Friday, June 13, 2008

The Joy of Cookbooks

One can never be too rich or too thin--or own too many books. One of my mottoes is "a room without books is as a body without a soul" and I used to be able to quote it in Cicero's original Latin. We own one of those houses where people ask "have you read all these books?" Harlan Ellison's response to that question is "No. Who wants to live in a house filled with books you've already read?" The truth is, each of the three of us has read most of our own share of the books which reside with us, leaving plenty more to try on a rainy day.

The first time I stepped into Phyllis C. Richman's office at the Washington Post, I knew I wanted to have a cookbook collection like the one I saw there. My collection was only a shelf or two at the time, but it has grown substantially. Most libraries and bookstores don't have as good a selection. I buy them new, but I've had pretty good luck haunting thrift stores, antique shops, flea markets and yard sales in order to expand it.

There are frequently cookbooks on my nightstand, along with the other books I'm in the process of reading. Andy Rooney of 60 Minutes did one of his commentaries about cookbooks and couldn't understand why people would have more than a few and certainly didn't believe people actually read them for pleasure. We do.

There are certain cookbook writers I collect like I do some fiction writers. Marcella Hazan is at the top of that list. I think I own every one of her books and I use them repeatedly (Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking, which combines two earlier volumes is the best Italian cookbook I own.) Julie Rosso and Sheila Lukins, together and alone are big favorites (it is possible to throw an entire party using the two Silver Palate Cookbooks) and Viana La Place, Julie Sahni, Madhur Jaffrey, and Nancy Silverton also rank. For my husband, Len Wein, it is Rachael Ray--Len probably owns every one of her books. What he didn't buy, I bought for him. I also collect cookbooks on certain topics: Italian food is the big one--without counting I know that dominates my shelves. I'm also prone to picking up books on baking bread, Indian cooking (even though Len can't eat it) and other ethnic cuisines, dim sum, holding tea parties, appetizers and other finger-food.

For my son Michael, I keep looking for cookbooks which will make him want to investigate the kitchen, not just the refrigerator. I've bought him Alton Brown's books (which are largely about the science of cooking, which Michael can relate to), some on Japanese cuisine (he's a Nipponophile), and some aimed at kids in college (I had The Campus Survival Cookbook when I was in grad school which I just loved and have passed on to him.) So far, he makes a nice banana bread.

After September 11, 2001, I spent a year working my way through Nancy Silverton's Breads from the La Brea Bakery. This book is not for the faint of heart, which is why I probably had it on the shelf for four years before I tried it. I started by cutting grapes from my arbor to make sour dough from scratch. After several aborted attempts to learn to make sour dough, Nancy Silverton's method actually worked. The smell of fresh bread brought comfort to me when things were crazy. Of course, Len took to calling the sour dough starter "Audrey Two" since I was constantly having to feed it and I never quite got the knack of keeping it dormant in the refrigerator. So I had lots of it bubbling away in a six-quart tub on the counter for a long time. It lived several years before I finally screwed up. Now, if I need starter, I call my friend Karen who is planning to open a bakery when she finally moves out of Los Angeles. She's doing some contract baking and she always has starter available.

I wouldn't be without my 1970s edition of the Joy of Cooking. Although it is on my shelf, I find the more recent update impossible to read--it uses a kind of type which is not kind on my old eyes--and it just isn't as friendly as my falling-to-pieces one. This is the book I go to every Thanksgiving for its reminders on the right way to roast my turkey and a great pie crust for my apple and pumpkin pies.

I love well-photographed cookbooks. One of the most beautiful cookbooks I've ever seen is an over-sized coffee-table book called Jean-Louis: Cooking with the Seasons. It was shot by Fred Maroon, a photographer of my acquaintance in Washington D.C., and written by Jean-Louis Palladin, a great character who died too early. I met him several times while working with Phyllis Richaman, and though I couldn't afford to eat at his restaurant at the Watergate Hotel, I did get to sample his food elsewhere. Because I am not inclined to take on French cuisine, the book is not in my personal collection. I do hope to have a copy one day, just to be inspired by the pictures.

The most valuable cookbooks in my collection are the notebooks where I've collected family recipes since I was a teenager. There should probably be a lot more, but I concentrated on the Italian holiday sweets. I discovered that some of the recipes didn't really work when I tried to make them on my own, so I had to go back and watch my mother in action in order to make notes to get them to come out right. I'm not entirely sure she was intentionally deceitful, but Mom often doesn't measure when she cooks and there was a lot more refinement needed in the quantities to make things work. Since I'm a by the book kind of baker, I'm surprised there weren't more disasters.

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