in a blender with yogurt, garlic, lemon juice, and whatever else might be around — cracked wheat, say, or golden raisins. Both preach that to eat well does not mean to spend a lot of money, that one great meal begins with another’s leftovers, that cooking times and temperatures will vary, and that, as Adler writes, well-executed meals depend “on the day and the stove. So you must simply pay attention, trust yourself, and decide.” — Molly Boyle