Tuesday, April 21, 2009


Recently, there's been a lot of bad, weird, and bad-weird news out there. Every day I see or hear something that makes me kind of panicky and worried about what's becoming of us.

Times like these, it helps me to retreat into something that's kind of a fantasy world, kind of home-centered.

So I look at my cookbook collection. I do not think it is too pompous to call it that. I have a LOT of cookbooks. Most of them are older - I tend to scour used-book stores when I get to them, or antiques shops, or I've ordered a lot through various online sellers (I love how Powell's does the whole used-book thing - one order, through one seller, coming in one box. As much as I love Amazon, I have to admit I love Powell's even more, at least for how they handle used books)

Looking at them makes me feel happy. Now, I don't cook a WHOLE lot (at least these days, when I'm so crazy busy - most nights a big salad and maybe a couple little pieces of some good cheese serve for dinner) but I do like to cook. And I enjoy reading recipes.

I particularly love cookbooks where the author has injected some of his or her personality - where there are little short commentaries or introductions before each dish, like "this is my great-grandmother's recipe for barbecued lamb" or "this recipe never fails to impress guests, yet it is so simple."

I have cookbooks spanning from the 1930s up to modern day. Most of my collection - of the "vintage" books at least - comes from the late 50s and early 60s. I know that it because a lot of the books I went out in search of, when I was finally out on my own and finally had enough space to store a sizable number of cookbooks, were ones my mom had. My parents were married in that era, and I'm guessing my mom got some cookbooks as wedding gifts, and they probably bought others as they moved out from grad-school life into "full fledged" adulthood.

I have a lot of the Farm Journal cookbooks. I don't know if anyone else is familiar with these - Farm Journal is (was?) a magazine, and for years Nell Nichols was the food editor. And she developed a line of cookbooks. And they are, by and large, fantastic cookbooks - nothing fancy, just basic good food (as you might guess from a farming magazine). I've bought most of the ones I know about; I think I even have one or two my mom doesn't have. (It's my goal, someday, to find a copy of every one they put out in the 1960s. I still lack the bread book, I know that much, and the canning and freezing one. I have a reprint of the bread book, but it is "updated," and has some of the good old recipes removed, and other newer ones substituted in their place. So I want a copy of the original).

I also have "Dinner for Two" - one of the Betty Crocker cookbooks. My mom actually had two copies of this - I think she said she got duplicates as a wedding present, and she KEPT THE SECOND ONE ALL THOSE YEARS. And then let me take it when I moved out. It's a good book, especially because the recipes make small quantities. Some of the recipes rely more on mixes or pre-prepared foods than I like, but they have a very good basic brownie recipe (no mix) and some other good "basics."

One thing I like about these cookbooks is the food photography. Some of the more modern cookbooks have gone very minimalist and streamlined - maybe the food is plated, but it is on a plain white tablecloth in a rather unadorned room.

Not my older cookbooks. The pictures in some are almost lurid. And I love that - all of the colors, the fact that they set them on backdrops with checkered tablecloths, or an Early American Revival background, or a fishing pole (for fish dishes, of course).

The BEST one of all of these - and one I like to look at for sheer nostalgia - is "The New Joy of Jell-o." Copyright date 1973. The men all have sideburns, they all have that sort of goofy middle-class 1970s look to them - and I find that oddly comforting. It is the time when I was a child. My parents' house was decorated in that sort of mock Early American style popular then. We had big giant ugly wallpaper in the dining room like some of the rooms shown in the book have.

I've never made anything out of the book (I got it for a buck at a used-book shop), but I still love to look at it because it is so much of its time - of my time, when I was a little kid.

Oh, I do use some of the cookbooks I own. My go-to for good "basic" recipes, or "I have this food and I want to cook it in some different way, what other ways are there" is my 1953 copy of the Settlement House cookbook. It is my favorite cookbook and if I could only have one, it would be the one I choose - it's huge, it's detailed, it tells how to cook eggs in every imaginable way, it tells how to fix vegetables, how to braise meat, how long to cook roasts of different sorts. It has great bread recipes. It has many complex and interesting desserts (none of which I have tried to make, but I would like to). It even tells how to make soap and pasteurize milk, which I tend to think are useful things to know, even in this day and age.

But I also love my Farm Journal Country Fair cookbook - all different types of breads, cakes, pies, and so forth - every one a ribbon winner at a fair somewhere. The corn muffin recipe in that book is my favorite one (and it's not that complicated to make). There are a lot of good simple 'coffee cake' type cakes that I can make when I need to take a treat to church or in to my department. (And it also has the wonderful whimsical photography).

I make a special effort to seek out "cooking for one" or "cooking for two" books.

