What's on Your Shelf?

It seems to be Cookbook Week here on Bay Area Bites, so I thought I'd throw in my two cents...

I think there are entirely too many cookbooks in this world. Okay, in my world. Too many have been choking up my bookshelves collecting dust rather than grease stains, so I thought I would give my kitchen a little purge.

Before you start thinking that I'm just being a bit cranky this morning, I should state that I love cookbooks. Collecting them used to be one of my little fetishes. Fortunately, I've grown out of that little phase. Perhaps it's because I've been involved in the production of more than a few of them, catching authors' mistakes and even adding a few of my own to the mix, sometimes on purpose, just to leave my mark.

Lately, however, I've been wondering just how many cookbooks one actually needs? I don't think I need the one hundred or so in my collection. Some I shall keep for their kitsch value, like my Jell-o cookbook, others I'll let hang around because they're such a damned good read. Do I really need a book devoted exclusively to the baked potato? I don't think so. I don't even know how that one snuck onto my shelves. Out it goes. 100 Recetas Dulces by Sister Bernarda of Argentina? I don't even speak Spanish, but I'll keep the book because I think Sister Bernarda looks like a man. There is no clearly-defined criteria for this weeding-out process.


What I have come to understand about my collection of cookbooks is that there are only a few that I return to over and over again. These are the books I would take with me to my hypothetical desert island. Even if the island lacked a fully functional kitchen or access to a grocery store, these books are just plain great reading. Everyone has their own favorites and, since everyone seems to like lists, I thought I'd post my own list of favorites.

I'd like to know yours, too.

Five Cookbooks I'll Never Throw Away:

The Moosewood Cookbook by Molly Katzen

This was the first cookbook I owned. Actually, I just realized that I didn't own it originally-- it was my college roommate Craig's book. I am not a vegetarian by any stretch of the imagination, but this is the book that hooked our attention as neophyte cooklings in college. The recipes are simple, the ingredients are inexpensive and the handwritten copy is homey and non-threatening, just the ticket for those who might be intimidated by the cooking process(es). I return to this book when I am feeling broke, nostalgic, or both.

This book holds a permanent space on my shelf for another reason: Ten years after my introduction to this book, it was Molly Katzen (and very specifically, a lovely producer-woman named Tina Salter) who gave me my first job in food media on her show Vegetable Heaven. Thank you.

The Way to Cook by Julia Child

This is my go to for "how to". Full of no nonsense photos populated by Mrs. Child's skillful old hands and informative sidebars, this is the book I bought when I decided to get "serious" about cooking. I've never abandoned it and, more importantly, it has never abandoned me. It walked me through the first Thanksgiving dinner prepared my by own soft, lily white, hairy-knuckled little hands. Fool (me)-proof choux pastry? It's in here.

The Best Recipe by the editors of Cook's Illustrated

This is the book I read for "how not to". Any group of people who takes the time to find out and report what not to do when, say grilling a steak, is okay in my book. Walk-throughs of tricky or intimidating techniques like lattice-topping a pie are well-illustrated and, of course, the examination of how one might best avoid tearing up when cutting onions is priceless. This is one of my best-stained and highest-functioning volumes.

The Art of Eating by M.F.K. Fisher

This is not exactly a cookbook, but it has enough recipes within it to make this list. Her opinions on and recipe for oyster stew in the section entitled, simply enough, Consider the Oyster, made me get up off my ass and learn to shuck when I was younger. I've read it cover to cover at least five times and I return to it whenever I need to remind myself to stop eating Chinese food over the sink and take better care of my inner and outer self, when I am feeling sad or alone or both. Fisher's writing is thoughtful, self-obsessed and some of the best writing about food ever. Amen. My copy is quite literally falling apart, but I hesitate buying a new copy. I'd hate to get rid of this old friend.

Lunches and Brunches by the editors of Better Homes and Gardens (1963)

This book is a jewel. A gaudy paste-diamond perhaps, but a jewel, nonetheless. It satisfies all of my kitsch needs: garish, color-saturated photography, what-were-they-thinking? recipes, etc. And everything seems to have gelatin in it, like some sort of Mormon family picnic. It's a peek into the past-- a time when cream sauces were "fancy" and people drank coffee with every meal. Confetti Relish Mold? Yes, lemon-flavored Jell-o, scallions, radishes, beef bouillon, and sour cream sounds like a heavenly combination. You will have to rip this book from my cold, dead aristocratic hands..

Well, those are mine. What are yours?