Food History

For the Most Helpful Recipes, Unplug Your Internet

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.

So much is lost—or is simply absent—on the internet, in this place of mostly anonymized, context-less versions of recipes.

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.

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Top Comment:
“With Internet supplying a tsunami of them anyways (Ruhlman's expression, not mine), I need books to up the ante, to provide a voice, pride of place, to stand on their own as a cultural object. I would also say, if one likes Asian cooking Fuchsia Dunlop's Land of Plenty and for Latin-American cuisine (although it's a recent book), Maricel Presilla's The Food of Latin America are huge favourites of mine. I also quite like my Mom's old Five Roses cookbook lol. I have a soft spot for mid-century cookbooks, so hokey and good-ugly :)”
— Lynne

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 [1845], Mrs. Beeton's Book of Household Management by Isabella Beeton [1861], and The Boston Cooking-School Cook Book by Fannie Farmer [1896]). 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.

If you want to imagine (or, better yet, live) a life marked by parties and celebrations:

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.

If you want to travel, read:

  • Couscous and Other Good Food from Morocco by Paula Wolfert (1987)
  • Classic Indian Cooking by Julie Sahni (1980)
  • How to Cook and Eat in Chinese by Buwei Yang Chao (1945)
  • The Modern Art of Chinese Cooking by Barbara Tropp (1982)
  • Good Things by Jane Grigson (1973)
  • Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking by Marcella Hazan (1992)
  • Simple French Food by Richard Olney (1974)
  • A Book of Middle Eastern Food by Claudia Roden (1968)
  • The Foods and Wines of Spain by Penelope Casas (1982)
  • Please to the Table by Anya Von Bremzen (1990)
  • The Art of Mexican Cooking by Diana Kennedy (1989)

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.

If you feel overwhelmed—low on energy, money, or inspiration; buried by work, stress, or other people’s needs:

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.

If you want to be in the presence of a master:

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.

If you want to know what living intentionally as a part of a true community looks like:

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.

If you want to bake, and experience the deep pleasure and magic that come from the alchemy of mixing butter and eggs and sugar and flour:

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.

If you want a friend:

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).

If you miss your grandmother or want to know how people used to cook and eat before the internet was a twinkle in anyone’s eye:

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.

Sarah Whitman-Salkin is an editor and writer, and the founder of the online bookshop Classics Cookbooks.

