Cookbooks have varied virtues. Some are like knowledgeable culinary assistants, in whose pages you can find a dependable recipe for just about anything. Other you’re fond of because, like a favorite aunt, they provided you with a recipe or two that have entered your daily repertoire. (Think about it: If you regularly use three or four recipes from a particular cookbook, it is one of your absolute favorites.) Yet others are like garrulous friends—you love them more for their stories than their practicality. And then there are those that, by their sheer exuberance and enthusiasm, just plain inspire you to cook.
For me, that means Cook It Outdoors, by the inimitable James Beard. Written in 1941, it plays pretty fast and loose with actual recipe instructions, assuming that any reader basically knows how to cook and is just looking for ideas. Here, for example, is the recipe for “Goose” in its entirety: “Domestic goose should be stuffed, trussed, spitted, and roasted before a hot fire for about two hours.” Admittedly this is an extreme example, and there are much more detailed recipes for dishes such as “Ragout of Lamb with Vegetables” or “Pickled Salmon.” So it’s not as if you couldn’t successfully cook from this book. But if you’re like me, you will treasure it for its spirit, not its directions.
Years ago, reading this book helped me understand that cooking outside, over live fire, is the most fun that you can have preparing food. As Beard says in the introduction, “What fun is there to a picnic or a barbecue if there is present the feeling of discipline or restraint? … There should be excellent food, well cooked, good liquor or good wines, plenty of all and a large chunk of gayety and good feeling.” To me, that’s a recipe for a good time as well as a good dinner. So when you’re reading along and stumble across, for example, a recipe titled, “If You Should Run Over an Old Hen,” you probably won’t actually make the stewed chicken with a rich mushroom cream sauce that follows. But Beard’s high spirits, humor, and bring-it-on attitude are very likely to make you feel like going outside, starting that grilling fire, and cooking up something delicious. You can’t ask too much more of a cookbook than that.