Reading Cookbooks

I first learned that there are people who read cookbooks from Luisa Weiss’s My Berlin Kitchen, which I read in 2014 before going to Berlin for the first time. Only up until recently I thought cookbooks were for consulting, not reading pleasure. I’m not talking about memoirs with recipes like Weiss’s first book or the more genre-defying An Everlasting Meal by Tamar Adler. I’m talking about the more traditional cookbooks.

But on my recent visit to my mother’s house, where most of my books still reside, I lay down on my mother’s bed with Julia’s Kitchen Wisdom: Essential Techniques and Recipes from a Lifetime of Cooking, by none other than Julia Child, and discovered that I could sink into a cookbook they way I sink into a novel or a memoir.

Now just a little of my history with this cookbook. I bought the book in Thailand in December 2009 to take with me to Aix-en-Provence, France, where I studied French until mid-2011. And believe it or not, I never really used it. Yes, for a year and a half in France, I had this jewel of a book and never knew what to do with it. I obviously knew very little about cooking then, even though I cooked all the time when I was there. And I knew even less about how to buy and use a cookbook. I would have benefited greatly from it, of course, but I apparently didn’t need it either.

Another truth was that I felt intimidated by it. I remember wanting to make Hollandaise sauce and giving up as soon as I saw that I had to separate egg white from yolk. I know, I know, I was beyond ridiculous. But then again, my focus at the time was mastering French, not useful techniques in the kitchen, let alone the art of French cooking.

I also didn’t have the same kind of curiosity for cooking back then as I do now. I guess I used to treat cookbooks the way I treat instruction manuals, with little patience and a great big hope that the assembling process will be quick and easy. Since that afternoon in my mother’s house, I now sometimes read cookbooks before bed instead of just hastily consulting it over the stove like I used to, studying recipes I want to try, relishing in history and information about ingredients and recipes. I’ve come to realize that a good cookbook is not merely practical, with clear and precise instructions, but also has a sense of narrative, a well-defined concept, and a distinctive, insightful voice. That doesn’t mean I would never buy a cookbook that is only practical, but a personal touch and deep, passionate research can really open up another world and change the way people cook.

Another cookbook I’ve been reading and cooking from is Kristen Miglore’s Genius Recipes: 100 Recipes That Will Change the Way You Cook. The recipes are from Miglore’s groundbreaking Genius Recipes column on Food52, which began in 2011. This book has two things I love in a cookbook, a personal touch and an incredible amount of research. I also find the concept of Genius Recipes to be visionary: to search for a recipe that changes the way you cook a dish. I love that you not only learn new techniques that can make your life easier and your food more delicious, you’re introduced to famous and lesser-known cooks, publications, and restaurants where these recipes come from.

A cookbook I plan to get back to reading and start cooking from is David Thompson’s Thai Food. I actually began reading it a couple of years ago, but I still don’t consider it the first cookbook I enjoyed reading simply because the first part of the book about the history of Thailand and its food, which spans 117 pages, could be a book on its own. It also feels more like a reference book. The level of research Thompson did for this book is undeniably thorough and impressive. And frankly, I don’t feel that ridiculous saying that this book intimidated me, and still does. I’ve scanned a few recipes, of course, and his insistence on making everything from scratch is just and admirable, if very demanding for beginners and not very practical for busy people. But I do eventually want to take on the challenge.