In a time not so long ago, if a homemaker needed a recipe for any reason — from a special birthday cake to a casserole to use up a collection of leftovers — she (rarely he in those days) would turn to a trusty cookbook. In North America the first such “Bible” was the Fannie Farmer Cookbook, published by Fannie Merritt Farmer in 1896 as The Boston Cooking-School Cookbook. Other trusted tomes followed over the decades, including The Joy of Cooking in 1931 and the Betty Crocker Cookbook in 1950.
Success with a cookbook requires a special skill set and lots of practice.
- First, the ability to think alphabetically in order to navigate the vast indices that follow the recipe sections.
- Second, being able to think outside the box. If you don’t find what you are looking for in the index, try to come up with an alternative listing for it.
- Third, creativity. If you find the “perfect recipe” but don’t have time to run to the store and are short an ingredient, you will have to imagine a suitable alternative for the missing item. Some cookbooks like Joy have a special section on substitutions.
In short, while searching through a good cookbook, while you might not always find exactly what you want, you should be able to find what you need.
I will admit that when it comes to cleaning out the fridge, I am addicted to Google search for recipes. But I am still in love with my cookbook collection, and always will be.
I read these treasured volumes. I bookmark recipes that sound delicious. I plan special meals around recipes from these beloved authors.
A prominent figure in my collection is James Beard (1903-1985), author of 20 cookbooks and an early celebrity chef as the first host of a television food program, on NBC in 1946. An omnivore who loved his meat but also knew how to celebrate vegetables, Beard was one of the first chefs to espouse the importance of fresh ingredients. It is his memory I would like to honor today.
James Beard grew up on the West Coast in the Portland area. Many of Beard’s first memories are of food (sound familiar, fans of Proust?). In his 1964 biography Delights & Prejudices, Beard fondly recalls a variety of childhood delights: clams, Dungeness crab, and other seafood; blackbottom pie; Welsh rabbit; white asparagus; and, most importantly, the chicken jelly his mother made for him when he had malaria at the age of three. He literally grew up in the kitchen with his entrepreneurial mother, who at one time owned and managed a hotel. They went clamming and harvested berries with friends, making meals from what they could forage, much as René Redzepi does at Noma.
According to the James Beard Foundation, Beard wrote his first cookbook, Hors d’Oeuvre and Canapés (1940), in just six weeks. Cook It Outdoors (1941) soon followed. According to the Foundation's site, “The dust jacket promoted Cook It Outdoors as ‘a man’s book written by a man who understands not only the healthy outdoor eating and cooking habits, but who is an expert at the subtle nuances of tricky flavoring as well. And it will be invaluable to the woman who aims to please the masculine members of the household.’ Cook it Outdoors offered a dozen recipes for hamburgers… But Beard didn’t limit himself to recipes for food. The confirmed bachelor offered his recipe for a successful marriage as well: let the husband control the fire, and the wife the kitchen.” In our day and age JB would be termed a sexist, but he wrote these words nearly 3/4 of a century ago! I like to think he would have changed with the times, and I love him anyway.
The James Beard Cookbook (1959) was the first cookbook first published as a paperback. It was revised a number of times between 1961 and 1996, and is considered a classic.
American Cookery (1972) is one of my favorites, with some 1500 recipes. It is an excellent source for Thanksgiving meal planning and has a large section on vegetables, notable for many regional variations. Last year this volume was the starting point for my experiments with Hubbard Squash.
I baked my first bread using Beard on Bread (1974), a slim volume with beautiful, specially commissioned line drawings as illustrations, a feature of many later books as well.
Beard did not have a lavish kitchen or fancy gadgets. In 1977, he published Theory and Practice of Good Cooking, a compendium of knowledge useful to the beginner and the experienced cook alike. Subjects include: A Kitchen Equipment Check List, Cooking Techniques, Recipes that Do Not Require Cooking, and Carving [he did love meat]. The book includes over 300 recipes and an awesome Concordance with information on a vast number of subjects, including how to select the best vegetables. This book is where I learned how to select the best celeriac.
The New James Beard (1981) reflected the changing times in the cooking world. The volume is a collection of over 1,000 recipes using less butter and more herbs than Beard had used in the past — healthier recipes while by no means a diet cookbook. This collection has never disappointed me. If you were to own just one of his books, this would be a good choice.
James Beard’s legacy endures through the work of the James Beard Foundation, a not-for-profit organization in New York City whose mission is “to celebrate, nurture, and honor America’s diverse culinary heritage through programs that educate and inspire.” These programs include hosting a variety of events in the James Beard House, the 1844 brownstone in Greenwich Village that was Beard’s home.
Read a cookbook. Try something new. Eat well. Have a great week.
I often blog on food or food issues on Monday in support of Meatless Monday, one of several programs developed in the Healthy Monday project, founded in 2003 in association with Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health, Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and Syracuse University’s Newhouse School of Communications. Meatless Monday’s goal is “to help reduce meat consumption 15% in order to improve personal health and the health of our planet.”