Catholic History Nerd was one of the very first blogs I ever read or commented on and I’m so happy that I did. Sarah is one of the sweetest people ever (even though she puts cheese on her tuna casserole, which is just gross) and I’m thrilled that she’s here to hang out with you guys today!
I love reading cookbooks, and not just for the recipe ideas. Since each section is only a page or two, they’re easy entertainment if you’re tired or have a lot on your mind. My cookbook addiction started the year I wrote my master’s thesis. I would check armfuls out of my local library and bask in the instant gratification of reading an entire book or actually finishing a (food) project in only one evening. It was a comforting break from month-long research tasks.
One of the most fun parts of reading lots of cookbooks is comparing all their different tones. Thanks to the boom of chefs becoming celebrities and celebrities writing about food, there are some ridiculous ones out there. Rachael Ray makes up cutesy rhyming nicknames for dishes. The Skinny Bitch books are basically Regina George yelling at you about the evils of meat and then ordering you to buy processed “chicken” substitutes. In Skinny Italian Real Housewife of New Jersey and convicted felon Teresa Guidice explains how buy good olive oil, dress in animal print, and cook “sexy swordfish,” whatever that means.
My favorite, though, are the lifestyle magazine books designed to inspire the feeling that you are besties with the author, just hanging out around their kitchen table. There are usually cute stories of accidentally invented dishes, name-dropping of famous friends, and glamour shots of the author bonding with local produce. Gwyneth Paltrow’s It’s All Good is a prime example of this. Her healthy diet recommendations are actually pretty decent, but they get drowned out by the portraits of her standing in grain fields or posing with baskets of vegetables. Honorable mention goes to Shauna Ahern’s Gluten-Free Girl Everyday, which contains a killer biscuit recipe but also cites Twitter accolades in a discussion of stir-fry. Gag.
I get hypnotized by the glowing family kitchen stories – yes, I can too can live a magically delicious life full of healthy abundance! How did I never notice kale and lemons were so poetic? Then I come up for air and realize “Why am I listening to this person’s entire life story when I really just want to make dinner? I wouldn’t even want to hear my friends go on like this”
I really don’t want to say there is a gender divide in cookbook styles … but it does seem like recipes wrapped in all the feels and personal details will be written by a woman. This opens up a whole can of worms about gender stereotypes in the food world. Women are comforting nurturers, but men are the master craftsmen. It reminds me of a female chef’s rant in the movie Ratatouille about how hard she works despite her colleagues’ patronizing attitudes. “Every second counts and you CANNOT be MOMMY!” But really, the average mom is less self-absorbed than a glossy “look at what a foodie I am” photo spread.
The best cookbooks aren’t portraits of their authors. Instead, they showcase the merits of different ingredients and the wider community that inspires and enjoys them. Here are some of my favorite cookbooks that manage to blend chatter and information really well. I didn’t plan it this way, but they’re all from the South. Other places have good eats too, but the South definitely gets the concept that food means much more than filling your own plate.
The Lee Bros. Charleston Kitchen by Matt Lee and Ted Lee
My husband and I bought this on a whim the last day of our honeymoon in Charleston, SC, and it’s been the best souvenir ever. The recipes are full of seafood and fresh vegetables, and the images with them make us feel like we’re back in Charleston’s historic downtown. The Lee brothers love their city, and have done a ton of research about its unique history. They talk about farmers’ markets, fishermen, church teas and 1940s hostesses like they’re dishing juicy local gossip. Being history nerds, my husband and I love how much Matt and Ted reference early 20th century “receipt” books. They don’t pretend to have invented Charleston’s food; instead they’ve written a love letter to the other people who have made it so vibrant.
Favorite recipe: Pan roasted okra, corn, and tomatoes. It’ll smoke up your kitchen but it’s so worth it.
Cooking Up A Storm: Recipes Lost and Found from The Times-Picayune of New Orleans edited by Marcelle Bienvenu and Judy Walker
When Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans in 2005, many people lost the contents of their homes, including their recipe collections. In the aftermath of the storm, the local newspaper became a valuable resource for retrieving recipes readers could remember but not quite recreate. The resulting collection is an amazing tribute of community support and how strongly food factors into New Orleans’ identity. The dishes in here originated everywhere from famous chefs to somebody’s mother-in-law’s uncle. It’s like the results of a newspaper clipping scavenger hunt.
Favorite recipes: We’ll probably never attempt the deep-fried turkey or squirrel sauce piquant, the classic jambalaya and gumbo are staples in our house.
My Family Table: A Passionate Plea for Home Cooking by John Besh
This last book is more personal, but it’s done very well. New Orleans chef John Besh has written several books; this most recent one is about what he and his wife feed his kids. He’s very honest about the busy restaurant schedule he keeps and how he balances that with family life. The book has lots of practical advice about how to make a big meal on weekends and then use leftovers for quick dinners. Maybe I don’t mind all the family photos since his sons go to my husband’s high school, but it’s nice that Besh doesn’t make himself the star of the show. Instead, he encourages readers to prioritize quality time with family and friends.
Favorite recipe: Cherry tomato five-minute sauce, which really does make a huge batch of fresh pasta sauce in no time.