Some of my most-loved, well-thumbed cookbooks are oddly pristine. No splotches on the pages, no crumbs in the binding. They’ve never been in the kitchen. Instead, I read them in bed.
Reading a cookbook like a novel involves a peculiar set of pleasures. There aren’t any page-turning plot twists or hilarious sidekick characters. You’ve got to roll with page after page of lists and imperatives. Between all that mixing and slicing and sifting and melting, though, great cookbooks hit an addictive balance of lusciousness and precision.
Some cookbook authors sound like heavy breathers, slathered in butter. But I think the best combine a uniquely curious voice, lush description, and serious pedagogical chops. Cookbooks like these can be a truly juicy read.
(And I do mean cookbooks, not those chipper memoirs with a homey recipe tacked onto the end of each chapter. Those seem to be taking over like kudzu fertilized with Paula Deen’s compost.)
I turn to great cookbooks when I have an insatiable appetite—not just for food, but a craving for craving itself. Then I dig into something indulgent, the work of another ravenous person. And I stack up cookbooks when I have no appetite at all. When drained by a stubborn cold or a bruised heart, it’s time to curl up with writing that conjures up tempting flavors, the satisfaction of work, and laughter lapping around a table.
Some cookbooks are tantalizingly escapist, too. Take Paula Wolfert’s latest: The Food of Morocco. Sure, there are drooly, full-color photos of markets and mosaics, but what really gets me are her descriptions of running couscous through your fingers, or the taste of preserved lemons.
Here are some of my favorites, the ones I read ’round about midnight, cookbooks that feed what M.F.K. Fisher called the “wilder, more insistent hungers.” Any other cookbook pleasure-readers out there? What are your favorites?
A pretty face (gilt-edged pages and embossed cover) but a straight-up, unpretentious, genuine article. Read this one in bed and it’ll feel like a slumber party, as the authors loop in their grandmas, friends, even customers at their restaurants. You’ll want to slurp up their favorites, like salad dressing they call “good enough to drink.” I love the way they describe social ways of cooking: “Meatballs are shaped as the kids are assessed. (There’s always somebody to fret over.)” I love the Sunday Sauce timeline that’s both funny and homily practical. And I love that they don’t do brunch. There’s a more worthy meal to be cooked, people.
Judith Jones is like that straight-shooting aunt who tells you what you need to hear, when you need to hear it. As you might expect, Julia Child’s editor is both warm and thorough. She urges Yankee thrift but also nudges you to treat yourself. She pushes you to strategize and to eat with your hands when you feel like it. She’s a wonderfully tactile writer, using such evocative verbs that her instructions sound sensuous, even when she’s dressing up leftovers. Also, Ms. Jones? You’re a terrific blogger; please don’t abandon ship!
The Essential Cuisines of Mexico
When you need to expand your horizon while tossing on your pillow, Diana Kennedy’s your dame. The expert in Mexican cooking writes what she calls “word pictures” to introduce her recipes, sketching street scenes, dropping cultural morsels, and explaining word derivations along the way. In just a sentence or two, she makes you see the rush of food vendors on a city plaza or hear the slam of shutters on a colonial house. She’s a keen observer, noting memorable tidbits like “I am told it takes thirty-three pats” to make a tortilla.
She’s also unflaggingly generous, crediting the people who shared their cooking knowledge with her, whether they were housekeepers or celebrated chefs. The names alone are delicious—you can’t resist smiling over Señora Hortensia de Fagoaga or the taxi driver Relámpago Negro (Black Lightning), maybe even using their names as a chant to beat insomnia.