What Makes a Good Cookbook?

Favorite Cookbooks

I have dozens of cookbooks, but these are my favorites.

I love cookbooks, don’t you?

But unlike most people, I love cookbooks for the stories. I don’t like cookbooks that are restricted to just recipes. I can collect all the recipes I want off the internet. But unless you’re plugged into the blogosphere, its hard to find great cook stories.  I love reading how the beautifully photographed food was inspired or how the writer’s grandmother taught them to make the recipe. Hopefully, there will even be a photo of said grandmother with her hands in a dough bowl smiling up at me.

Give me a cookbook that tells me something about the writer’s cooking experiences or their culture and I’ll read it for hours. A cookbook that is simply recipes can’t hold my attention more than a few minutes. Because the truth is – I won’t actually follow any of the recipes. I’ll look at the ingredients list. Sometimes I’ll read the directions. But mostly, I’ll look at the photos and sidebar items. When I read recipes, I’m constantly making mental adjustments.

Do I have all the ingredients? Probably not. What can I change? What can I add?

I can’t help it. Because I’m dyslexic, the directions just get jumbled up in my head. So photos are important. I like a cookbook with lots of photos of the finished product. Besides, what recipe can’t be improved with a little creativity? Granted, I’ve had some incredible failures. Thankfully, my husband has finally stopped asking me to simply try the recipe once before I attempt to improve it. I guess he’s learned that in order to do that, he’s going to have to read it to me — one step at a time.

Years ago, as a new bride, I happily collected cookbooks for the sake of collecting cookbooks. I felt it a necessary, grown-up activity.  After a couple of years, I realized that all I had was a shelf full of cookbooks that didn’t inspire me to cook a thing and they constantly needed dusting. Rather than using my newly collected cookbooks, I continued to drift back to the ones that I had used since I was a child. Finally, years ago, I took stacks of unused cookbooks to a thrift store. Hopefully, someone else is enjoying them.

Countryside Recipes

Published before I was born, this little treasure is the most important cookbook that I own.

One of my favorite cookbook connects me back to the place where I grew up. Published in 1961, Countryside Recipes was sponsored by the Women’s Society of Christian Service and the Young Adult Group of Providence Rural United Methodist Church. It is filled with recipes from family members and beloved members of the church where I grew up. There have been more recent editions of the cookbook, but that 1961 version is golden. There wasn’t a holiday that went by without numerous recipes made from it. While it doesn’t contain stories or photos it contains something much more important: memories. All I have to do is open my dog-eared, stained, and fragile bound copy and I’m swept back in time to revival potlucks or Young Adult Group dinners. As I read the recipes, the faces of the women who wrote them dance across my mind. These are/were the women who were my mother and grandmother’s closets friends. These are/were the women who helped to shape who I became. These are/were the women who will always be a part of me. My husband knows that if anything ever happens to the house, he should grab the Prov Rural cookbook first as it’s irreplaceable.

A few years ago, I began listening to the Splendid Table. My local National Public Radio station, WKMS, featured the series during lunch (very appropriate timing). Each week, I’d head off in my car at lunchtime and find a cozy corner of a local park or cemetery and listen to host Lynne Rossetto-Kasper interview great chefs. Yep, what drew me in were the stories they told. The show often inspired me to try something new. Then I bought one of the series’ cookbooks. I couldn’t wait to crack it open, but I waited until a rainy afternoon. I settled into my favorite chair with a cup of tea. As anticipated, it was the perfect cookbook for me.  It was filled with stories and recipes. I could hear Lynne saying the words, with her unique cantor and rustic accent. It was like she was speaking directly to me. Always excited to share interesting cookbook stories, I began reading them aloud to my Beloved who shares my love of the Splendid Table. If he walked out of the room, I got up and followed him, continuing to reading aloud. I followed him all around the house, reading in my start/stop/unjumble/restart fashion. Finally, he asked me to stop reading to him, saying that he’d much prefer to read the stories himself. Then he subtly suggested that I find something that we could cook together for dinner. I settled back down in my chair and didn’t move for hours until I ordered all her cookbooks off Amazon. I don’t know who actually made dinner that night, but I’m pretty sure it wasn’t me.

Breadman

My husband is an awesome cook.

As readers of this blog and followers of our Facebook page know, the real cook in our family is my husband Vince. Each and every day, he’s in our kitchen making dinner. I try to help, but usually, by the time I get home, most of the work is done. All he really needs is someone to clean up his mess. On the weekends when I’m not elbow-deep in produce to preserve, I take over the kitchen and try out new recipes I’ve discovered. Or he’ll gladly attempt anything that I think we should try.

Several of my favorite food bloggers are now beginning to publish cookbooks. And they are awesome! Unexpected new-found food celebrities, these writers are changing how America discovers food trends — without the Food Network. They are real people who love to cook and experiment. I love making food from these cookbooks, then Twitting or Instagramming my efforts, tagging these bloggers. Best part? They respond with likes or comments. Its pretty cool, and I rather doubt that would happen with the megastars of Food Network. When they respond, it makes me feel connected to a foodie community who believes, as I do, that the best food comes from the earth and is made from scratch.

In many ways, this blog is my favorite cookbook. It’s a place where I park my favorites recipes and memories. I’ve filled it with stories about cooks, tossed in a few photos, and I always try to include a recipe. I hope in some small way that you’re enjoying this blog in the same fashion — like a favorite cookbook accept it’s always free.

The recipe below was one that my maternal grandmother contributed to the 1961 Edition of Countryside Recipes. I just have to laugh at the directions–as there are none. She wasn’t one to waste any effort explaining common sense and this recipe demonstrates her at her best. Back then, women knew to pour the mixture into a uncooked pie shell and cook it for 30 minutes at 400 degrees. Nowadays, we have to look it up. It’s a great pie that simple enough for anymore to make.

Egg Custard Pie

My grandmother’s Egg Custard Pie. Simple, easy, and incredibly delicious.

Egg Custard Pie
Mrs. Carroll Gentry
Countryside Recipes Cookbook

1 egg
3/4 c sugar
1 c milk
1 T flour
1 T butter
1/2 t nutmeg

Beat egg, add sugar, butter, flour, nutmeg, and milk. Bake 300-350 degree oven.

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