Posted by: A Part of the Solution | November 10, 2010

Top Ten Desert Island Cookbook Collection

If I were trapped on a desert island with a nearly infinite variety of foods available to me, and a fully-equipped gourmet kitchen in which to cook it all, I wouldn’t need all that many cookbooks to keep myself happy for aye and anon.

First off, I would have to have The Joy of Cooking, Irma Rombauer and Marion Becker. If it were possible, I would want a 1931 copy, a 1951 copy, a 1975 copy and a 1997 copy. They all have different recipes and reflect the way Americans have been cooking since before Prohibition right up to the present.

Next, I would need Mastering the Art of French Cooking, Julia Child and Simone Beck (Vols. I and II, natch). Because life without mushrooms a la greque, or boeuf bourguinon might not be a life as much worth living. And the books give great advice on how to save that which has tried and failed.

I would also have to have Le Guide Culinaire, Auguste Escoffier’s oeuvre. Even if this is  not how I like to cook every day, this makes great reading. I enjoy thinking about those complicated garnishes named after the great gourmands and opera singers. I enjoy meditating on the volumes of hollandaise implicit in a recipe whose base quantity of eggs is one dozen. And I enjoy not having to push anything through a hair tamis to get a nice mousse made.

I would need to have Moosewood, Molly Katzen’s first cook book. It’s a now old fashioned vegetarian cook book, but a classic all the same. And the line drawings are a delight to the soul, no matter how many times I’ve seen them. Plus the split pea soup is just to die for.

I would want Laurel’s Kitchen by Laurel Robertson et al. It has wonderful nutritional essays and tables in the back. It has some truly delicious, and unexpected, recipes as well. It’s neither pretentious nor preachy and I love it.

I would need The I Hate to Cook Book, Peg Bracken’s maiden voyage into cookery writing. It has clever illustrations by Hillary Knight, and some really wonderful recipes of which I never tire. And it’s got that lovely, irreverent prose by Peg Bracken who sharpened her wit and tightened her prose writing advice columns and helpful-household-hint columns.

It wouldn’t be a real desert island collection without the indispensable work of Elizabeth David. I have a boxed set of her now-classic Italian Food, Mediterranean Food, French Country Cooking, French Provincial Cooking and Summer Cooking. They are an engrossing read, and the recipes satisfy both the cook and those who eat the cooking.

From the American past, I would need Marion Harland’s Complete Cook Book. This was published about the same time as Le Guide Culinaire. But it’s all about home cooking, and home making and how to handle the help. It’s as minatory as it is useful. I’m hooked on her tomato catsup recipe.

Not so much for the recipes, but definitely for the attitude and expression, I would want Simple Cooking by John Thorne. These were essays, with recipes embedded in them, from his newsletter published in the last part of the twentieth century. If you don’t know his work, he’s worth tracking down.

Lastly, though it’s not really a cook book, I would have a copy of Kitchen Confidential. Say what you will, Anthony Bourdain tells the truth as he experienced it in this memoir of a life in food. Before he was a TV icon, after he was a Times Square junkie, he was a chef–and this is a vivid glimpse behind the scenes of better restaurants.


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