More than one visitor has said that over the years.
It’s absolutely true that I’m obsessed with cookbooks—not with the recipes, but with how they shape what and how you like to cook and eat, and how you think about food in general. Your food persona.
At the peak of my powers, I probably had almost 200. They’ve taken up most of the bookshelves in every house I’ve lived in since the 1970s. Although the collection has waxed and waned over the years—some gone to the library book sale, some given away to family and friends, some added to spark a new interest or fortify a lingering one—a solid, decently organized library remains.
To understand how this obsession developed, note that my lineage is 100% Italian. My mother and father loved to make and enjoy good food.
Even though when growing up my kitchen adventures were largely limited to helping Mom produce her tour de force ravioli and other extravagant Italian “company” dinners, by 10 or so I’d already acquired what became a habit of “reading” cookbooks. Mom didn’t cook from books—she learned from her older sister and used mostly recipe cards and the Pillsbury Bakeoff booklets for cakes and cookies. She didn’t need a recipe for pie (I don’t either). Her cookbook collection was minimal: Ruth Wakefield’s Toll House Cookbook, a collection of recipes from the late and beloved Toll House Inn in Whitman, MA (yes, that’s where the cookie you adore came from); Ada Boni’s The Talisman Italian Cookbook, the most popular cookbook in Italy, brought to the US in 1950; and a truly vintage collection of pamphlet style cookbooks from the Culinary Arts Institute, each on a different subject. My husband and I discovered not long after we met that his mother had this set, too. I’m guessing it was a preferred gift for brides in the 1940s.
When I was about 10, one of my mother’s beauty shop customers, the ebullient Mrs. Lavine, gave me a little spiral bound wonder called A World of Good Eating. It had delightful original illustrations and select recipes from a number of other countries, with a brief, light-hearted bit of commentary for each. I have a fond memory of the first time I made butter-rich Scottish shortbread, which the sweet little book said was to be served to friends at Christmas with “fruitcake and a wee drap.”
When Franco and Margaret Romagnoli, following Julia Child’s French Chef success, showed up on PBS with an Italian cooking show that went way far beyond spaghetti and meatballs, their book, The Romagnolis’ Table, was added to the tiny collection. My parents’ favorite Romagnoli recipe was gnocchi verdi. Mom made batches of these very delicate gnocchi with spinach. She quick froze them on cookie sheets and then removed them to a recycled ricotta container so she’d always have some on hand for special dinners.
Fast forward to 1969. Among my acquisitions in early adulthood were The Joy of Cooking and The Woman’s Day Encyclopedia of Cookery. I read them like novels, the little vignettes from the Rombauers (Irma told Julia they never tested the recipes!) and the detailed entries about “foreign” cuisines and many delightful essays contributed to the encyclopedia by noted writers and food gurus of the period. My Joy is tattered and splattered. Some of the encyclopedia volumes are falling apart. But I read, use, and enjoy them still. In fact, recently I went back to the “Christmas” section of the Woman’s Day set and read author Jean Hersey’s account of making 42 loaves of bread for holiday giving. I decided to try her recipe and found that it was just delish—especially made with raisins, honey (two of her suggested variations), and a scattering of King Arthur Flour’s European Candied Orange Peel (my idea). I baked four loaves—I marched three around to neighbors, and we ate the other.
My parents were first-generation Italian immigrants, born and raised in factory towns. Each of them grew up with Italian food, but their palates were also influenced by the regions where they grew up—Daddy in western Maine (Yankee), and Mom in central Pennsylvania (PA Dutch). Our summer trips to New England were among the most important memories of my childhood and adolescence, and they were reinforced every month when Yankee Magazine arrived in the mail. Yankee was half-size at the time, on very basic stock, with type that seemed old-fashioned even then. I devoured it every month—the features, the ads, every single classified, and, especially, the recipes featuring favorites of “real” New England cooks. It kickstarted a lifelong fascination with American regional cooking and remains a favorite to this day. The New England Yankee Cookbook, which I acquired in about 1971, was a reprint of a 1939 book compiled by Imogene Wolcott. It had the same approach to recipe compilation as the magazine, with contributors’ names and hometowns listed for each recipe, although there was apparently no connection.
For more good reading and information, see the links below, and please do post a comment about the cookbooks that helped shape your approach to cooking and good food.
The New England Yankee Cookbook
European Candied Orange Peel