Like A Good Book

April 10, 2012

This is the sixth installment of Sunday Dinners, a biweekly column from our own Tom Hirschfeld featuring his gorgeous photography, stunning Indiana farm, and mouthwatering family meals.

Today: Tom takes a long, hard look at his stack of cookbooks.

Shop the Story

- Tom

I used to read a lot of cookbooks. Not in the literary sense; no, I simply read them for the recipes and then tossed them back onto the stack. I feel guilty about this past -- whenever I read a novel I usually skip all the preliminary stuff too. No preface, no foreword, no nothing. I go right to chapter one, or in the case of a cookbook, the first recipe. When one of the first novels I remember reading gave away the story in the first few pages of the foreword, I distinctly remember thinking, "I won't do that again." So it has become habit to just skip to chapter one.

In the early days of my cooking, I would buy into any cookbook because of its glitz and glamour. What eventually happened was that the more books I looked to, the less they seemed different. It had been all about the cover, but now the cover wasn't enough. Fortunately, as my cooking matured I began to know what I was looking for. All of the sudden I wanted depth and substance -- I was no longer in a hurry to start scouring the pages for something new. Instead, I wanted to develop a relationship. I wanted to have a cup of coffee or a glass of wine and casually flip through the pages of a cookbook looking for a new way to use an ingredient, a recipe I'd never heard of, or a new technique. But there was more.

As it turns out, I want a book with voice. Someone I want to hear from page after page. A writer who I feel is in the kitchen with me, building a kinship of similarities not just with their taste in food, but with their story. To put it simply: I look for a long term relationship with my cookbooks. As with any relationship, it isn't going to be perfect. There will be rough spots in the road, times when we don't pay enough attention to each other. But in a very real way, I have faith and trust that we will reconnect. Maybe the short break allows me time to see new beauty in a recipe I've overlooked for all these years, or more often to remember all the things I love about the old ones. It is much nicer to grow old together. It is comforting. I don't want to go out and replace the same book with a new one. I want all the blemishes, stains, and notes in the margins that represent our history together. It tells me we have gone places and that we still like the same things, and reminds me of all the memories we have built together.

If someone asks me with whom I would want to be stranded on a desert island, my first answer is always my wife, Amy. I don't say it because I am supposed to, but because I can't imagine a better person with whom to spend that time. When I'm asked about cookbooks I wouldn't want to be without, I feel lucky, extremely lucky, that I can say without reservation that I have more than a handful: The Cooking of Southwest France by Paula Wolfert, French Farmhouse Cookbook by Susan Herrmann Loomis, The Splendid Table by Lynne Rossetto Kasper, and Bistro Cooking by Patricia Wells, among others. In the same way that I look at old friends, I'm an extremely fortunate man to have known these books throughout my entire cooking life.

Beef on a String

Serves 4 to 6

8 cups homemade vegetable stock
1/4 teaspoon fennel seed
1/4 teaspoon Szechuan peppercorns
1/2 teaspoon black peppercorns
8 cloves of garlic
8 carrots, washed, peeled, and cut into 2-inch long pieces
8 fingerling or small potatoes, peeled
2 celery roots, peeled and cut into 2-inch batons
1 or 2 onions depending on size, trimmed, root end left on and cut into wedges
2 to 2 1/4 pounds center-cut beef tenderloin, trimmed and cleaned of sinew, trussed
2 tablespoons Pommery whole grain mustard
3 tablespoons mayonnaise
1 tablespoon flat leaf parsley, very finely minced
1/2 to 1 teaspoon fresh lemon juice
kosher salt and fresh ground black pepper

See the full recipe (and save and print it) here.

See what other Food52 readers are saying.

  • ginampen
  • Victoria Carr
    Victoria Carr
  • thirschfeld
  • MrsMehitabel
  • boulangere
Father, husband, writer, photojournalist and not always in that order.


