On Cookbooks

An ode to the ones that wake me up.

I was trying to write this before the rain really started to pour. A tropical storm was supposed to be coming through, and that means we had to be concerned about losing power. While I was writing, the sun was still shining a bit, and I sat at my desk, which is a complete disaster, with a pile of cookbooks at my feet because I thought it would be nice to write a little bit about the ones I look at the most lately.

Since diving deep back into working on my book after a few months of distraction, despair, and eventually a deadline extension, I’m realizing how significant cookbooks are to my work—to my whole project, whatever that is. Understanding why we eat what we eat? I guess it’s that. As I’ve been in research, there has been a lot of reading scientific studies that analyze the impacts of one food versus another, historic texts that look at the reasons meat has become so ubiquitous in the United States, and general food texts about food systems. 

Reading and understanding all of this is necessary to what I’m trying to do, but I get little to no joy out of it. It generally isn’t fun—it’s just work. I hope that I can write a book about these issues that is holistic and well-written enough not to put people to sleep, where there are beautiful sentences and surprising characters illuminated with cold, hard facts. 

What is providing me with beauty and inspiration are cookbooks, and luckily because I’m writing about the cultural history of vegetarianism and veganism in the U.S., there are a host of entertaining characters and polemics and dated recipes for me to get from these texts: usually written by women, always written by people who care so, so much about our planet, its humans and its animals, that it sometimes hurts to read. Did they always care in the best way? No. Did they always have the best politics? No. That’s what makes it all the more compelling, because I’m not interested in the best, the perfect.

There’s a reason I haven’t gone back to school for food studies, though I did consider it for a while, and that’s because I’m inspired only by experience. It could sound pretentious, or it could sound like I’m a philistine—I’m sure some see me as a dilettante!—but I like to follow curiosity rather than hunker down and study. While talking to a journalism class recently, they asked me how I did the deep historical research that I’d done for a feature of mine that we were discussing, and all I could offer was that I’m a nerd. If it feels like research, I kind of hate it. If it feels like a journey, I love it. I need my work to feel like a journey, like a preordained quest. I’m childish that way, but it’s the good kind of childish, I think. The kind that keeps you enthusiastic, open, making it up as you go along. 

Cookbooks are experiential, and that’s why I love them. You’re seeing into a mind at work, yes, but also a body at work. Food is never a purely intellectual exercise (or, when it is, it’s boring). Lately, the cookbook I’ve been opening the most is Claudia Fleming’s The Last Course: The Desserts of Gramercy Tavern. It’s because I’ve been tooling around with how best to make a carambola tarte tatin, and what I think I need to do is surrender to the classic and do the puff pastry rather than continue on with trying to top it off with cake. 

This book came out originally in 2001, became a cult classic, and then went out of print. It came back in 2019 with, I must say, an uglier cover. I’m very lucky because before that happened, my beloved Aunt Diane presented me with a first edition as a birthday gift. The Last Course is styled in my favorite food style, which is that of the ’90s, despite its release date. It is elegant, refined, with the photos by Dana Gallagher all sunlit and soft. I absorbed the food styling of the ’90s, far before I ever really cooked anything, through issues of Food & Wine and going into Williams-Sonoma at the Smithhaven Mall. It was, and still looks to me, like comfort and luxury. Perhaps it all just signifies the Hamptons.

Speaking of serif fonts and Hamptons style, I have also been opening The Barefoot Contessa Cookbook, which came out in 1999. This book has been instructive to me for writing my own recipes, because Ina Garten gives the reader simple, simple, simple. The ingredients are kept to a minimum; the instructions are to the point. In a meeting recently, to my own horror, I blurted out that I wanted to be an Ina Garten for the apocalypse, and that’s more true every time I look at her work, which shows exactly how easy it can be (indeed, how easy is that?) to make really good food, to feed your friends and find joy in it. 

Again, from my favorite era of cookbooks but published originally across the Atlantic from Long Island’s toniest towns, 2000’s How to Eat by Nigella Lawson is endlessly instructive. As has been said repeatedly, it’s a cookbook that’s almost meant to be read and absorbed more than it’s meant to be cooked from (though it’s also that). It’s a philosophy text; it’s funny. “Kafkaesque or Soft and Crispy Duck” is just a glorious bit of food writing: “The echt [Barbara] Kafkaesque technique involves poaching the duck, upright, in a thin, tall pot in duck stock,” she writes. “I couldn’t quite see why you needed to poach the bird in stock, as the flesh is rich itself. More to the point, I had none.” An argument about technique, which ends up really just a defense of one’s own pantry. Smart and relatable.

