Once upon a time, there was no internet. If you wanted to check up on your friend, you had to write her a letter or call her on the phone or drop by her house. If you wanted to know about basically anything, you had to read a book—if you wanted to know how to cook something, you had to read a cookbook.
Of course, that wasn’t your only option. You could ask your friend how they made that thing that time. You could ask a professional: Your butcher could advise you on how to cook a certain cut of meat, or your grocer could tell you what to do with vegetables you may not have seen before. You could even write into Gourmet Magazine and ask them how to make a dish you tried at a restaurant while you were on vacation, and there was a pretty decent chance that they’d reply with a recipe. Oh, the olden days!
Today we search hashtags on Instagram to watch 12-second videos on how to make cake in a mug in the microwave. Usually, a pair of disembodied white hands makes quick work of pre-prepped ingredients, and upbeat “mood music” replaces cooking sounds. This is not what cooking used to look like. And the biggest gap between internet and pre-internet cooking is in the concept of the recipe.
On the internet, a recipe merely exists among other recipes that may share a lifestyle (paleo; egg-, nut-, gluten-, and dairy-free; world’s busiest mom cooks dinner every night), but are often weakly connected beyond that. For many, this is just fine. If you simply want to know how to cook something, if you want to understand the order of operations and the necessary ingredients, then the internet can help you. If you already know how to cook and you know exactly what you want to make and you know how to evaluate a prospective recipe for potential disasters, Google away.
But so much is lost—or is simply absent—on the internet, in this place of mostly anonymized, context-less versions of recipes. The big questions go unanswered: how this recipe came to be and why it exists, what conditions (cultural, sociological, political, religious, technological) led to its development and refinement, who helped it along over time, whose life was shaped by it. These are the questions that we can learn from. The answers to these questions give meaning to our meals and, potentially, our understanding of who we are and where we come from. Because cooking is a cultural, historical act. And cookbooks are our primary source material.
A book author is someone who can communicate the essential information about a culture and its ingredients and methods. They are the opposite of disembodied hands; they are full characters with clear voices and perspectives and experiences. Their purpose is not simply to distract you for a moment, but to change you for the rest of your life.
Contemporary cookbooks can offer some reprieve from the hollowness of internet recipes. There are beautiful writers today working hard in their kitchens and in the wider world to bring new stories, new recipes, and new approaches to the hungry masses. (The Piglet is an excellent place to find some of the best new books out there.)
But given the nature of the contemporary cookbook market—up from $420 million in US sales in 1994 to $780 million in 2001, and growing at a more-or-less steady rate of 4-6% every year since then—there’s a harsh reality in the numbers: More cookbooks does not mean better cookbooks.
More cookbooks means more books: more creativity and more new voices, to be sure, but also more books that are, in the parlance of our times, “content.” So many of these books were born from the internet and reflect that in their, put simply, flat ubiquity. Looking back in time, before the internet, we are faced with a higher density of intentionality, and out of this comes books of substance.
So where to begin? There are cookbooks dating back to very ancient times (written in Latin) and there are cookbooks dating back to less ancient times (Chinese and Arabic and German cookbooks from the 13th and 14th centuries) and then the printing press was invented and even more cookbooks were produced (most notably Modern Cookery for Private Families by Eliza Acton , Mrs. Beeton's Book of Household Management by Isabella Beeton , and The Boston Cooking-School Cook Book by Fannie Farmer ). But in the United States some of the most compelling, creative, and enlightening books were written in the second half of the 20th century—after World War II and before the invention of the internet.
I’d like to recommend some books to you, dear internet reader, and offer you a place to start or expand or reaffirm your pre-internet cookbook repertoire. All of these books will teach you something you did not know. All of these books were created by men and women who sat and talked and ate and shared with other men and women, who learned about their own cultures and the cultures of others, and who dutifully and spiritedly wrote those lessons down (with all the attendant details) so that we may experience the essential acts of cooking and eating as fully as possible.
Read The Silver Palate Good Times Cookbook by Sheila Lukins and Julee Rosso (1985), which will give you the experience of having your kooky but completely lovely elderly neighbor corner you in the hallway and sweetly lecture you about the past in the most absolutely charming way. Or Martha Stewart's Hors D'oeuvres (1984), which will have you alternately rolling your eyes at the amount of energy Martha assumes you have and taking notes for the party you just started planning.
All of these books do travel differently (some focus more on technique, some more on ingredients, some more on culture) and all their authors have wildly different personalities. So try out a few, see who whispers in your ear most clearly, and remember that these books are best read with a glass of wine in hand to aid in teleportation.
Read The Pauper’s Cookbook by Jocasta Innes (1971). You’ll know you’re going to be okay because you’re laughing and you’ve got your appetite back, which are both good signs.
Read The Making of a Cook by Madeleine Kamman (1971). Whatever your skill level, Kamman knows what you need to know, and knows how to transmit that information as by a laying of hands: firmly but gently, with perfect intuition.
Read The Taste of Country Cooking by Edna Lewis (1976). I have yet to encounter a more glorious portrait of people living in harmony with each other and the earth.
Read Cocolat by Alice Medrich (1990), or Delia Smith’s Book of Cakes (1977), or Maida Heatter's Book of Great Desserts (1974), or Stars Desserts by Emily Luchetti (1991). These are books that, at the very least, allow for us to imagine a life with (actual) sweetness, and give us the simple tools to realize those dreams.
Read Home Cooking by Laurie Colwin (1988) or As They Were by M.F.K. Fisher (1982). If you want a frenemy, read An Omelet and a Glass of Wine by Elizabeth David (1984).
Go to your local used bookstore and find whatever comb-bound community cookbooks they have gathering dust on the bottom shelf. These are true jewels.
Read these books and cook from them and then live with them; make them a part of your physical space. Keep them on a shelf where you can see and touch their spines. Let them remind you of the vast possibilities that are held in a day and in a lifetime, and of the multitude of worlds that are possible.