Why Classic Cookbooks Matter, Buying Cookbooks
In 1979 I bought Larousse Gastronomique. I can’t tell you exactly why. I was newly arrived at college. I had grown up in a household that liked to cook and both my Mom and Dad had a smattering of cookbooks that they would refer to now and then, as did I in our home kitchen. Now I had a small dorm kitchen, a limited budget and tons of schoolwork. Looking back, this was a very strange purchase. I didn’t know then that I wanted to “go into food”, and I hadn’t planned on buying cookbooks, but there was something about the sheer size of the thing. It looked like it was a serious resource and I had always been a reader of cookbooks for fun. Back at home I had spent hours reading Mimi Sheraton’s Visions of Sugarplums. I was fascinated at how Sheraton explored Christmas baking and desserts from all over the world. I learned how cardamom was used in Swedish cookies and that mincemeat actually had meat in it. I read about German Stollen and that it was always yeast risen and contained all kinds of candied fruit and I read about cookies and pastries that were molded into pretzel shapes, which is the baker’s sign in Scandinavia. The fact that I could learn about faraway places through their food and culinary traditions truly fascinated me and I couldn’t get enough.
Larousse was a whole new animal. I was used to traditional cookbooks. This was an encyclopedia, A to Z. I could read it front to back or bounce around, each entry standing alone as a mini lesson. Where else could I see a lithograph of a Roman baker from a Pompeii fresco side by side with a definition of true Champagne and a picture of a whole ham encased in decorative pastry? Or learn what pièce montées are (intricate, decorative displays, not always edible) and view an old drawing of a bottling plant for Vichy mineral water? This is definitely the first place I ever saw an image of cacao pods growing on the tree. Did you know that a butyrometer is a calibrated glass tube that measures the butter content of milk? Neither did I before I read it within Larousse.
Cookbooks Contain Important Messages
So what does this have to do with buying cookbooks? As I began to discuss in the introduction to our new Cookbook Review feature I am a big believer in books because they offer you a literal, tangible connection to the author’s voice and subject in a way that I do not think reading online can duplicate. Of course, as the founder of Bakepedia I believe in the digital realm as well, but I believe that cooking and baking are vast. You can approach them as an art, as a science, as a cultural appreciation, as a practical need. Hopefully the only way you aren’t approaching them is as a chore. Resources are wells of information and every resource has something to offer. A book gives you a complete look into its particular subject and I will lever stop buying them. The second book I ever bought was Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking, Volume One. I am at about book two-thousand-and-something at this point. I have lost count. The number isn’t important. The messages are. Buy cookbooks.
Image: Dédé Wilson