The Cookbook As Literature

Hannah Gersen over at the Millions:

If you can read, you can cook — and if you can’t cook, you can always read cookbooks. At least that’s my philosophy. Although I’ve never been much of a cook, I have been fortunate to live with people who enjoy cooking — first my mother and now my husband. As a result, I’ve spent many pleasant evenings perusing cookbooks while someone else prepares a meal nearby. Growing up, I paged through The Enchanted Broccoli Forest, with its handwritten vegetarian recipes, and The Joy of Cooking — a somewhat joyless read and yet lively for the sheer number and variety of recipes. Now I am just as likely to scroll through cooking blogs in anticipation of a delicious meal, but I still love my cookbooks for their ability to take me back to a specific time and place. I also appreciate the stories and anecdotes that cookbook authors include with their recipes — although I sometimes wonder if only non-cooks like myself bother to read them.

What follows is a list of some of my favorite cookbooks to read while someone else does the cooking, a list that is, like most cookbook collections, highly personal and idiosyncratic. Please help me to round it out by leaving your own favorites in the comments.

The Enchanted Broccoli Forest by Mollie Katzen

coverThis cookbook brings me right back to my childhood, when my mother — and a lot of my friends’ mothers — was discovering vegetarian cooking. It was first published in 1982 and the recipes are very eighties: lots of quiches, soufflés, and casseroles involving tofu. It’s written in a casual, conversational way with a lot of underlining and phrases in all-caps — can we call this “pre-blog” style? The recipes are imaginative and sometimes whimsical, including the title recipe, a casserole in which broccoli stalks are made to stand upright so that they resemble trees. You have to love the author’s passion for vegetarian cooking; at one point she lists “innocence” as one of tofu’s attributes.