As my grandkids with their ever-present hand-held devices will tell you, I am definitely a “book person”, and as my patient wife will add, there is a library of one kind or another in every room of the house. As I draft this first paragraph of a brief essay, I have nearby the first Christmas gift from out of the past I still own, or even have much of a memory of. It is a much-loved book bearing a hand-written dedication on the first inside cover page: “Merry Christmas 1947 to Albert from Frank”; Frank is my older, and only surviving brother. Authored by Florence Page Jaques and illustrated by her gifted husband the artist Francis Lee Jaques, the book is literally “dog-eared”, where a new Labrador Retriever puppy Shirley and I acquired during the first months of our marriage 59 years ago, left her own “dedication”, adding even more to its incalculable value.
This is by way of conveying the idea that I don’t just own books, I feast upon them; and with no genre is this more literally true than with my collection of cookbooks. Carefully selected, penuriously purchased and strategically placed on a dedicated, eye-level shelf, to be read over and over again, they are among my most cherished and used literary possessions. Food, and the ways in which we grow, harvest, preserve, prepare and consume it is at once the most universal and diverse of human undertakings. It unites all of us wherever and whenever we live, and yet identifies and differentiates us as much as does the languages we speak and the DNA that defines our individual uniqueness.
A well-written recipe – or collection of recipes – is all about history, geography, genealogy, sociology, and tradition; very MUCH about tradition. My favorite cookbook authors are invariably also good story-tellers; writers who know that cooking is not just about recipes, and that a book on the subject need not be just a “how-to-do-it” guide with impressive full-color illustrations.
In her book “Dairy Hollow House Soup & Bread Cookbook” Crescent Dragonwagon (nee Ellen Zolotow) capitalizes on her years as a country inn keeper, and friendship with other inn keepers far and wide, to fill every bit of available space in her beautifully pen-and-ink-adorned 392 page food journey with anecdotes, cooking hints and background history, to make hers one of my most often frequented volumes. With similar dedication, Susan Herrmann Loomis traveled more than 20,000 miles on America’s country roads over a period of two years interviewing, gathering and then testing family recipes from small farms, ranches, dairies, vineyards and orchards in order to publish “Farm House Cookbook”, an American food odyssey and another favorite.
With a special love for the Amish and Mennonite cooks who have kept alive farming and food traditions for more than 200 years (while elsewhere, family farms have all but disappeared), I never grow tired of perusing and sampling from “Cooking from Quilt Country” by Marcia Adams, and “Pennsylvania Dutch Country Cooking” by William Woys Weaver. I would never have perfected my “Black Gravy Roast Beef” and “Shoo-Fly Pie”, or Shirley her prized “Amish Buttermilk Pie” without their inspiration.
Peter Reinhart, author of “The Bread Baker’s Apprentice”, set off on a personal quest in search of “The Perfect Pizza”, visiting destinations in Italy and across America, from the east coast to the west, from which emerged his wonderful book “American Pie”. With my own Hearth Oven, I discovered MY choice based on his “Neo Neopolitan” crust, as served by Vince Taconelli, at whose restaurant in Philadelphia one does not make reservations by the table, but by the number of balls of dough required!
Along with those mentioned, I love Domenica Marchitti’s “The Glorious Pasta of Italy”, and “Charcuterie” (the art of salting, smoking & curing), by Ruhlman & Poleyn, and one of my newest prizes, “The Complete Irish Pub Cookbook”, a collection assembled by Paragon Books, Ltd.
As we observe the four generations of our own immediate family, we take great pride in having made the kitchen table our most important piece of furniture, and seeing powerful evidence that the magic of food traditions binds us all together in a way circumstances and distance can never diminish.
Like old friends whose welcome never dims, a covey of cherished cook books has the
power to carry us on a magic carpet to other times and distant places. Journeying in their
story-filled pages reminds us that each recipe is only an idea for a new story of our own.
Perhaps no other tradition speaks more eloquently of the Emerald Isle than Irish Soda bread, this yeast-free loaf redolent of golden raisins, currants and a wee dram of Irish whiskey. Born from a dozen “baking stories” from as many authors, it is an example of
discovering new combinations from reading widely and experimenting enthusiastically.
Photos by Al Cooper