(A favorite, among more recent books, is Jane Doerfer's "Going Solo in the Kitchen" - many, many good recipes, including some unusual ones. And an attitude of "single people have as much right as families to eat good food and to enjoy their meals" - there is no suggestion of resorting to things out of boxes or from the deli)

There are a few of them out there. Along with the Betty Crocker book, I also have one from the 50s called "Quick and Easy Meals for Two." This book comes divided into interesting sections - they have a "seasonal" section, to take advantage of foods that come abundantly or cheaply at certain times of the year (but it does have an East-Coast centric philosophy: there are dishes made with shad roe, for example. I don't think I've ever even SEEN shad roe). There's also "The Little End of the Horn" - meals for times when the budget is stretched (and actually, some of the recipes in that section are not just economical, but pretty healthful and good, too). There's even a section providing suggestions to people who find themselves in tiny apartments with a two-burner set up in place of a "real" kitchen. I use this book a fair amount, too - it has some interesting ideas for salads and vegetables in it.

Among newer books, I really love Jane and Michael Stern's "Square Meals" (which, sadly, is out of print) - a collection of historical recipes from the first half of the 20th century in America. Some of the recipes are mainly there for historical interest (or for laughs) but there are also some good ones that I make again and again. (I use their gingerbread recipe, for example, when I want gingerbread).

I also have Mark Bittman's huge "How to Cook" (or whatever it's called). But you know, I don't use it that much - Bittman has a certain, shall we say, attitude, that comes through in the book. An attitude of UR DOIN IT WRONG! if you like certain foods or prefer to cook things a certain way. I mean, it's a good book and all, but I almost don't get the same sense of LOVE for the recipes and for those who developed them as I do from Nell Nichols' books, or from the Sterns' tome.

I also have some of the other Betty Crocker books - I have the one on Mexican cooking and the one called something like "The New Chinese Cookbook." I'd like to track down more of these - I know there is a Southwestern Cooking one, because my mother has it - and again, these have wonderful food-photography that's lots of fun to look at. And they have some really neat recipes in them.

If I had the time, I'd cook something fairly elaborate every night. I love to cook and I enjoy using my cookbooks.


The Fifth String said...

Best single cookbook I've ever seen is "The Joy of Cooking". They don't talk down to you, they enjoy food but aren't pretentious, and the detailed and background info is great. They even have recipes and information on some of your less common foods among upscale types, like squirrel, 'possum, and collard greens.

One other I love even if I haven't made too many recipes from it yet is "The Frugal Gourmet Cooks American". Lots of good, historical background and great for downhome, American, jingoistic oppressive white redneck males like mese'f.

Speaking of which, quick anecdote: Some years back when I was sent on a business trip to Germany, one of my hosts asked me how I was "coping with the heavy German food". To this I replied, "Man, I'm a country boy at heart from ranching families on both sides. This is HOMESTYLE." And it was. Big meat, potatoes, gravy, lots of butter and stuff. Mmmm-mmmm!

(And beyond which, the day I arrived in Mannheim was a day they had a street fair right outside my hotel; sausages, beer, cheese, freakin' HEAVEN!)

Mr. Bingley said...

Lileks would love to delve into your collection!

I love our 50's vintage Betty Crocker cookbook, mostly for the illustrations and 'helpful hints' for the Brides looking to please their Man when he gets home.

"Do your housework wearing heels and a nice dress. You will feel special!"

The Fifth String said...

And pearls. Don't forget the pearls.

WV: reemst - What NJSue did to Bingley when he made that suggestion to her.

ricki said...

I'd wear heels and pearls. But that means he couldn't lie around in his underwear and watch television - he'd have to stay fully dressed until "pajama time."

good for the goose, good for the gander.

actually, a lot of those "household hints" make me not feel so bad about never having married.

The Fifth String said...

he'd have to stay fully dressed until "pajama time." That's what Ward Cleaver did. June wore the pearls, Ward wore the tie. It all worked out.

Mr. Bingley said...

Ken, you should see what she did to me when I suggested the "meet me wearing only SaranWrap" routine...

wv: "dedmates" see my comment

Kate P said...

That Jane Doerfer cookbook sounds really interesting--I want to check that out. I inherited an early '80s Betty Crocker's Cooking for One. Some of it is useful and some of it is just plain hilarious.

I'd never heard of the suggestion to do housework in pearls and heels, but I have to admit that sometimes I put on lipstick and I have no idea why.

Joel said...

If you ever make it out to the Northwest, you have to visit Powell's in person. I used to spend entire days (and too much paycheck) there, and that was before they had a coffee shop. It's even better than online. Book lovers pray five times a day in the direction of downtown Portland.