The bug bit me during an inarguably insane chapter in my life. I don't know what else you'd call running a small catering business from a 12 X 12 home kitchen (built in 1938 and never updated), with a nursing baby in a sling and a toddler begging to lick every bowl. Maybe I had an excess of creative anxiety that needed a source of continual aggravation. Whatever else it was, it was simply what-was-I-thinking insane.
Nonetheless, isn't it usually the Insanity Chapters in life that teach us the stuff we truly need to know?
My wondrous friend Tina Danze, who later went on to be a food stylist and staff writer for the Dallas Morning News, was plagued with the same insanity. We partnered up for jobs that were too big to handle solo. It was ridiculous work, really, and neither of us would recommend it to anyone who likes to be happy. But still, it was the basis of one of those rare friendships that just becomes a part of who you're always going to be. Even when I haven't seen Tina in a year, her warm shadow is always in my kitchen -- I will never make a batch of pesto or lemon squares or garlic & mint roasted potatoes without thinking of her fondly, and wishing she lived next door.
Sharing food does crazy things like that to people.
Now, before I became friends with Tina, I thought I pretty much knew how to cook. I came from a long line of solid southern cooks, and I could turn out such things as a perfect pan of cornbread, chicken salad that people begged for, and an apple pie that convinced Great Scot I was worth considering as a wife. I knew a thing or two, I thought.
Ha. Enter Tina.
Tina has a Filipino mother and an English father; her husband's family came from Spain and Italy. They all loved to cook. And to put booster rockets on that multifarious food heritage, Tina just has an insatiable culinary curiosity. This woman was a global cook before the world 'global' was even cool. You could learn plenty about cooking from merely drawing deep breaths in her kitchen.
Which is what I did. Often.
In between jobs, while our toddler cherubs emptied drawers, unfolded all the fresh laundry and stripped petals off the rosebushes, Tina and I would pore over cookbooks cover-to-cover like they were novels, scribbling notes around the splatters on the pages. Prized titles got put on Christmas and birthday wishlists; others were nabbed on the cheap at Half Price Books. Thus began my collection. And that is the bug that bit me: the cookbook addiction.
Nowadays, with several shelves crammed full of them, I just try to deliver myself from temptation whenever I'm in a bookstore (I don't always prevail). But few things give me the same happy satisfaction as a winter afternoon chatting over a gorgeous cookbook with an enthused chum.
Fast-forward to now. Those toddler cherubs are almost grown. One of our school goals for this year is for Fa and Beatrice to each cook their way through a comprehensive cookbook. So I've lately been perusing cookbooks with academic fervor, trying to whittle my way down to ten (ack! only TEN!) cookbooks I would consider must-haves. Fa and Beatrice will each choose one of these to serve as a cooking textbook for this school year.
So as long as it's fresh on my mind, I might as well share the short list of cookbooks I consider to be the best out there .
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Q. Shenaynay's Desert Island Cookbooks
Note: These are not in any particular order of preference, because they each serve a special need.
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I chose this first one because it's a work of art, that rare masterpiece of a cookbook. And because everyone eats, and therefore everyone really should learn how to cook... and cook efficiently... and well:
#1. The New Making of a Cook by Madeleine Kamman -- winner of the James Beard Award. Possibly the best and most thorough teaching cookbook I've ever seen.
#2. The Silver Palate Cookbook... because in a big, happy life, you should have some great dinner parties and throw a few sparkly showers and celebrations for loved ones:
Reliable, rich recipes that are just right for entertaining. To the legions who have made good use of their tattered copies of this classic, it comes as no shock that Lukins' favorite adjectives are "lush" and "abundant."
#3. This one is because it's a given that life will give you days when your loved ones will probably starve or wind up at McDonald's if you don't know what to do with a crockpot:
This is the only slow cooker cookbook I know of that was written by well-known chefs, which essentially means that these recipes are not built around a can of cream of mushroom soup like so many crockpot recipes. These gals had a small army of chefs test every recipe until everything was just right. Crockpot cookbooks are legion, and I own several. This is the one you want.
#4. A good life includes cookies, scones, pies, pancakes, muffins and birthday cakes. So here you go:
The King Arthur cooking academy is where lots of professional bakers and pastry chefs learned their way around a flour sifter. But wait! They have a whole grain edition of this baking book coming out this fall! Just in time for Christmas! Woo hoo!
#5. Because your cooking repertoire needs the influence of a whole foods and good nutrition guru:
This was one of my first cookbooks, and it's splattered half to death and covered in notes.* We get a chortle out of the subtitle -- so 80's -- but don't let it scare you. This is good, healthy stuff.
*I scribble comments in my cookbooks, a practice I highly recommend. Ten years from now, I promise you will not remember that you ever made that peach rice pudding, not to mention whether it needed more cinnamon or was poured down the disposal.
#6. A little drumroll for the first cookbook I ever purchased, way back in college:
Every household in America needs this book -- the OLD, ORIGINAL version, not the revised one (okay, that's just my opinion). This is the encyclopedia of Survival In The Kitchen. I doubt I've ever cooked more than five recipes directly from this book, but I have referred to it constantly for 25 years.
#7. And because you MUST have JULIA...
A moment of silence for Julia.
Oh, how I loved her. (sniff) I pondered genuflecting when I visited her kitchen at the Smithsonian.
Julia wrote lots of cookbooks, and they are ALL worth having, but she considered this one her best, the culmination of her life's work. It's just gorgeous -- huge, clearly written, thoroughly photographed, and very, very educational. Julia reinvented food in America. She completely revolutionized the way chefs write recipes. The newly released DVDs of her old PBS cooking shows should win an Emmy, if you ask me. Hey, I think I want those for Christmas, too...
#8. O! how I adore this gorgeous hunk of a book. It has won every cookbook award imaginable -- The Julia Child Award, the James Beard, the Culinary Institute of America, you name it.
No, we're not vegetarians. But this book is essential because... well, see, it's just not all that hard to cook meats. It's everything else that requires creativity and skill. And this book covers everything else. This is a book for food lovers who want to eat healthy BUT also do not like being bored at the table. Just go read the reviews at Amazon if you're not already convinced.
#9 is because a good life needs some gourmet picnics and some bodacious dinners-on-the-grounds. Every recipe in this book is served at room temperature. Also fantastic when you have friends who are always late for dinner...
And last, #10 is because we need to think about our bodies as created things that need to be tended and nourished respectfully. Sally Fallon has studied healthy cultures all around the globe and documented their dietary strengths. The history of healthy cultures is what this cookbook is based on. It's fascinating and enlightening, and has some of the most charmingly odd recipes you'll ever feel driven to try.
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Now then, if you really read all of this, please leave a comment. Because I told Fa and Beatrice that NOBODY would read this whole post. Except for, maybe, Rachel Tsunami. (Hi, Rachel!).