For bedside reading, and indeed for reading at any time when a dose of comforting escapism is in order, nothing beats cookbooks. Along with visions of sugarplums, what better way to drift into sleep than to be daydreaming of the delicious?
The variety of choice is awesome. On their American site alone, Amazon has more than 30,000 individual paperback titles in the category and more than 23,000 hard covers. Looked at objectively, most examples easily fall into broad categories: trusted introductions to the fundamentals; guides to ethnic and regional specialties; handbooks for various kinds of entertaining; historical works; discussions of a single ingredient; and, finally, cookbooks that combine food preparation and recipes along with memoirs or autobiography.
To begin with the basics, it’s generally agreed that The Fannie Farmer Cookbook (first published as the Boston Cooking-School Cookbook in 1896) can be relied on to educate the most inexperienced would-be chef. Similarly, The Joy of Cooking (first published in 1931), selected by the New York Public Library as one of the 150 most important and influential books of the twentieth century, will teach any novice how to put a meal together. Amy Vanderbilt’s Complete Cookbook, published by Doubleday in 1961 and illustrated with winsome drawings by “Andrew Warhol,” also explores the basics as do the various tomes from magazines like Good Housekeeping, Better Homes and Gardens, and the Ladies’ Home Journal.
There is perhaps no better collection of cookbooks devoted to specific national and cultural themes than the still-impressive Time-Life Foods of the World series. Published from 1968 though the early 70s, these twenty-seven cookbooks provide an informative broad survey of the world’s major cuisines. Written by some of the most important food writers of the time—Julia Child, James Beard, Pierre Franey, and M.F. K. Fisher among them—each book and its companion spiral-bound recipe collection is full of wonderful photographs, generally beautiful to look at, well-researched, and inspiring.
Other personal favorites in this category of ethnic specialties include all Diana Kennedy’s classics on Mexican cuisine; Micheline Mongrain-Dontigny’s Traditional Quebec Cooking: A Treasure of Heirloom Recipes (1995), which tells you how to make Pâté Chinois (the delicious Quebecois version of Shepherd’s pie) and, predictably, pea soup; Carol Robertson’s Turkish Cooking: A Culinary Journey Through Turkey (1996), which combines some history and geography lessons along with easy-to-follow directions for making mouthwatering specialties like roast chicken with pine nut stuffing; Lesley Wild’s A Year of Family Recipes (2007), which is a celebration of recipes from the cooking school affiliated with Bettys, the famous and well-bred bastion of delicious Yorkshire fare; and Ann Volkwein’s The Arthur Avenue Cookbook: Recipes and Memories from the Real Little Italy (2004), which pays homage to New York’s “real Little Italy” in the Bronx.
In the regional category, you also have the whimsical and often amusing spiral-bound volumes from various Junior Leagues, women’s clubs, and other civic and charitable organizations. Here’s where you are apt to find recipes for coca-cola salad and pickles in Kool-Aid. Perhaps the most popular and well-regarded example of these is South Carolina’s Charleston Receipts (first published in 1950). Indeed, where else could you find out how to make St. Cecilia Punch?
A random sampling of titles pertaining to entertaining includes the beautiful John Hadamuscin’s Enchanted Evenings: Dinners, Suppers, Picnics & Parties by John Hadamuscin (1990), Fast and Fabulous Dinner Parties by Michele Braden (1991), The Afternoon Tea Book by Michael Smith (1986), and Entertaining at Home by Philip and Katharine Harben (1951). Included in this category could also be some now chuckle-worthy titles like Parties for Pennies: Money-saving Menus for Every Season by Elaine L. Ross (1971) and The Hostess Cooks by Viola Johnstone (1956).
Of great interest from a historical perspective is Miss Leslie’s New Cookery Book, which was first published in Philadelphia in 1857 and which makes this statement of purpose: “As every woman, whether wife or maid, should be qualified for the duties of housekeeper.” Included are recipes for Veal Broth for Invalids, Molasses Pot-Pie, and Hominy Cakes.
Another ancient classic of the genre is Mrs. Beeton’s Book of Household Management, which was first published in London in 1861. Intended as a guide for the aspirant middle class, Mrs. Beeton also published separate volumes for the less well-off including Mrs. Beeton’s All About Cookery (1907), aimed at “households and families with more modest means and requirements.”
Persephone Books in London has recently re-issued They Can’t Ration These by Vicomte de Mauduit with a preface by Rt. Hon. D. Lloyd George. First published in 1940, the preface states that “the object of this book is to show where to seek and how to use nature’s larder which in time of peace and plenty people overlook or ignore.” It includes yummy recipes for wild briar marmalade and beetroot fritters.
Also worth pursuing for its historical interest is The Settlement Cookbook: The Way to a Man’s Heart, first published in 1903 by the Milwaukee Settlement House for Russian-Jewish immigrants. This was not just a cookbook but a guide to becoming Americanized as well.
Looking further back, the Metropolitan Museum of Art published Dinner with Tom Jones: Eighteenth-Century Cookery Adapted for the Modern Kitchen by Lorna J. Sass in 1977. It’s a good read, but I may be a bit prejudiced.
When it comes to a single ingredient, there are cookbooks entirely devoted to recipes containing all manner of ingredients from fruit to cabbage to beer to pecans. There are also Jello cookbooks and a Tabasco cookbook and, a personal favorite, The Marmite Cookbook by Paul Hartley (2003).
And then we come to those books which combine memoirs with recipes and reflections. From My Chateau Kitchen by Anne Willan (2000) is a delightful mix of French food, antiques, and personal history. The author’s royalties from Some Favorite Southern Recipes of the Duchess of Windsor (1942) were donated to the British War Relief Society and the book itself, with its introduction by Eleanor Roosevelt, is a fascinating historical document. We all knew that the Duchess was well-dressed and witty, but who would have guessed how knowledgeable she was about such dishes as pilau of rabbit or baked Maryland chicken?
So, if you have trouble getting to sleep, if the cares of your day to day life are upsetting, may I suggest a casual perusal of cookbooks? Reading them can provide the gentlest possible escape from all kinds of stress. Except perhaps the stress of dieting.
Click an illustration for enlargement.