What’s Your Favorite Cookbook?

While surfing the ‘net looking for information about a cookbook author from the 1940s, I happened to come across an article published some years ago by a newsletter called Simple Cooking.  The title of the article is “THE COOKBOOK CLOSEST TO MY HEART” and the editor of Simple Cooking posed this question to its subscribers: what cookbook would you rescue from a fire, if you could rescue only one? Out of all your favorite cookbooks, which one is closest to your heart? The responses were varied and interesting, and included replies from a number of cookbook authors (Jean Anderson, Irena Chalmers, Julia Child, Laurie Colwin, Marion Cunningham, Karen Hess, and others) as well as comments from cookbook dealers Marian Gore Jan Longone.  What surprised me most, though, was the number of cookbooks of which I had never heard!  The entire article was fascinating and the topic itself piqued my curiosity. Back in the 90s, a food writer for the Los Angeles Times called me on the phone and asked if we could do a telephone interview. I said sure, and she proceeded to ask me a few questions about my collection. One of those questions was “What is your favorite cookbook? If you had to choose just one or two, which would it be?”

I was caught off-guard by the question and whatever my response, it didn’t appear in the newspaper article which appeared in the December 15, 1994, issue of the Los Angeles Times. Actually, the article was really about a cookbook dealer who, at that time, had a used cookbook store in Burbank. I’ve never been quite sure how I got into the act.  And, I couldn’t tell you what my response was in 1994—my “favorite” cookbook changes frequently. (I have a theory that the only people who could limit their selection to only one or two books are people who don’t actually collect cookbooks).  One of my favorites is Jean Anderson’s “AMERICAN CENTURY COOKBOOK” which was published in 1997, so it wasn’t even a consideration in 1994. Anderson’s “American Century cookbook” is such a wonderful potpourri of recipes covering a hundred years—and I’ve discovered that I am greatly partial to any cookbook that manages to combine recipes with history and food lore. This thought occurred to me some time later, while I was writing a review of Mary Gunderson’s “FOOD JOURNAL OF LEWIS & CLARK, RECIPES FOR AN EXPEDITION”. The history fascinates me as much as the recipes do.

I might have said, in 1994, “AMERICA COOKS” by the Browns, – Cora, Rose, and Bob, – who compiled a book of favorite recipes when there were only 48 States, so you won’t find Alaska or Hawaii included in the roster. “AMERICA COOKS” is still one of my favorites, though. Actually, all of the cookbooks written by the Browns are really worth having in your collection.

I am very partial to another cookbook that skillfully combines recipes with history, called “CINCINNATI RECIPE TREASURY” by Mary Anna DuSablon (originally published by the Donning Company in 1983, reprinted by the Ohio University Press in 1992 with a number of reprint editions following).   I found a soft-cover edition of this cookbook some years ago when I was in northern California with my brother, Jim—and bought copies for all of my sisters and brothers. For transplanted Cincinnatians, this really is a treasury of recipes for dishes not found anywhere else in the United States (such as Cincinnati chili!)  I got a big kick out of the fact that my brother (a great cook, certainly, but not a cookbook collector) read the entire cookbook as we flew from Oakland to Portland that year.

On a similar note, I was delighted to discover Jeanne Voltz’s “THE CALIFORNIA COOKBOOK” and this cookbook was published over thirty years ago!  However, it’s a bonanza of California recipes and I have to admit, after forty-something years of living in California, I am more Californian, now, than I am Buckeye.  One other favorite Ohio cookbooks is a little spiral bound book you’ve probably never heard of, titled “HAPPINESS IS…CHEVIOT PTA COOKBOOK”.  My sister Barbara was greatly involved with the compilation of this little cookbook, published in 1974 and she drew the graphic illustrations that appear throughout the book. It also contains many of our family favorite recipes. I have to admit to also being very partial to all of my Quail Ridge “Best of….” cookbooks as well as a growing collection of cookbooks from Gooseberry Patch.  Both sets of books are filled with contemporary recipes that are generally quick-and-easy, important factors for today’s busy cook. (Thirty years ago, however, I would have said that the Farm Journal series of cookbooks were my favorites for everyday cooking). The Best of the Best as well as the Gooseberry Patch cookbooks remind me of the potato chip commercial that says “bet you can’t eat just one”. Bet you won’t be satisfied with just one of these cookbooks!

But if I had to choose just one or two?  I’m not sure I could do it. It’s sort of that that old saying, “When I’m not with the one I love, I love the one I’m with”? – my favorite cookbook is probably the one I am reading right now. But if I absolutely had to choose just one? It would be a manuscript cookbook that I wrote about not too long ago in Inky Trail News as “A Tribute to Helen’s Cookbook”.  This is a handwritten cookbook with recipes dating from the 1920s to the 1950s, in a leather-bound binder that is literally falling apart. I bought it for about $10 or $11. from a dealer in Hollywood back in the 1960s (and nearly fainted over the price, which seemed high to me at the time). But it’s one of a kind and irreplaceable. I am certain that Helen treasured this cookbook and because of that, I treasure it too. It led me on a quest to find more manuscript cookbooks like it, and, in turn, to collecting recipe boxes filled with someone’s personal collection of recipes. And most remarkably about a year or so ago, a penpal in England who is interested in genealogy helped me write the sequel to Helen’s cookbook – with the meager information I was able to provide, Anna identified my mysterious Helen  It’s hard to explain loving someone else’s collection of recipes, whether written in a notebook or on recipe cards. I have called them the Kitchen Diaries for the past decade or so. And today my favorite cookbook would have to be “Grandma’s Favorite” – a family cookbook my sisters and I began compiling back in 1984, when our father passed away, but didn’t manage to have published until 2004.  Similarly, another personal favorite is a cookbook titled “The Office Cookbook”. We began collecting recipes for an office cookbook over 20 years ago–but the project languished until 2002 when the Employee Activity Committee took charge and had the collection (pared down from 400 recipes to 200) published as a fundraiser. I have a collection of all 400 recipes in one notebook and several copies of the published edition. It’s one of my go-to books when I am looking for something in particular. Ok, truth is – I have a lot of favorites. How about you? What’s your favorite cookbook?

Happy Cooking!

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