Saturday 26 January 2008

In Praise of Cookbooks

Cookbooks become palimpsests, the original text overlaid with personal meanings and experiences, the spines broken by use and by the mass of extra matter forced between their pages.
Nicola Humble, Culinary pleasures: cookbooks and the transformation of British food

One of my summer projects has been to write up a list of my cookbooks. But I can’t post this list without a reflection on cookbooks. A few comments have stimulated my thoughts lately.

First there was Stephanie’s provocative comment on Elegant Sufficiency that it is just as easy to google a recipe idea as find it in her cookbooks, and that she doesn’t feel the need to purchase new cookbooks much these days. I understand what she is saying. I have my google days. But I also have days when I sit on the couch browsing through a stack of glossy cookbooks for a recipe I am seeking, or just for ideas. The suggestion that cookbooks might be obsolete seems as ludicrous to me as paperbacks being replaced by the online novels. Is there anyone who wants to sit in bed and read a novel off a laptop? Similarly, I prefer to have a cookbook open in front of me when I cook, rather than running back and forward to my laptop which keeps threatening to go to sleep.

Unlike Stephanie, I still see lots of cookbooks I want to purchase. I drool over new tantalising photos and inspiring ideas. But I am having a serious shelf crisis where my cookbooks are concerned and must be judicious in what I buy these days. That is the reason a lot of my cookbooks are vegetarian. While occasionally an omnivorous Nigella or a Nigel comes along who is so eloquent that I cannot resist their fine words, on the whole I cannot justify allocating precious space to meat recipes that I will never use. It isn’t just meat I avoid. A cookbook must be full of the sort of food I am likely to make – lots of different vegies in each dish, not too many eggs, and something a bit different to pique my interest.

So many new cookbooks have the same old recipes that I know I can find in a dozen of my cookbooks at home. When I first was cooking for myself, I needed the basics, but now I have these in all guises. Cookbooks are no longer about making sure I have something to cook. They are about inspiring and challenging me. So now I want something a bit quirky and esoteric. I want a new take on an old favourite. I want depth and personality. So where do I find them? Not necessarily in a glossy display case or on the sale table. My cookbooks have come to me as birthday presents, impulse purchases, gifts from people cleaning out cookbook collections, holiday souvenirs, recommendations by friends, and finds at secondhand bookshops.

The other comment which made me think recently was by Heidi at 101 Cookbooks who said how much she loves Rose Eliot cookbooks but finds them hard to find. It meant that when I saw the Rose Eliot Zodiac Cookbook in a second hand bookshop recently, I came home and googled it. I was surprised to find it is out of print. So I bought it. In fact, I was shocked at how many of her books are out of print. Heidi made me understand that you shouldn’t take some of these cookbooks for granted.

In fact I was looking for a book at Melbourne’s fantastic Books for Cooks the other week. (As an aside, this is an amazing place for the culinary bibliophile – two rooms crammed with every sort of foodie book you could imagine. Now this is a shop where I need to exercise great self-restraint!) I was surprised that the book was out of print, given that it came out in 2000. They go out of print quickly, I was told. While there, I bought a few older cookbooks and found that they really give a sense of a period in history. So I am starting to really appreciate my cookbooks and that they are part of a history, a tradition, a culture.

I have also had some cookbooks long enough now that they indeed are ‘overlaid with personal meanings and experiences’. Ricki at Diet, Dessert and Dogs recently wrote about food being linked with her memories. Browsing through my cookbooks is a trip down memory lane. Certain recipes bring back meals, faces, places, events. The Australian Women’s Weekly Old-Fashioned Favourites is full of sweets (desserts) my mum used to bake in my childhood. Alison Holst, Mollie Katzen and Sarah Brown remind me of share house days. Rose Eliot is the writer I depended on when I lived in Edinburgh. Colin Spencer and Denis Cotter feed my current interest in food writing (and apologies for including a Nigel Slater library book in a photo but I can guarantee it will appear on my list of cookbooks imminently). These books are as full of nostalgia as old photo albums.

But unlike photo albums, my cookbooks also are full of unfulfilled desires, recipes I’ve lusted over many times and yet never cooked. I hope this list will encourage me to use all my cookbooks more fully. I have toyed with the idea of writing the most desirable recipes beside each title to remind me of recipes I must try. Maybe!