ginampen October 3, 2012
Wow, you put my thoughts together for me! I am in my first cookbook relationship with Harry's Bar Cookbook by Harry Cipriani. It keeps me company in the kitchen and is a great nighttime read too. I'm excited to look into your recommendations!
Victoria C. April 12, 2012
April Bloomfield's book A Girl and Her Pig is out; I think you would enjoy it. It is interesting, different, and she has an authentic voice.
thirschfeld April 12, 2012
I made her lemon caper dressing just last night. Fantastic and I can't wait to see her book!
thirschfeld April 11, 2012
Those are all great books!
MrsMehitabel April 11, 2012
Thank you so much for this article! Some books truly do become friends.
Even though a lot of what I cook on a daily basis comes from food blogs or library cookbooks, I always turn back to Betty Crocker, California Rancho Cooking by Jacqueline higuera McMahan, and Arthur Schwartz's What to Cook (When You Think there's Nothing in the House to Eat). The last two came with me when my husband and I had just bought a wooden sailboat to live on and were doing repairs on it at anchor. Tossing on the sea, a hundred miles from home, with a baby and no electricity, I read those books for the bajillionth time. We had handmade tortillas and refried beans on a cold, choppy Halloween night, and when we got the oven installed we celebrated with Arthur's scones with blueberries and lemon zest.
The boat sank in a storm, but the books remain with me- wherever we go, they will come along and help me make a home of it.
boulangere April 11, 2012
Wow. That's a lot of story in a very small space.
thirschfeld April 11, 2012
You are the first person ever, and I mean ever to mention what I think is a really great cookbook, California Rancho Cooking. I happened upon it in the SF airport and brought it home with me. It is such a great book. Any yes, wow, what a great story you hold in your hands and memory.
pierino April 11, 2012
California Rancho Cooking is a fine by (I think) an 8th generation Californian. Another great one is Helen Brown's West Coast Cooking from 1952 which you might run into in a good used bookstore.
MrsMehitabel August 5, 2013
I just saw this reply now- yes, it is a great book. My mother bought it for me. She doesn't really cook, but she has an unfailing instinct for finding great books. Since we live in California, Mrs. McMahan's descriptions of the olive-lined lanes and grape vines are very familiar. She talks about cooking on her sailboat as well- when I cooked aboard from her book, I wished I could call her up and say "I'm cooking your recipes on a boat too! I know just how you felt!"
It's great to know that someone else knows and loves that book as I do.
boulangere April 11, 2012
I miss Laurie Colwin terribly. I'd take her to the deserted island with me in a heartbeat. Elizabeth David: bad girls make for great writing and wonderful food. And Richard Olney has probably done more to round out my food sensibility than anyone else. I'm rereading Simple French Food as we so to speak speak. Unlike you, though, Tom, of good books I read every single word - acknowledgements, forward, prologue, afterword, table of contents. Of good writing I cannot consume enough. Thank you. What a thoughtful post.
thirschfeld April 11, 2012
I like Olney's Lulu's Provencal Table. Not to worry, many times after I finish a book then I go back to the forward and all the rest of the stuff.
pierino April 10, 2012
Tom, these are all great books. I too remain a big fan of Paula Wolfert. I have to admit I've never been a big fan of Alice Waters' books, although I respect her contribution to American food sensibilities. Bigger influences to me were the classics from the 1961 epoch (which I inherited from my mother). But then I was taken by the work of people like Richard Olney, Elizabeth David and Colman Andrews. Food history is a bit of an obsession. I also loved the late Keith Floyd who showed that you could be a great cook and still subversively funny well before the era of Marco Pierre White.
thirschfeld April 11, 2012
Paula Wolfert always amazes me with her ability to sniff out new and exciting recipes. I like Coleman Andrews a lot too.
Oui, C. April 10, 2012
Nice turned veggies, dude! This is my kind of recipe....fabulous.
thirschfeld April 11, 2012
Thanks Oui!
Nozlee S. April 10, 2012
I just started reading Home Cooking by Laurie Colwin yesterday morning, and I have More Home Cooking lined up for afterward -- they're HILARIOUS!
NotesOnDinner April 10, 2012
Hilarious?! Have you gotten to the part about the Sussex Pond Pudding yet? OR Repulsive Dinners, A Memoir? I confess that I love her novels too, although I think maybe I am in the minority. Happy All the Time is my favorite bedtime reading when I'm exhausted. I have to love a writer who loves Barbara Pym although I love Laurie Colwin more
NotesOnDinner April 10, 2012
Hilarious?! Have you gotten to the part about the Sussex Pond Pudding yet? OR Repulsive Dinners, A Memoir? I confess that I love her novels too, although I think maybe I am in the minority. Happy All the Time is my favorite bedtime reading when I'm exhausted. I have to love a writer who loves Barbara Pym although I love Laurie Colwin more
Nozlee S. April 10, 2012
Oh, I absolutely love Happy All the Time -- I'm always making my friends read it and talking about it.
NotesOnDinner April 10, 2012
What about Family Happiness? I like that one too, maybe even more than Happy All the Time...not to obsess about all the books I love, here's one more though: Love in a Cold Climate and the Pursuit of Love, Nancy Mitford - my other best bedtime reading
Nozlee S. April 10, 2012
I'll have to try out those Mitford books! I read Colwin's short story collection The Lone Pilgrim and loved it so much I actually bought all 10 books she published immediately afterward -- I'm working my way through them and it's been such a pleasure. So far I've read Happy All the Time, Another Marvelous Thing, and now Home Cooking.
NotesOnDinner April 10, 2012
Best comfort cookbooks: Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking, Madhur Jaffery's Indian Cookery, Lydia's Family Table, Roast Chicken and Other Stories, but the ultimate for me, if not exactly a true cookbook: Home Cooking and More Home Cooking by Laurie Colwin.