There was a moment of shocked silence when executive editor Doc Willoughby said he’d given away most of his cookbooks. Then all hell broke loose. “You did what?” Ruth Reichl exclaimed. Someone else asked, rather testily, why he hadn’t had a tag sale. Another colleague literally put her head in her hands, while executive food editor Kempy Minifie went straight to the heart of the matter. “How on earth did you choose?” she said.
And that, of course, led to a freewheeling, spirited (and still evolving) discussion about the definition of a good cookbook. Doc wasn’t remotely defensive, but he was adamant: “The recipes have to work,” he said. “Otherwise, I’m not interested.” There should be a Shelf of Shame, we agreed, for books with bad recipes. You might attempt, and fail, at one several times before realizing you’re not to blame—but being disappointed (or disappointing others) at mealtime is no fun.
Sloppily written recipes are one thing, but the overall tone of a cookbook is rather like architecture: You respond to it whether or not you’re aware of it. Want to be taken by the hand and shown how to do something step by step? Julia Child’s your gal. Her great enthusiasm is always corralled by very rigorous, very correct, very French technique. One has to be in the mood. Marcella Hazan’s recipe style is also informative; her reserve stands in contrast to Julia’s ebullience, but at the end of the day, her tone is charming and relaxed in a way that’s typically Italian. This isn’t to say that Marcella isn’t formidable in her own right, but she is more about sharing than teaching. A conversational tone can also take the anxiety out of cooking something that is generally thought of as difficult. Rick Moonen and Roy Finamore do that beautifully in Fish Without A Doubt, the inaugural offering in our Gourmet Cookbook Club. Economical, even terse, recipe writing has its place as well. Take The Alice B. Toklas Cook Book: Although it presupposes a certain level of knowledge (“Make a dough with 2 cups flour and 1 egg, ½ teaspoon salt and water”), it also makes you feel as though you have been invited to a fabulous dinner party—and that’s long before you reach the recipe for a friend’s Haschich Fudge, “which might provide an entertaining refreshment for a Ladies’ Bridge Club or a chapter meeting of the DAR.”
But there is more to a good cookbook than recipes. When pressed, Doc found himself conceding that there are some he treasures simply for the inspiration or sound advice they contain. What speaks to me, I realize, are cookbooks that almost subconsciously have taught me how to understand food, and what flavors and ingredients work together. My enjoyment of food descriptions stretches back to a childhood spent with the Little House on the Prairie series (those books are full of wonderful meals), and continues to this day: The prose has to make me want to eat that food. The author must convince me, for instance, why his or her recipe for panna cotta is better, or more interesting, than all the others that exist in the world. The author should evoke a sense of place, and above all, evoke how people live.
Often, the unsung star of the show is what causes you to stop and read a recipe in the first place: its title. Think of the timeless appeal of Edna Lewis’s books; all it takes is “Thin-Sliced Cucumbers Marinated in Sugar and White Vinegar,” “Skillet Scallions,” and “Blueberry Cake with Blueberry Sauce” to capture the essence of a hot summer day. New York caterers Julee Rosso and Sheila Lukins, authors of the 1980s blockbuster The Silver Palate Cookbook, were brilliant at giving you a sense of what a dish should taste like with a few well-chosen words—“Chicken Breasts Baked on a Bed of Wild Mushrooms,” “Creamy Pasta Sauce with Fresh Herbs,” “American Picnic Potato Salad.” These are the sort of cookbooks I like to read, prone on the sofa, on a rainy Sunday afternoon.
An imaginative cookbook might lead me to a novel, and sometimes I find myself greedily absorbed in both, practically simultaneously. The Silver Palate, for instance, always makes me think of Laurie Colwin, whose work I discovered at the same time. Another perennial favorite, Jane Grigson’s masterful Good Things, reminds me of the plain, elegant writing of Barbara Pym and even that of Eliza Acton, in Modern Cookery for Private Families—as engaging today as it was in 1845, when it was first published. “Cut the cauliflowers into small handsome tufts, boil them until three parts done, and drain them well,” Eliza writes. “…When they are quite cold, dip them separately into the batter … fry them a light brown, arrange them neatly in a dish, and serve them very hot.”
Even if you have never picked up a cauliflower before, you know you are in the hands of a friendly, capable cook, yet you don’t feel bossed around—and that might well be the most important hallmark of a good cookbook. We all want to learn something, after all, but writing that’s full of intimidation—or, worse, condescension—can drive a person out of the kitchen in no time flat. And that would be a tragedy, because everyone deserves a delicious homemade meal.