Reference vs. selection in cookbooks

Today, I opened a book package and found a square-formatted paperback entitled, simply, Shake.  Without looking at the title, the flap, the press release, or the back cover, I started thumbing through the pages (sometimes I just plunge in cold like that, to avoid any preconceptions I might get from the marketing).

"That's odd," I thought to myself.  There was something really different about this book, but it took me a moment to put my finger on it:  it was a drinks book that looked like a cookbook.

The drinks books on my shelf tend to be solid and dauntingly comprehensive, like any one of the many books titled "The Bar Book".  Occasionally there's a slim volume with an umbrella drink on the cover, explaining how to make 100 sangrias or vodka drinks.

But both kinds are references in their way - they take on a specific topic and exhaust it as best they can, leaving no stone unturned.  Shake, however, doesn't. Like many cookbooks, it offers a few dozen lavishly illustrated, anecdotally supported recipes, seasonally organized, with nothing in common other than that they're all alcoholic drinks.  (Summer's offerings include "The Watermelon Daiquiri", "the Montauk Mule", "The Bush Basil Booster")

Although it's practically a default format for regular cookbooks, I've never seen a drinks book quite like that - someone's favorite recipes, curated as lovingly as an exhibit in a posh gallery.  But it occurs to me that maybe that's partly because when it comes to drinks books, I'm biased toward reference.  Same with preserving books.  I guess, if it's an area of cooking where I don't feel comfortable improvising, it's an area where I prefer a reference.  I used to feel that way about grill books too, but now that I feel pretty comfortable with grilling, I think I'd prefer a small curated book bearing someone's vision.  (And the thing is, the "all the recipes in one place" argument is less important when you have tools like Eat Your Books, which puts all your recipes virtually in one place.)

What about you?  Are you a part-time sucker for reference cookbooks too?  Or do you prefer the cherry-picked and highly selective?

3 Comments

  • hillsboroks  on  7/8/2014 at 3:29 PM

    I'm with you Susie in wanting both reference and creative cookbooks. I find that sometimes with a particular dish that I want to just find a quick recipe that is guaranteed to turn out and other times I am willing to explore and experiment a little bit. It just depends on the time frame and my mood. I have also been using EYB as a reference book when I have problems with a dish like I was having last week with raspberry curd. After the second batch came out too runny I went through all my curd recipes comparing the proportions of various ingredients and cooking techniques to get ideas for ways to make it better next time. Without EYB I probably wouldn't have bothered to dig through all the indexes manually and would have given up on raspberry curd.

  • sir_ken_g  on  7/8/2014 at 4:30 PM

    I like both. Bittman's encyclopedic books are difficult to beat. But I also have many that cover just one country. I have very few like Shake in fact the only one I can think of is Casas' Paella! and a few bread books that cover a diversity of breads.

  • tsusan  on  7/8/2014 at 6:35 PM

    hillsboroks, I'd love to know what you came up with for raspberry curd! Sounds delicious.

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