Last fall, an article about cooking apps in the New York Times posed the question, “Are Cookbooks Obsolete?” It got me thinking about all the pleasure I derive from reading cookbook authors who are also great writers, and all that I would have missed over the years if apps had supplanted their books.
I’m not talking about memoirs or food writing without recipes, à la M.F.K. Fisher; I’m talking about wonderful writing in recipe books, many of which are written by unknown cooks who would have a difficult time finding a publisher today. Patience Gray’s “Honey From a Weed” is one of the most delectable cookbooks in my library.
Gray could show us how she makes her preserve of ripe peaches on YouTube, but would she say this?
“The sugar quickly melts and raising the heat you go on stirring, marveling at the changing colour of the fruit reminding one of Modigliani’s paintings. In 10 minutes or so, the jam is an intense gold, the fruit transparent … ”
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One cookbook that I still read in bed is “Simple French Food,” by Richard Olney. I learned much about French country cooking, and specifically the cooking of Provence, from Olney’s book. I also learned something about him. Olney is opinionated and ornery, thoughtful and eloquent, passionate and poetic, even when discussing something as simple as the role of a hard-boiled egg in a salad:
“The hard-boiled egg is not simply another salad ingredient that may or may not find its place depending on the demands of décor or supplementary flavor. Its function, residing largely in the yolk, is, like that of salt, fundamental. It is a dulcifying agent, suavely veiling the bitterness of acerbity native to numerous leafy vegetables or bitter salads. With a vinaigrette or, more rarely, with cream and lemon, alone or in combination, chicory, endive, escarole, dandelion, par-boiled spinach (rinsed in cold water, squeezed, and coarsely chopped), lamb’s lettuce, or cress expands in its presence, mollified or flattered by the union … ”
Judy Rodgers’ “The Zuni Café Cookbook” is thick with prose but not weighty. You begin to thumb through looking for a recipe for your upcoming dinner party, but you end up just reading. Like the salt she uses to season her meats at just the right time, Judy Rodgers’ prose is purposeful. It tells her story (“My education in cooking began unassumingly in 1973 with a delicious ham sandwich on chewy, day-old pain de campagne, a spoonful of very spicy mustard, tarragon-laced cornichons, and a few sweet, tender crayfish as an hors d’oeuvre”) and the story of her restaurant, Zuni Café, but in the end what you get is a point of view, a philosophy of cooking. You can get lost in her three full pages on The Practice of Salting Early and come out the other side understanding what salting does and why you will do exactly what she tells you to do when you get to the recipes. It’s relaxing to read this big book; there’s nothing in it you’d want to miss.
There are cookbook authors who write about and teach technique, and yes, apps are fantastic for this. I hope that my stir-fry guru Grace Young does an app, but I would never want to trade in her wonderful book “Stir-Frying to the Sky’s Edge” for an abbreviated tablet version. Grace could show me how to make her friend Pepei’s stir-fried eggplant, but would that evoke the notion of alchemy that she senses when she watches the Shanghai native bring stir-fried eggplant to life in a New York apartment kitchen with “one meatball’s worth of pork,” a tiny pinch of minced ginger, and two crushed cloves of garlic “added just before she covers the wok and lets it sit off the heat long enough to coax the essence of fresh garlic into the eggplant”?
Sometimes great cookbook writing is just a memorable phrase, a laugh evoked by a one-liner that I’m grateful for. I am forever quoting this line from Russ Parsons’ “How to Pick a Peach”: “Let’s get one thing straight: Most eggplants are not bitter (even though they have every right to be after everything that has been said about them).”
Julia Child, who would have turned 100 today, was a living prototype for the app, so successfully did she fuse her talent for televised teaching with her tremendous ability to convey information on the page.
She and I corresponded in the 1970s after I wrote her a gushing fan letter. In one of her letters, she gave me a piece of advice about doing television that I cherish: “Do remember, when you are planning [recipes] for a TV presentation, that you should choose dishes that are visually interesting. Something like a Gaspacho [sic], where everything is dumped into a blender has no excitement at all! If you could blend, then do something fascinating, fine. In other words, if you can read it and do it, it’s not for TV. You want something that needs visual explanation.”
The thing about Julia Child’s recipes, though, is that they are so well written that you could read them and do them all.
Photo: Some of the author’s favorite cookbooks for reading. Credit: Martha Rose Shulman