Three other cookbooks that are slimmer, pocket-sized volumes that I love to sit with are Nigel Slater’s Real Fast Food from 1992, Vertamae Smart-Grosvenor’s Vibration Cooking from 1970, and Tamar Adler’s An Everlasting Meal from 2011. These are very different writers, but they are utterly sure of their voice, of their perspective, and of the significance of good food and its ability to weave its way into everyday life.

I start to tear up revisiting Slater’s introduction, where he writes—after admitting to “a few indulgences,” like using extra virgin olive oil, garlic, basil, and a few other ingredients “to excess”—“fast food can also mean a slice of truly ripe Charentais melon eaten with a hunk of salty Feta cheese and a few black olives, or perhaps a juicy white peach sliced and dropped into a glass of deep yellow wine.” 

Sometimes, or oftentimes, food writers are mocked for being out of touch with how most people eat, as one could say is being done here, but I’d say we need the inspiration. It’s in seeing and experiencing the way care can be expressed in food that makes many realize how much beauty caring a bit about melon and olives can add to their days.

The famous of line of Smart-Grosvenor is, “When I cook, I never measure or weigh anything. I cook by vibration.” In our days now of “vibes” that may or may not be “off,” the book is a reminder of what it means to really be in touch with one’s own energy. She wrote recipes the old-fashioned way, in little paragraphs without ingredient lists or yields. “This is the richest country in the world,” she writes, speaking about what makes her angry (the list includes instant coffee). “Any citizen should be given at birth the guarantee of a life free from hunger. And tell me, what is a second-class citizen? You either a citizen or you’re not. And that reminds me about my forty acres and a mule. I’ll take the forty acres and a Jeep.” Good food, recipes and memories and vibrations as inheritance when so much else is due.

Many people think of Adler and her first book as overly precious, and I admit to having been wrong about her myself for quite some time. That doesn’t mean I didn’t, before I was convinced of her brilliance, read the book in one fell swoop because it’s gorgeous, because it ensnares you in its web slowly with the rhythm of the titular everlasting meal, and now that I see and understand what is great about her (namely, that she is, as revealed in our conversation, extremely politically active and engaged), I dip back into the book for inspiration in keeping myself cooking as well as fortified in the fight to make sure everyone has the chance to enjoy a bit of preciousness now and then. Because it’s not a bad word: We all deserve that.

The most recently released cookbook to match the fullness of these voices and perspectives has been, to my mind, Samin Nosrat’s 2017 Salt Fat Acid Heat. An exuberant text that nonetheless explains all those little things that are usually learned through years of experience (indeed, were learned through her years), like when to use gentle or intense heat, how smoke imparts flavor, how exactly fat and salt work. It’s a textbook, one that makes a new cook comfortable and an old cook smarter. That’s quite a triumph, to teach with empathy.

It’s funny that sometimes I get so annoyed by the slog of reading background science and climate reporting, economic philosophy, and political policy, but I know that all the knowledge is essential to what I’m trying to ultimately convey. When I get burned out on them, though, and I need to remember what it is I actually like about food, what makes food meaningful in the day to day, and what actually got me to the point of writing a book, I go to these to soothe my mind and soul. They remind me to fill up the page with my voice, my sensibility, and to entertain all the while. They remind me what’s great about food writing, and why I ended up doing this at all. They make me think that despite the time I started crying while working on recipes for someone else’s cookbook, that I really want to write my own.

This Friday’s paid subscriber interview will feature writer, podcast host, and cookbook author Cathy Erway. We discuss how she came to food writing through blogging, her approach to cooking at home, and the unique framing of her cookbook The Food of Taiwan.

Note: From the Desk of Alicia Kennedy is open to sponsorships, which will allow me to put out more interviews that are freely available, pay potential contributing writers, keep me developing great vegan recipes, and generally grow the newsletter. If you or your clients are interested, please fill out this form.

Annual subscriptions are $30; monthly, $5. Listen to audio of the weekly essays here.

A brief and somewhat curt interview with Enough Media.

This one too! Though I received a copy of Acquired Tastes: Stories about the Origins of Modern Food that I’m now reading. I’ve been eyeing the book ArtForum by César Aira, whom I adore, and I think I will just pick it up and read it and enjoy myself for a bit. I have also felt nostalgia for the Bolaño moment. Will I return to Bolaño?

I blitzed the black beans I talked about making last week into a dip and it was dope! Pictured above is vegan flan de guineo. Recipe reveal eventually!