A good cookbook must have letter perfect, clear directions. After that, it depends…
Who is reading?
A reader or a cook? A beginner or an experienced cook? A timid or an adventurous cook? Someone who reads cookbooks the way others read novels?
Readers want the story behind the recipes — whether it is a family story, a travelog or a Cook’s Magazine-like romp through the process of getting to a finished dish — or they might just want a coffee-table book. Sometimes readers might want well-drafted, clear directions that motivate them to get off the couch and into the kitchen. The greatest disappointment, then, is when readers are motivated to cook and the directions don’t work.
A cook may enjoy the stories and the stories may inspire experiments leading to serendipitously wonderful food — or at least some fun in the project.
We all want recipes with clear directions.(There. I wrote it again.)
An experienced cook is likely to spot the typo (2 T instead of 2 tsp) or the flavors that we know won’t work for us.
Unless, of course, the book was printed in the 1870s (Mrs. Porter’s New Southern Cookery, Louis Szathmary, ed.) and it includes ingredients only, most conspicuously in the baking section. At least Mrs. Porter assumed that her readers knew how to bake, and that her instructions were superfluous.
Why do I have more than 700 cookbooks? A combination of insatiable curiosity about the cooking habits and practices that have changed over time (bless Fannie Farmer and all of her editions), around the country and around the world, and a life-long “no more than you can carry” rule in both libraries and used bookstores.
What could anyone actually do with 700 cookbooks? First they go onto bookshelves in or near the kitchen, where it makes sense to keep them. Then, they overflow the shelves and pile up on the floor in front of the shelves. They line the staircase, and move upstairs and line up in front of non-cookbook shelves. Finally, a kindly librarian comes to the rescue with a cataloging program http://www.wensoftware.com and they now reside in virtual apple-pie order on the web.
The act of cataloging, however, helped me focus on each book, and I’ll be cooking something new every week to celebrate this mad pile of peculiar literature.
What have a learned from a lifetime of cooking and reading about cooks and cooking? With the notable exceptions of French haute cuisine and Martha Stewart and her minions, the foods of our people — all of them — were made with a spoon, a bowl, a dreadful knife and some kind of fire. Not much is “hard to do,” although some recipes require more care than others. Fearless cooks are enthusiastic, and those who eat their food are darned lucky!