In the days before I developed a systematic winnowing process
for choosing my favorite cookbooks, I often found myself making a
familiar argument, as I stood - book in hand - over the discard
pile. "But having all these recipes in one place - that's got
to be worth something, right?"
Usually the cookbook in question leans on a lot of really
familiar recipes: meat loaf, roast chicken, tomato-basil-mozzarella
salad. It's usually nicely produced, with a lot of white
space in the design. There's probably a pretty nice
photograph, and the recipe is accurate as far as it goes. "I
know how to make all of these dishes in my sleep," I say to myself,
"but still...they're all in the same place!"
I put the cookbook on the shelf, and there it sits, for two
years or the next cleanup, at which time the process is
When I decided on my 7 questions to consider when choosing a
cookbook, this was nearly the 8th. But over time, I've
come to think of "all in the same place" as a line of last
resort for a cookbook--an excuse for me to keep something pretty
but completely impractical.
I think a classic example of
this dilemma can be found in Martha's
American Food. Straight-ahead recipes that probably work
just fine, beautifully designed, well-illustrated--but nothing new.
Blueberry pancakes, mac and cheese, mashed potatoes,
three-bean salad--I ask myself what I can still learn from these
recipes, and I come up short.
It's a credit to these book that the decision is so hard.
Couldn't I use it as a quick reference at my beach cottage?
I wheedle. Oh right, I don't have a beach cottage.
Maybe I could use it when I need to quickly find a reliable
recipe for something standard? But no, I would probably do
that by looking on EYB, or if I didn't have EYB, by searching the
James Peterson's Vegetables is a nice package,
too. It's mildly informative, and there's a couple of simple
ways to make each vegetable. (But I already know a couple of
simple ways to make each vegetable!) Sometimes it's a matter
of a book aiming to be of such general use that it ends up covering
only what you can already find on Wikipedia. Sometimes it's
simply a matter of being too vague, as in Bake Something Great! where the word
"something" is the dealbreaker, for me. I don't want to bake
just "something". I want a fudgy brownie with hazelnuts and
cacao nibs! I want to learn better techniques! new ideas!
if I actually look up a roast chicken recipe, I want it to be
the best ever because of a secret brining method I don't know or an
ingredient I didn't think of--something that goes beyond "roast at
400 degrees for one hour".
But I don't want to be closed-minded about this. Have you
ever kept a cookbook just because it had everything in the same
place? And did you keep using it again an again, after all?
If it's a general cookbook that's stuck by you right through
the Information Age, I'm willing to bet it's a real keeper.