What are the cookbooks that have changed the way you cook? The ones that have taught you something new about a technique, or introduced you to ingredient you didn't know you loved. Books with multiple dog-eared pages and floury thumbprints on the corners. The ones with recipes you make near-weekly; that you serve at every gathering with friends; that you've all but memorized. The ones that you'll keep in your collection for life.
Celia Sack, owner and buyer at San Francisco's Omnivore Books on Food, knows a thing or two about these kinds of books—her beautiful store features hundreds of them, both modern and vintage. And this weekend, she's celebrating 10 years of connecting home cooks with the books that inspire them. We recently spoke with Celia about the the best tip she's ever learned from a cookbook; the delights and challenges of owning her own small business; and the 10 essential cookbooks every home cook needs on their shelves.
Congratulations, Celia, and happy birthday to Omnivore!
BRINDA AYER: What attracts you to a cookbook and makes you want to recommend it to others?
CELIA SACK: I love books on food from faraway places—places you've imagined or maybe been to on your honeymoon, and want to return to. When I look at a Sri Lankan cookbook, for instance, and see swaying palms, elephants, tea plantations on the cover, I'm totally curious to know how the food relates to the surroundings depicted. Nearly every recipe uses coconut oil? Amazing! I also look for books by international publishers, who are physically located near the places they publish on—like a book on Thai food from an Australian publisher. The unique relationship between the countries shines through in these kinds of books. Last, I totally judge a book by its cover. Since there are so many cookbooks to choose from, why would I pick one up that's not going to compel my customers to open it?
BA: How have cookbooks changed over the last 10 years?
CS: One of the biggest changes we've witnessed is the loss of the dust jacket. When I first opened Omnivore, every book was in a dust jacket, but British and Australian publishers were leading the charge to move toward plain covers. It's funny, the change kind of coincides with restaurants getting rid of tablecloths! Also, I'd say about 90% of photographs used to be on glossy paper in the US, whereas British and Australian publishers always used matte. We quickly adopted this here, realizing it added a nostalgic and deeper feel to the books.
Thematically, cookbooks are once again putting emphasis on teaching techniques rather than just individual dishes, which leads you to be more creative in your kitchen. If you know how to make a braise (a simple set of steps involving a protein, vegetables or fruit, and a liquid like wine or cider), you can make up any combination of ingredients you like. This is very empowering; it brings us back to a time when cookbooks instructed the reader to "make a batter," and they knew how to.
BA: What are some of your favorite tidbits from cookbooks over the past decade?
Some of my favorite techniques come from chef and cookbook author Judy Rodgers' books, on how to roast a chicken: Always buy a small (2 to 3-pound) chicken, which will be juicier. Wash and pat it dry, then keep on a plate in the fridge for 2 days in order to dry the skin and get it really crispy when it roasts. I follow these tips no matter which roast chicken recipe I'm preparing, as they are foolproof!
BA: What are the best and most challenging aspects of running a cookbook store?
CS: Actually, the best and most challenging aspects are the same: Socializing with customers. I love to chat with them about their interests, answer questions about cooking and my shop, and so forth. But I exhaust myself doing that; in all these years in retail, I've never really learned how to reserve my energy, so I sometimes go home pretty depleted. I'd love to figure out how to give my best self to my customers and still keep some for me and my family.
The other challenge/positive is the small space I have. In a shop of just 500 sq. ft., there's very little storage and so I've had to learn to be a tight orderer. We lost a garage space we used to rent up the street a couple years ago (both for my shop and the pet store I co-own with my wife next door), so the back of the shop is like a submarine sometimes!
BA: What are the 10 must-have cookbooks for every home cook?
CS: There are tons to choose from, but here are my picks:
The Zuni Café Cookbook by Judy Rodgers
It tells you why you're doing what you're doing in the kitchen, by a great writer. My favorite recipe is the Chicken Braised with Figs, Honey & Vinegar.
The Taste of Country Cooking by Edna Lewis
Edna's recipes and writings about Southern cookery make me want to be a better cook. My favorite of her recipes is the Pan-fried Sweet Potatoes.
The Art of Simple Food by Alice Waters
People think an Alice Waters recipe must be difficult, but the truth couldn't be more opposite. Try the tortilla soup as proof!
My Bombay Kitchen by Niloufer King
Even without pictures, this book taught me how to cook Indian food with intelligence, confidence, and ease. Her fish in banana leaf parcels is a recipe I turn to time and again.
Into the Vietnamese Kitchen by Andrea Nguyen
Andrea teaches the essentials of Vietnamese cooking in a totally accessible way, with easy substitutions in case ingredients, like crab tomalley, are hard to find. My favorite recipe is the Crab and Shrimp Rice Noodle Soup.
Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking by Marcella Hazan
The bible for Italian cooks, including the proper way to make a bolognese.
Mastering the Art of French Cooking by Julia Child
I mean, who could live without this book?
The Food of Morocco by Paula Wolfert
Wolfert brought tagines to America, and introduced us not only to the cooking of North Africa, but the use of clay pots in cooking stews and pilafs.
Rose's Baking Basics by Rose Levy Berenbaum
A new addition to the canon, Berenbaum teaches us how to bake everything from brownies to birthday cakes, bread, pizza, and more.
Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone by Deborah Madison
A classic vegetarian cookbook that has stood the test of time.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
What are the cookbooks you turn to, time and again? Let us know in the comments!