I have to make a disclaimer for the list not being quite as I had envisioned. There are times when attention to detail is a curse. I know where the list needs work but so far have lacked the energy. I have split the list into categories but they seem a little arbitrary. I also struggled with what I included and excluded, especially in the Food for Thought section. I tried to limit the list to books that included recipes I might follow, which is why Vic Sussman is in and Jeffrey Steingarten and Barbara Kingsolver are out. But this is all a work in progress and I hope it will develop.

Lastly, I am recognising that blogs are more than just a day by day record of what was cooked last night. I want this blog to be a resource for me, for family and friends, and for all my visitors. A list of cookbooks appeals to the curious curtain twitcher in me. But I hope this list will also be useful both for those who want to source vegetarian cookbooks and for those who want to see where I find recipes and inspiration.

On the stereo:
The Essential Klaus Schulze 72-93: Klaus Schulze


  1. Johanna, I'm stunned at how organised you are! Very very impressive. :)
    I'm with you on the cookbook issue. It's wonderful that so many ideas are available on the net but there's nothing more inspiring that leafing through a good cookbook.

  2. Thanks Wendy - I hope this list will be useful. It has been fun doing it and rediscovering forgotten cookbooks. Now I just need to remember all the great recipes I have stumbled across :-)

  3. What a fabulous idea--and a fabulous list! I share many of the ones you mention (esp the US/Australian) and am just the same way--will browse through them for hours, picking recipes I plan to make later (like you, many I still lust after!). Some of my books look as if they're wearing fringed scarves, for all the little sticky-notes sticking out the sides (how I mark recipes I wish to make at some point).

    A great post, Johanna. I really enjoyed reading this--must now go organize my own cookbook shelves!!

  4. I can't even tell you how much I love cookbooks. I saw your list/pictures and immediately started looking for the ones that I didn't have (especially that Green & Blacks chocolate recipe collection). Your blog is terrific - thanks for the inspiration!

    P.S. Do you know of any good online book groups or blogs? I want to find a place to explore my literary interests, not just foodie stuff.

  5. Hi Johanna, great post! I would be there wth a thousand cookbooks, if it weren't for the library! I love reading a cookbook for fun! And, don't get back to even a smidgen of the recipes. There is always another new book or a great recipe on a blog to try. Sometimes it is just a bit of an experiment, but that is ok too!

    ps I am a list maker too!
    pps johanna & Monika, there is a new book group just starting on the slice of cherry pie forum. The first book is a definite must. Half a yellow sun, set in the Nigerian civil war, it centres on a houseboy and two, well educated sisters and their families. Why don't you join up, it will be fun!
    whoops, long, long comment, sorry!

  6. thanks Ricki - I wish I was organised enough to put sticky notes in cookbooks - I generally forget the recipes I want to try until the next time I am browsing.

    thanks Monika - glad you liked the list and pics - and I can recommend the green and black book for sure! I don't really know the world of literary blogs but I do remember reading of two Australian writers-cum-academics who have blogs - might be a good place to start looking and I think they are both interesting women (having been tutored by both in my uni years) - try and for a start. Or try Holler's suggestion which is a really good one because the forum appears to be foodies who read which sounds like excellent types :-)

    Thanks Holler - I have recently been enjoying borrowing cookbooks from the library - I wish I had as many shelves as they do - I am sure I could fill them :-) thanks for the invite re the book group forum - I like the idea but couldn't do it at the moment - have about 3 books on the go and am distracted from those too much of the time - maybe at a later date though.

  7. Johanna, what a great post on cookbooks. In my post today I mentioned that we should have one day where we all post our favorite cooking and wine books. I am always looking for new ones, even though I am totally out of space for them. But I agree nothing can replace the actual cookbook!

  8. Thanks Deb - I have looked at your post about Elizabeth David's essays and loved it. I really want to buy that book (An omelette and a glass of wine) but I have recently found myself with a glut of many great foodie essay books and now have neither the time to read them nor the space to put them! A most pleasurable problem so mustn't grumble :-)

  9. You can find any book in any Library in Australia. Just go to "Libraries Australia" on the web. I live in Melbourne, and have successfully sought out a book in a West Australian library for a brother who is not much for browsing libraries.


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