Hitting the Books

Anyone learning how to cook is well-advised to follow the simple mandate to stand facing the stove. Some might argue that throwing the right ingredients into the right pot at the right time constitutes ninety percent of the process, but cookbooks help bring about a more sophisticated understanding of why you are doing what you are with what you have as well as a deeper appreciation of cooking itself. On the most basic level, cooking is about making foods more palatable; on the other end of the scale, cooking is a craft, some might argue an art, and the language of the kitchen itself constitutes a body of literature that ranges from the merely mechanical to the most lyrical.

When it comes to the purely technical aspects of food—its physics, chemistry and biology—the definitive work is On Food and Cooking: the Science and Lore of the Kitchen by Howard McGee. First published in 1988, this seminal work is essential for any serious cook. McGee, a thorough and consummate science writer, explains the ins and outs of such arcane subjects as leavening without condescension, at times even with grace. Stepping over a category, we have cookbooks which are such compendiums of technique and ingredients that they have become anchors for any kitchen. Foremost among these is The Joy of Cooking by Irma S. Rombauer. Despite its cavalier title, this work more than any other displays the full range of considerations that come into play for an American cook when he or she does indeed come to face the stove and even before.

Then you have regional works. Howard Mitcham’s Creole Gumbo and All That Jazz: A New Orleans Seafood Cookbook, is to my mind an indispensable addition to any kitchen south of Memphis. Mitcham, a  Mississippi native and (as such, of course) a wonderful writer, was a “lord of the line” to us kitchen grunts and an entertaining, authoritative voice to boot. On an even more local level is Bayou Cuisine, first put out in 1970. Dollie Clark has also come out with a Best of Bayou Cuisine, which features the most acclaimed recipes from the original, but I recommend the unabridged version. Southern Sideboards, first put out by the Jackson Junior League in 1978, is an archetype of its genre.

Even though to my mind Diana Kennedy’s Cuisines of Mexico is a valuable reference for everyone in my part of the world, it’s difficult for me to speak authoritatively of any cookbooks that are outside my culinary tradition, so I’ll speak directly to my own and recommend White Trash Cooking by Ernest Matthew Mickler. This gem of a book is not the prolonged joke some people think it is, but rather a warm and loving look at good people doing good things with what they have.

Finally, if you cook, you should keep a cookbook of your own. Sooner or later you’re bound to do something different and wonderful and magical, and you owe it to yourself to write it down and share it with other people. Cooking is if nothing else a compendium of tradition, and it behooves you to become a part of it.

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