Some years ago, I was surfing the Internet looking for information about a cookbook author from the 1940s, when I happened to come across an article published some years ago by a newsletter called Simple Cooking. The title of the article was “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 and Jan Longone. What surprised me most, though, was the number of cookbooks that I had never heard of!
The topic itself piqued my curiosity. Back in the 1990s, a food writer for the Los Angeles Times called me on the phone one day 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 was, 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). At that moment, one of my favorites was 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 ago 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, my choice was “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 back in the 90s 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.
On a similar note, I was delighted and charmed to discover Jeanne Voltz’s “THE CALIFORNIA COOKBOOK” some time ago – and this cookbook was published thirty-something years ago! However, it’s a bonanza of California recipes and I have to admit, after living fifty years of living in California, I am more Californian, now, than Buckeye.
One other favorite Ohio cookbook 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-something 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!
And, as I have spent more and more time over the years, researching and learning about books such as The Joy of Cooking, The Meta Given cookbooks, Myra Waldo’s collection of cookbooks and Jean Anderson’s equally wonderful collection of cookbooks—I don’t think I could ever choose just one or two. It’s sort of like 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 a few? I think my first choice would have to be “Grandma’s Favorite”, a family collection of recipes that took us over 20 years to finally get published. My sister and I were finally able to get it to a publisher in 2004. Most of our family favorites are in this cookbook. I am also very partial to The Office Cookbook—another endeavor by coworkers and myself that also took over twenty years to get to a publisher. “The Office” referred to here is the one where I worked for 27 years before retiring in 2002.
But I have a confession to make: A few years ago a brush fire was burning dangerously close to homes in Quartz Hill, Palmdale and Lancaster. People were being evacuated close to my sister’s home, a few miles away. At night, looking up the street, the line of fire coming over the mountain range was frighteningly close. For the first time I really DID think long and hard about what could be saved if evacuation became necessary. I then realized there would be no way to save my collections of cookbooks, cookie jars and other things. There would only be enough room for us and our pets and that would be assuming that I could get the cats into carriers. I did take out a valise and filled it with our most important documents. I could also save all the photographs that are on CDs but not the albums themselves. It was a moment of truth. Things can be replaced (maybe) but lives can’t.
But assuming we live in a perfect world in which our favorite things could be saved– what’s YOUR favorite cookbook? The one dearest to your heart?