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Deb W. May 12, 2023
We downsized this spring; my “saves” include Joy of Cooking, Julia Child’s The Way to Cook, and Jaques Pepin, Tassajara, Pierre Franey, but also Whole Chile Pepper and Barefoot Contessa, among others.
Ruth May 12, 2023
These are good suggestions. I would say that of all the Ottolenghi cookbooks, Jerusalem is the one I turn to over and over. I browse through Plenty and Plenty More for ideas, but the recipes in Jerusalem are the ones that I make. Agree about Deborah Madison's Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone. I have Maida Heatter's Book of Cookies, and use it frequently. One difference between that book, published in the '70s, and more recent cookie cookbooks, is that the recipes usually yield 50-80 cookies, enough to freeze. Salt Fat Acid Heat is one of the best teaching cookbooks I've ever read, wish I'd had it when I was first starting out.
averything July 26, 2017
I enjoyed both this article and the comments with so many heartfelt recommendations for books BUT what immediately jumped out at me was the description of the current on-line videos with the "disembodied hands ...and mood music". I had a vivid flashback of being a kid watching TV shows like Carol Burnett which included the Kraft commercials where the hands of experienced hand models (and not the actual home economists who created the recipes ) made treats with lots of peanut butter, Parkay margarine and mini marshmallows. The action was described by that voice over guy - and if you grew up with these, you know the voice I mean! Viewers could write in and request the recipes that aired each month. I can still hear that voice in my head now!
Sarah W. July 26, 2017
Some marketing never changes! Also, all those old ads are on YouTube and it's a quite the rabbit hole...thank you for the midday distraction!
Lynne June 2, 2017
Lovely article, thanks Sarah. I must say that as a cookbook writer as much as a cookbook reader, I've become SO bored with works that are only about the recipes. With Internet supplying a tsunami of them anyways (Ruhlman's expression, not mine), I need books to up the ante, to provide a voice, pride of place, to stand on their own as a cultural object. I would also say, if one likes Asian cooking Fuchsia Dunlop's Land of Plenty and for Latin-American cuisine (although it's a recent book), Maricel Presilla's The Food of Latin America are huge favourites of mine. I also quite like my Mom's old Five Roses cookbook lol. I have a soft spot for mid-century cookbooks, so hokey and good-ugly :)
Sarah W. June 5, 2017
Thanks, Lynne! I totally agree with your endorsements of both Fuchsia Dunlop's and Maricel Presilla's books—all of them are wonderful. And check out Fuchsia Dunlop on Instagram (@fuchsiadunlop) if you don't follow her already...such delicious pictures.
Julie C. May 13, 2017
In writing a cookbook on grits, I became a bit sidetracked by rediscovering Southern foods. I like cookbooks by African American women and have several (Sallie Ann Robinson's cookbooks; she was a student of Pat Conroy's on Daufuskie Island. I love Vertamae Smart-Grosvenor's Vibration Cooking, My Gullah Kitchen by Eva Segar). Writing about grits, I learn history, about Native Americans, types of corn, and so on. To me, a cookbook has to be more than just a pretty face and I love Michael Ruhlman's books on cooking (as opposed to cook books). Southern cooking is where it's at for me...
Sarah W. June 5, 2017
There's so much to learn from cookbooks! Do you know Toni Tipton-Martin's work? Sounds like her book The Jemima Code would be right up your alley.
bjm May 2, 2017
The comments about the libraries are wonderful. I have a large cookbook collection - going back to 1963 with the 'Betty Crocker Cookbook' I received as a wedding gift. The spine is gone - only the metal binder showing, it is grease/food spattered, but has been used a lot. Today, I use the library as a way to preview new cookbooks so as to not duplicate those I already own. My local library is very gracious when I recommend a new purchase for their collection.
Sarah W. May 2, 2017
A sign that you love a cookbook? It's completely destroyed!
Noreen F. March 29, 2017
When I'm on vacation somewhere new, I like to pick up a local cookbook to bring home as a souvenir.
Also, as a librarian, I'd just like to say thanks for all the lovely comments about libraries from all of you! Just know that even though I try to keep these classics on the shelf, the turnover in the cookbook section is tremendous. They're not building any additions onto my library, so if I'm going to keep buying cookbooks, the ones that aren't getting used have to go. Of course, that's when you get to pick them up at the Friends of the Library book sale for a couple of dollars!
Sarah W. March 29, 2017
I totally agree, Noreen—all this nice talk about libraries is so wonderful! They truly are essential civic institutions.
Sienna S. March 26, 2017
This article perfectly articulates the dryness of modern cookbooks! I follow lots of cooking blogs but always hesitate to buy their cookbooks because, well, most are just bloggers. Not chefs. And if I'm gonna invest in a cookbook I'd like it full of insights and tips, culture and science. I'm really intrigued by the recommendations. But I'm also living mostly plant based and don't want books filled with recipes I'll never make. Any suggestions for vegetarian and vegan style cookbooks? So far the only outstanding one I've found is by America's Test Kitchen.
Sarah W. March 27, 2017
One of my favorite vegetable-focused authors is Deborah Madison. Her book Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone is truly excellent: all of her recipes are for whole foods and she really teaches the reader how to think about cooking vegetables—so you're not just learning how to cook a potato, but how to cook with potatoes (for example). Her love of vegetables comes through so clearly in her writing. To me this is a must-have book for vegetarians and carnivores alike.

I'd also recommend Plenty by Yotam Ottolenghi. Though the author isn't vegetarian, all of the recipes in Plenty are—and in addition to being creative, flavorful, and inspiring, all the recipes work!

And for a more nutrition-centric approach, take a look at Heidi Swanson's books. All of them are great (and you can test out her recipes on her blog, She's a perfect example of a blogger whose recipes really deliver.
David P. May 2, 2017
What about the Moosewood books?
Sarah W. May 2, 2017
I love the Moosewood books! The original is a great place for beginner vegetarian cooks to start building a repertoire of vegetarian dishes, and both Mollie Katzen's books after Moosewood and the books written by the Moosewood Collective are solidly full of great recipes. Which Moosewood book is your go-to?
David P. May 2, 2017
My top picks are the original (40th anniversary edition) and Restaurant Favorites. Our local library has a very nice selection of cookbooks, including the Moosewood books, and I've found it to be a wonderful way to see if I want to buy a particular book.
Sarah W. May 2, 2017
Thanks for those recs. And another endorsement of libraries!
anniette March 24, 2017
My favorite James Beard is Beard On Food. Collected columns - some may seem dated, but the food is divine. I completely trust his palate and his recipes always come out to perfection.
AntoniaJames March 24, 2017
Oh, and let's not forget James Beard's "American Cookery." How many other cookbook authors' "voices" can be described as elegant, gracious, helpful and welcoming, all at once? This beautiful tome serves up tons of information, crisply stated, with just enough "conversation" to make you love the book, and the man. ;o)
Sarah W. March 27, 2017
What an oversight on my part! American Cookery, Beard on Bread, Theory and Practice...all of Beard's books are treasures. Thanks for adding his name to the mix!
Marit G. March 22, 2017
Great stuff, collect and read cookbooks all the time
Sarah W. March 23, 2017
Thanks, Marit!
andrea C. March 22, 2017
what a great article. adding all the titles to my reading/shopping list. thank you, thank you.
Sarah W. March 22, 2017
Thank you, angel! XOXO
luvcookbooks March 22, 2017
Thank you! I own some of these books and sometimes question the space they take up. Good Things by Jane Grigson is one of my favorite cookbooks. I had to buy a new one because my copy had fallen apart. Her charcuterie book s also wonderful and I like her daughter's Food for Friends. What an affirming article. Thanks so much!
Sarah W. March 22, 2017
Thanks, Meg! The sign of a well-loved book is that it's falling apart. Jane Grigson's books are real treasures—every time I think of Good Things I get a craving for rice pudding. Now that I'm thinking about it, I might have to make some this afternoon!
luvcookbooks March 22, 2017
Sophie's Table not Food for Friends, sorry!
Nancy March 22, 2017
Great article and book suggestions.
Also, if one (or more) of them speak to you, you can learn a cuisine or a technique or a grouo of dishes by living with and working through most of the book.
Doesn't have to be as complete or scheduled as Julie and Julia, but yes the depth and breadth of cooking is important.
Sarah W. March 22, 2017
Thanks, Nancy! And I couldn't agree more. All of the books I recommended in the "travel" section are great for learning a cuisine: they introduce a culture, establish building blocks of ingredients and techniques, and then teach you how to cook the dishes of that culture. And hopefully the people you're cooking for won't mind eating the same cuisine every night for a month!
amysarah March 22, 2017
What a great piece. I look at recipes online almost daily and can't imagine going back to not having that convenience...but it's an entirely different experience. As you suggested, a good cookbook tells a story - it engages you with a distinctive 'voice' and a sense of place and/or time. The detachment I feel online is fine for quickly looking up a recipe or technique, roasting temp, etc. But for me, it doesn't' replace 'curling up' with a cookbook, literally or figuratively.

