The “best cookbooks” of all time: it’s a family thing

On the counter that my dad built was one of the best cookbooks of all time. It was my mother’s New York Times cookbook. In those days, the Times was still “the Grey Lady,” and you accepted her recipe for beef wellington as much her news about the Middle East.

And so I wanted to do a quick survey here on Biscuit Aisle of the cookbooks that have meant sometime to me personally. Whether these are indeed “the best cookbooks of all time” or not is subjective, like anything. But a few of them have stood the test of time, some others will do likewise, and still others may be like the rock music group The Knack.

Remember them? In the ’80s? Of course you don’t. They were special to me. At the time.

That’s the way with cookbooks.

The Silver Spoon

Phaidon — pronounced like FIE-donn — was founded in the early 1920s in Vienna but had to move to England when the Nazis invaded. The company describes itself as “the premier global publisher of the creative arts,” and I don’t argue with that. It’s books are beautiful, and I took many gawking strolls through its SoHo retail location (now closed; not COVID related).

The two photos above are of some of my favorite Phaidon books. The books on the shelf are about cities and urbanization, which — even in this early second decade of the 21st century when COVID is affecting cities disproportionately — describe a phenomenon that will continue: that of people moving where other people are. Where culture is. Where opportunity is. (And where often the best restaurants are. Except perhaps Mac and Ernie’s Roadside Eatery in Tarpley, Texas, a town that doesn’t even have a stop sign.)

And then there’s The Silver Spoon. Featuring northern Italian food, it was first published in Italian in 1950 and in English only 55 years later, in 2005. It’s this first English-language edition that I have and that I recommend if you’re going to get a copy. It holds 2,000 recipes and is exquisitely designed.

Let me pause here to say this: I checked Amazon for it, and the link in that last paragraph and HERE brings you to — for some crazy reason — a copy of the book selling for $12.42. My copy was $39.95!! If you don’t have The Silver Spoon, at that price you seriously have to get it. Even if it is something you page through to admire the design and photography.

On page 11 you read that “…as soon as the food was ready, it was photographed on pure white crockery or in the pan in which it was cooked.” This was done to keep the food looking authentic, the way it might be served to us, not on Instagram with #FoodPorn chained to the photo. The food was illuminated only using natural daylight.

Each dish so presented feels like taking a mouthful of sunshine.

Get this book!

Moosewood Cookbook by Mollie Katzen

I think it’s important to note that not only has Moosewood been around for forty years, but also that author Mollie Katzen has serious cooking and eating chops (as it were) and is credited with mainstreaming plant-based meals.

Now married to a Texan and living in Texas, driving through small-town Texas in a truck that’s worked on by meat-eating Texan mechanics, my including a trailer here about a movie promoting plant-based eating might not go far.

But I must admit: I was kind of sold when I first watched this.

From November 2019 until late February 2020, I was on a plant-based diet. I lost the most weight I’ve ever lost (from ~190lbs to 164lbs), and I felt and looked the best I’d been in years. I had decided to try it first for health reasons. After a while, knowing that I was not eating animals; knowing that I was eating more in alignment with how the human body was made; understanding the common sense of eating plants themselves instead of their intermediaries (cows, pigs, chickens); all made me feel healthy. I had more energy and I felt better about my body and my co-existence with other living things.

Yeah. I know. Sounds groovy. But it was true.

I digress.

A girlfriend in the ’80s was a vegetarian. She lived with two cats and her religious tendencies leaned wiccan, or at least pagan. It was she who introduced me to Moosewood. And it was Moosewood that introduced me to veggie burgers.

Veggie burgers are nothing to write home about, in my opinion. Certainly not a veggie burger made from store-bought mix, even mix from a health-food store. Eating that is like eating a whiskey-soaked handful of beer nuts sautéed in lard. (Or the vegan equivalent of lard.)

Wanting both healthy and authentic, I tried making my own veggie burger mix using this recipe HERE. It calls for blending things like chick peas, black beans and peanuts. DRIED legumes. A blender doesn’t take kindly to those. And the neighbors must have thought I was trying to make old bones disappear.

The “best cookbooks of all time”

There’s always a little bluster about what’s “best,” but here’s my quick take on a few go-to’s from a personal angle.

  • Not shown in the “group photo” above is my copy of Mod Mex. It may be in the garage in a box which, as we all know, is like finding a snowball in Siberia. But now living in the Lone Star State, being only two hours away from “weird” Austin, it might be worth my tracking the tundra in search of it.
  • Then there’s Irma Rombauer’s Joy of Cooking. (Note: there’s no definite article “The” before the title. Let’s be purists here, please.) At 1,200 pages, it falls short of Tolstoy’s War and Peace by only 25 pages. It’s a tome. It’s one for the ages. First published in 1931, it was cited as one of the most influential books of that decade. Lithub places it right alongside such seminal works as Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. This book, like the next one, was handed down to me by my mother. Its continued publication and revisions are handled today by the generations of her grandson Ethan Becker and Becker’s son, John, Irma’s great-grandson. A James Beard Award-winning chef said, “Back in 1988 my mother gave me my very first cookbook: her beloved copy of the Joy of CookingJoy became a foundational part of how I learned to cook.”
  • The New York Times Cookbook by Craig Claiborne was another handed down to me by my mother. And, as with Joy, when I say “handed down,” I mean that after she died I got the book. My younger brother was always more of a foodie than I, so were he not such a good cook already, he probably would have received it. My one “foodie” experience — the head lifting from the frothy seas of eating Entenmann’s coffeecakes for breakfast almost every day — was being shocked that my best friend didn’t like my mom’s apricot mousse. I though him a charlatan. Just as I thought one of my three sons who didn’t like a recent tiramisù I made should perhaps be held back from adult life until he did.

The other books shown in the original group photo are good in their own rights. The New Best Recipe Cookbook, which my wife gave me for my birthday one year, is pricey in my opinion, but what it offers is a knowledge base of how to cook and what equipment is needed. It’s like having a mentor who I can follow more at my pace, and more cheaply still, than I can a Masterclass cooking series on my laptop.

The best of the “best cookbooks of all time”

For my money, the go-to’s will always be Joy of Cooking, The New York Times Cookbook and The New Best Recipe.

Those three reflect the best of my family connections, and it will be those three that I will pass down most likely to the one son of the three who is rapidly becoming the foodie that my brother was at an early age.

He likes my fish tacos.

And he likes my tiramisù.

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