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The best writing about cooking

by Debra Hale-Shelton | March 22, 2020 at 2:09 a.m.

I'm a bookaholic. I collect books, especially cookbooks, old and new, small and large, some personally autographed, others bought at yard sales or bookstores. I either read, plan to read or just browse other books, too--fiction, food and travel literature, and memoirs among them.

I had to admit my love of books was more of an obsession than anything worthy of praise a few years ago after I donated several books to the Faulkner County library and later shopped at the library's semi-annual book sale. After buying some books I desperately needed, I sat on the floor at home where I admired my newest purchases--that is, until I opened one of them to find my own signature: I had just bought back a book I had earlier donated to the library.

While not necessarily the most valuable and definitely not the most practical, my favorite cookbooks include A Treasury of Great Recipes by Mary and Vincent Price--the Vincent Price better known for his roles in horror movies than his appreciation of haute cuisine.

Recipes in the huge brown, red and golden book that bills itself as "luxurious" include one for a pig roasted Hawaiian-style in a pit or hole in the ground. One problem most home cooks might have with this recipe, shared by a chef at a hotel in the Hawaiian Islands, is that it serves 75 to 100 people.

For the more health-conscious diner, there's Hotchpotch of Curly Kale, which the Prices define as "a kind of cabbage" in this book from 1965, long before the current kale craze. The good news is that the recipe serves four people. The bad news is that the Prices describe the dish, made of potatoes, kale and sausage, as "very good, especially if you slather it with butter."

When I'm in search of a recipe, I'm far more likely to turn to books like Ina Garten's Barefoot Contessa Family Style, which the popular Food Network cook autographed for me over cups of tea in downtown Chicago. A favorite recipe, which I've adapted to add balsamic vinegar and onions, is Parmesan Roasted Asparagus. The dish requires no trips to a pig farm, just a visit to a farmer's market or a grocer's produce and cheese sections. I shall not forget Garten's response to me when asked if she and her husband Jeffrey had any children. No, she replied, they like to keep things simple. It's no wonder her recipes are practical.

Another accessible work is More Classic Italian Cooking by Marcella Hazan, who was born in Italy and later taught northern Italian cooking in the United States. Where else can you find a recipe for using leftover cooked spaghetti to create a frittata? The dish, born in Naples, requires only a handful of other readily available ingredients.

Among my favorite culinary writers is Elizabeth David, the British author of books ranging from An Omelette and a Glass of Wine to Is There a Nutmeg in the House? I first learned of David when I read the book South Wind Through the Kitchen, a collection of excerpts and recipes from her works as compiled by Jill Norman.

David's writing departed from the traditional cookbook format of listing the ingredients followed by step-by-step directions on creating a dish. Instead, she blends the list and the directions into articles or essays that sometimes also touch on the people and places David encountered in her travels--a predecessor of today's popular culinary travel books such as Frances Mayes' Under the Tuscan Sun. David also is credited with making British cooks more aware of ingredients such as olive oil, saffron and aubergine, or eggplants.

I also own an early copy of Mastering the Art of French Cooking. My copy of the 1961 book was printed in 1965, well before one of its authors, Julia Child, became a TV hit and household name. In fact, Simone Beck and Louisette Bertholle's names are listed above Child's on the title page. Child's byline later would become the first and most prominent.

I'm also the unashamed owner of a cookbook by actor Burt Reynolds' romantic interest for a time, singer Dinah Shore. Recipes in Someone's in the Kitchen with Dinah range from baked hominy grits with cheese to Frank Sinatra's fresh tomato spaghetti sauce.

I'm prouder of the 2002 book Chez Panisse Fruit by California chef Alice Waters. I met Waters in 2002 at a farmers' market in Evanston, Ill., where she signed the book and suggested I buy some rhubarb from farmer Henry Brockman to create her rhubarb compote. I did, and it was a hit at a potluck the next day. I also got Waters' autograph of her children's book, Fanny at Chez Panisse. Named for her own daughter, Waters personalized my copy for my soon-to-be daughter Annie Marie.

Perhaps my oldest cookbook is a 1904 copy of The White House Cook Book by Hugo Ziemann, who is identified as steward of the White House, and "Mrs. F.L. Gillette." The title page says the book contains, among other things, "cooking, toilet and household recipes."

Should you be curious about toilet recipes, as I was, a few of them include lavender water, a freckle remover, a cure for pimples and bone-marrow pomade, or ointment, for the hair.

Despite my love of cookbooks, I prefer to read food literature, particularly memoirs, more. Among my favorites are William Alexander's hilarious The $64 Tomato, Laurie Colwin's Home Cooking and More Home Cooking In Memory's Kitchen: A Legacy From the Women of Terezin edited by Cara De Silva, Alone in the Kitchen with an Eggplant with essays by such varied writers as M.F.K. Fisher, Nora Ephron and Ann Patchett, and Ruth Reichl's Tender at the Bone and Save Me the Plums: My Gourmet Memoir.

These books combine the best of food memoirs with good writing, interesting stories and fascinating people. Sometimes they offer humor as Alexander does in recalling his tomato gardening. Sometimes they are personal or gossipy memoirs as in Reichl's books. And sometimes they represent stories of courage as does the Holocaust-era cookbook, originally compiled into a hand-sewn book by women in the Czechoslovakian ghetto of Terezin.

I also should mention one other book on my shelves: Judith Comfort's Writing Cookbooks. I have dreams of creating my own family cookbook someday.

Debra Hale-Shelton can be reached at dhaleshelton@gmail.com. Follow her on Twitter at @nottalking.

Editorial on 03/22/2020

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