Re libraries - I'm kind of a library rat in general, but they also give you a chance to 'test drive' a cookbook before buying it, when you're not sure. And ditto what Windischgirl said about great finds at their used book sales - and flipping that equation, an easy non-wasteful way to jettison your old/unwanted cookbooks while supporting the library - win win.
Sarah W. March 22, 2017
There's no denying the value of the internet: as a research tool, reference, source of inspiration. I, too, spend hours online looking at recipes! But I always find myself going back to my books. Often I'll find something online that I want to make, then turn to the cookbooks on my shelf to learn more, whether history, instructions, or just to get an expert's thoughts.
anniette March 22, 2017
Love this, as a cookbook collector and addict! Try EYB and the internet can help you use your own cookbooks. It's a good site (Eat Your Books)which indexes cookery books, thousands of them. Just locate yours in their list and create a library, then key in an ingredient or a recipe and it shows you in which of your books and on which page to find what you are seeking. Delightful browsing for cookbook lovers!
Sarah W. March 22, 2017
Eat Your Books is a fantastic tool!
Greenstuff March 22, 2017
I have to confess to owning more than half the books in this article. Eat Your Books is a wonderful tool for keeping me in touch with all of them.
Lisa H. March 22, 2017
I'm hungry now. And I loved your article. AND....I'm looking at my shelves of cookbooks with pages dogeared and pages with bits of past dinners of them, some with torn covers and all very much loved.
Sarah W. March 22, 2017
Thanks, Lisa!
Marsha G. March 21, 2017
My fave pre-Internet cookbooks are: Good Cheap Food by Miriam Ungerer (1973), More-with-Less by Doris Longacre (1976), and the inestimable Joy of Cooking by Irma Rombauer (1931).
Sarah W. March 22, 2017
How could I have left off Joy of Cooking?! My own copy has seen so much use, the pages are falling off of the binding. Indispensable.
Windischgirl March 21, 2017
The other perk of my local library is that it houses a used bookstore! I picked up Diana Kennedy's and Marcella Hazan's books for $2 each...among other classics for about the same price. I get to indulge on a budget, and I also support the library's programs. Everyone wins!
Sarah W. March 22, 2017
That's the best!
AntoniaJames March 21, 2017
I might add to that excellent list:
"The Zuni Cafe Cookbook," by Judy Rodgers. Though strictly speaking not "pre-internet age," it provides a wealth of useful information, generously shared in Judy Rodgers' straightforward and authoritative, but altogether likable, voice.
"Humble Pie: Musings on What Lies Beneath the Crust," by Ann Dimock
"Clementine in the Kitchen" by Samuel Chamberlain.

And I second bhilz's suggestion to browse in your local library. Our library system, like most, has an online catalog where you can see every book in all branches. One search function allows you to go to any Dewey Decimal number to "see" all the books to its left and to its right on the "shelf". Great, great fun, in addition to going to the actual shelves at the branches or main simply to browse. ;o)
Sarah W. March 21, 2017
I couldn't agree more about Judy Rodgers' book—it's truly a masterpiece (though, as you noted, not technically pre-internet, which is why it's not on the list). I don't know Anne Dimock's book, thanks for the tip!