In her article about cookbook history for the Economist, Mary Evans notes that cookbook author Nigel Slater, in fact, hates cookbooks. The author makes a case for the distinction between following instructions and actually learning how to cook. Cookbooks, he claims, stifle creativity and fail to inspire their followers. His heart breaks a little bit every time a reader tells him how well a recipe works.
For the duration of the article, Evans shows how cookbooks don’t just “work”; they reflect the fantasies, politics and economies of their respective cultures and eras. I am sure she’s right. What was Chairman Mao’s abolishment of bourgeois recipes if not political? The explosion of ethnic cookbooks in America since the ’60s reflects our increasing tolerance.
But, I’m going to be the mouthpiece of the anti-intellectual masses: sometimes you just want a recipe to work. You want it to work well so you can impress your friends, you don’t want to rely on inspiration and you’d prefer if Chairman Mao stayed out of the kitchen.
If you have never used the words “domestic alchemy” and dinner in the same sentence, the following cookbooks will allow to prepare slamming meals without having to trust your culinary intuition or pass US History. And, if you don’t read any of the text that accompanies the recipes, you can stay a gastonomical fool for just as long as you please.
Marcella Hazan, The Classic Italian Cookbook
Marcella Hazan is the reigning authority on la cucina italiana. Although the book is full of historical tid-bits, you don’t actually have to read them. Pick up a copy, choose a recipe and regale your dinner guests with made-up stories about how you learned to cook during the two years you lived in the hills of Tuscany.
Mollie Katzen, The Moosewood Cookbook
I am forever cooking dinner for vegetarians. This wouldn’t be a problem if I didn’t hate vegetarian food. Nothing tickles my gag reflex like a slab of Tofurkey. Luckily, Mollie Katzen’s classic hippie cookbook is full of meatless recipes that don’t attempt to mimic poultry. As far as I can remember, it’s also free of historical context, unless you count the trippy illustrations.
Mark Bittman, How to Cook Everything
Nigella Lawson, How to Be a Domestic Goddess
Don’t let the unfairly gendered title of this cookbook fool you — it works for anyone who’s interested in baking anything. No history in this one either — just easy to follow recipes with photographs so lush they look a little pornographic (and that’s saying nothing of the pictures of Ms. Lawson herself). What was that about cookbooks reflecting cultural fantasies…