Sunday, March 29, 2009

Joie de Livre

I thought of that title what I woke up in the middle of the night and couldn't quiet my brain enough to fall back asleep. Then, it struck me as a clever expression of my love of books with a little play on words. Now that I see it up there, I'm not so sure, but it'll do.

I am a life-long reader and amasser of books. I have always been a lover of fiction, as is my husband, and neither of us have ever sold a textbook from college. We moved into a home previously owned by a buyer for a large local book store who had bookshelves built in when they finished the basement. We inherited a large collection of his books that were left behind after the move. This was a large factor in our decision to buy this place.

I routinely bring home large hauls of books from the library on a wide range of topics. Most of which I skim, some of which I renew and read thoroughly. This is one that I asked my library to buy and will likely buy myself. It's a fantastic book about taste as a social phenomenon. So so interesting and easy to read. Food, The History of Taste.

I inherited a little hutch that nobody else wanted (luckily some past family member was as crazy as I am and painted the interior bright orange) and it has become home to my cookbook shelf.

Click here on page 148 to read Shelf Life, a fantastic piece by M.F.K. Fisher (::bow::) about the ebbs and flows of her cookbook shelf. Great read.

My shelf is infantile in comparison to her collection, but I think it gives an insight into my values and practices as a cook, and must be taken in a very different context given that my adult culinary experiences have taken place in the internet age.

Since we have ample space in the basement to store books, I try to only keep on hand the books I find myself using often. I've chosen some books that illustrate the various reasons I keep books around to give you some idea about the information I find valuable and useful.

I must begin with Joy of Cooking, the tome that has survived (albeit altered significantly) since 1936 and is considered as indispensable as ever. This is my go-to for baking, and for American classics. I keep this book around because it's a reference that, thanks to its unparalleled popularity and diversity of content, has been used, tested, and revised over the last 70 years. It's a great place to find things people don't make anymore, but should.

And whenever I need to throw on my boots and skin a squirrel, Irma is there for me.

(you better click on that one.)

Another great reference that I use for basics is this book, Essentials of Cooking by James Peterson. It's full of pictures that illustrate all those things you should have learned in culinary school but didn't because you were studying linguistics.

Like, how to determine the doneness of a steak by touch.

Or how to cut up a duck. (this is one where the pictures really help)

The last reference-type book I keep on hand is the Food Lover's Companion, which is a dictionary of sorts. It's not comprehensive, it's not thorough, and it's not always perfectly accurate, but it's a great little book to have when you're trying to understand the name one of the billion styles of pasta, or figure out what exactly lutefisk is. (you don't want to know)


Just like a dictionary. Ahh, Limburger.

Another type of book that I must have around is the food science nerd book. My other books tell me the how about food, these tell me the why.

Everybody's favorite (somewhat annoying) FoodTV chef, Alton Brown, who I mention on here often, has a great basic book, I'm Just Here for the Food.

He refers to cooking methods as "applications" and divides the book up that way. This is a great way to approach cooking if you're new at it. Learn how to sear, then try lots of different recipes using the skill. Plus it's a little kitschy.

You can think of Harold McGee as AB's smarter, more thorough, more disciplined, and slightly dryer grandfather. His book, On Food and Cooking, is so fantastic that I don't think we can be friends if it's not already on your shelf. I use this book all the time. It's equally good for references as it is for simple entertainment. His writing is clear and precise, and he never lets me down. He's less entertaining that AB, but still has a prose style all his own.

(Yeah, it won the James Beard AND the IACP awards)

Here, a really handy list of basic herb sauces by region.

Less practical, though just as prized, are the books that I keep for historical significance.

The first is one that I've read through mostly and use as a starting point for some stuff, but don't often cook from directly. It's important because it is an important style of French cooking. The "nouvelle" (new) cuisine uses simple but excellent ingredients prepared in a lighter fashion and is a form of haute cuisine. Cooking the Nouvelle Cuisine in America by Michele Urvater.

I find traces of this book everywhere I read about food. I can't recall the first time I read its title,but I've seen it on many top book lists, including the Fisher one above. I inherited this copy with the house, and can't wait to read it. The Physiology of Taste by Brilliat-Savarin, the first real gastronome.

Fisher herself notes the importance of a good loaf of bread at each meal, and I've always had an obsession with breads of all kinds. While there are so many interesting (beautiful) bread books out there, I really only have one essential bread book. This one can't be beat. The Bread Baker's Apprentice by Peter Reinhart. The best pizza crust, baguette, wheat bread, lavash, and cinnamon rolls I've ever made all came from here.

Shaping marble rye, and on the right is my favorite bread for toast.

While most of these books were written by culinary professionals, I do have one book from a doctor. We rarely buy new books, but this one made its way into our collection recently and is very interesting. It's about nutrition and the benefits of getting the essentials from whole foods. It's frightening how little education physicians are required to have on nutrition as part of their training, so I find it necessary to educate myself. Chef MD's Big Book of Culinary Medicine.

A section on "what to eat for that". (The quoted Chinese proverb says, "He that takes medicine and neglects diet wastes the skills of the physician")

Last on this looong list is a book that I found for $1 and keep around for laughs. Anyone who is drawn to vintage cookbooks has seen some pretty disgusting recipes and photos, and this book brings many of them together in a hilarious way. Behold, The Gallery of Regrettable Food(ugh, so.much.aspic.)

Cabbage head.

I have to share with you my old food journal. Before I got onto the blog bandwagon I wanted a place to log my recipes and give myself feedback. I haven't written in this much lately, but it's tone was much more like a journal than this blog. Plus it has the tactile benefit of pen and paper, which I really crave.

(Greek night! It was a good one:))

It being the internet-age and all, I have a drawer full of recipes that I've printed and reuse.

My collection has huge holes and there are so many things I want to add to it, and so many things I've read but didn't keep, but this should give you a little glimpse into my history and present.

So, what's your favorite food book?

1 comment:

John La Puma, MD said...

Wonderful essay, terrific photos and very good story telling. And I'm honored to be in such terrific culinary company.
Thanks for taking the time to assemble a timeless list!
And I love the scraps of recipes in your drawer...I have one that looks like that too.
John La Puma, MD

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