Some years ago, a reporter for the Los Angeles Times called me on the telephone and asked what my favorite cookbook was. I was totally nonplussed. How do you choose just one? I wondered. I don’t think I gave her a very suitable response and to this day still ask myself how she ever came up with my name and phone number. The ARTICLE she was writing was actually about a vintage cookbook store in Burbank that has since relocated to Pasadena.
Even so, the idea of “a favorite cookbook” has lingered on all these years later. I might have said that Ida Bailey Allen’s Service cookbook was my favorite – it was the cookbook from which I learned how to cook and bake even though, at the age of ten, my recipes were limited to cookies and brownies and muffins. Quite possibly I might have rattled out the names of some of the cookbooks I was reading AT THAT TIME. Like so many of us with favorite novelists – our favorite is the one we are reading RIGHT NOW.
Now, granted – my favorite ten wouldn’t necessarily be YOUR favorite ten. For one thing, my #1 and #2 favorites are “Grandma’s Favorite” which is a collection of Schmidt family favorite recipes, collected over a period of twenty years, and #2 is The Office Cookbook, compiled and published by my employer of twenty seven years. I was greatly involved in the compiling and publishing of both these cookbooks—so I know for a fact that a lot of my favorite recipes are in them. So, that leaves eight more and I will name the cookbook and try to give you a brief explanation why this book is in my top ten.
#3 is “500 TREASURED COUNTRY RECIPES” from Martha Storey and Friends –from Storey Books in Vermont. Why do I like it so much? Whenever I am searching for a recipe (and it’s not in Grandma’s Favorite or The Office cookbook) – “500 Treasure Country Recipes” is probably the next book I will pluck off my shelves. Occasionally, I’ll be searching for something to include in an article on my blog – or I might be searching for something unusual, like Vinegar Candy – because someone wrote and asked me about it. I love the format of “500 Treasured Country Recipes” and I like that it includes many preserving recipes, whether it’s a canning recipe or drying or freezing the harvest. Published in 2000, it’s still very up-to-date eleven years later. It really is a TREASURE.
#4 THE CAKE DOCTOR, by Anne Byrn, published in 1999, was the first (correct me if I’m mistake) of a series; Ms. Byrn recognized a good thing when she found it. Possibly, this is also one of the first of a genre of “doctored cake mixes” and didn’t we all flock to our bookstores to buy a copy?
#5, then, IS THE DINNER DOCTOR also by Anne Byrn, in which she doctors canned, frozen, boxed, bagged and ready-made deli food to make over 230 fast fresh-tasting dishes. Published in 2003 by Workman Publishing Company, this companion cookbook has the same easy-to-read, well formatted style. (*”Chocolate from The Cake Doctor” was published by Workman in 2001 and “Cupcakes from The Cake Doctor” in 2005. It’s not that all four aren’t favorites – but I selected two of the MOST favorites. (Anne Byrn is also the author of “What can I bring Cookbook” published in 2007).
#6 needs to be “ELENA’S FAMOUS MEXICAN AND SPANISH RECIPES” along with “ELENA’S FAVORITE FOODS CALIFORNIA STYLE”. “ELENA’S FAMOUS MEXICAN AND SPANISH RECIPES” was first published in 1944. Written by Elena Zelayeta and edited by a group of San Francisco Home Economists, this is one of those little books—first selling for $1.50—that has remained popular decades later. As a transplanted Californian (from Ohio) I didn’t even know what a taco or an avocado – much less enchiladas or tortillas – were when we arrived in California in 1961. (and NO, there were NO taco bells in Ohio in 1961). Actually, when I first tasted a ripe avocado, I thought it rather bland and tasteless. Then it wasn’t enough to be able to order some of these dishes in a Mexican restaurant, I wanted to know how to make them too.
#7, then is “CINCINNATI RECIPE TREASURY” by Mary Anna Du Sablon. All of my favorite hometown recipes (and more) are in Cincinnati Recipe Treasury. I happened to find this cookbook at a bookstore in Oakland, California, while traveling with my brother Jim one year. He read it from cover to cover during our trip. I then bought half a dozen copies to give to family members for Christmas that year. Cincinnati Recipe Treasury was published In 1984 by Ohio University Press – and is still an all-time favorite to this day. I can sit down and read it (yes, like other people read novels) just to bring back favorite memories of favorite Ohio dishes.
#8 is one of numerous California cookbooks in my collection. I’ve selected two all time favorites and “FARMERS MARKET COOKBOOK” by Neill and Fred Beck, published in 1951 by Henry Holt and Company is, then, my choice for #8. Farmers’ market cookbooks began to enjoy enormous popularity in the past twenty years or so, but the Beck’s Farmer’s Market cookbook is all about the famous farmer’s market in Hollywood, still in operation today. This is what I really consider to be a “regional” cookbook.
#9 is kind of a companion volume, “THE BROWN DERBY COOKBOOK” published in 1949 – with a foreword by Robert Cobb, then president of the Brown Derby Corporation (you may know him better as the creator of the Cobb salad). Included in the cookbook are many of the recipes that made The Brown Derby so famous. It was also “the” place to dine and regular customers were often famous movie stars. I visited the Brown Derby in Los Angeles around 1962 when my mother in law was visiting; she and a girlfriend of mine named Peggy, and I went to the Brown Derby for lunch. We also visited the entrance to Grauman’s Chinese Theatre to take a look at all the hand and foot prints immortalized in cement.Someone once said going to Hollywood and not going to see Grauman’s theatre would be like going to China and not seeing the Great Wall. (We didn’t see anybody famous at either place).
Choosing #10 was a tough call but I finally chose “AMERICA COOKS” by the Browns, – Cora, Rose and Bob Brown. Published in 1940 by Halcyon House, “America Cooks” presents favorite recipes from 48 states (Hawaii and Alaska were not yet states in 1940). I’ve read “America Cooks” many times—and it was “the” book that led to my quest to find other cookbooks like it; cookbooks with America in the title, regional cookbooks that were still regional before the USA became so homogenized. Now I have an entire bookcase with cookbooks bearing the name “America” in their titles but I still love “America Cooks” the best. Thanks to my penpal Betsy, who introduced me to The Browns’ cookbooks, I began collecting all of their titles. All of their books are truly the kind of cookbook you can sit down and … read like a novel.
So, what are YOUR favorite cookbooks? And why?
I’d love to hear about them. And be glad I only selected ten, not a hundred, of my favorites. (Actually…the more I browse through my cookbook shelves, the more I find ‘favorite’ cookbooks).
Happy cooking and happy cookbook collecting!
–Sandra Lee Smith