My last two novels featured characters who either wrote about or cooked food for a living, and because of that, I have become accustomed to answering questions about food at my book events. People ask if I am a good cook, with sweet, hopeful expressions on their faces, and I have to give the same answer that I will give you now. No, I’m not. Alas! I’m an enthusiastic eater, a decent baker, and a mediocre cook. Such is life. I’m working on it. And so with apologies to the many, many dedicated and talented cooks who are my fellow judges and enjoyers of this contest, here goes nothing.
When the books arrived in the mail, I leafed through and made a quick decision—Deep Run Roots’ Vivian Howard looks like Elizabeth Taylor in "Giant," and there are photos of her eating a big, messy sandwich (the “Elbow-Lick Tomato Sandwich,” which makes me very badly wish it were tomato season), mayonnaise running down her chin, and I fell in love. Anyone who will print not one but THREE photographs of herself happily dripping sandwich detritus is a-okay with me. The book reads like a memoir, with lengthy (the book is 564 pages long) and lush descriptions of Howard’s hometown thoughts (she’s from Deep Run, North Carolina, which sounds no bigger than a minute, and is filled with people like Howard’s Uncle Reddy, who lived to 100 because he ate a sweet potato everyday). I was prepared to pick this book based on the story and Howard’s gorgeous face alone.
My husband likes banana pudding. I personally don’t know why someone would want a dessert that had no chocolate in it, but I love my husband and so I decided to make the banana pudding. How could so many things go wrong so fast? I learned Howard’s worldview pretty quickly, which I can sum up like this: I had to make the cookies. I had to roast the bananas. I had to go back to the store to get cream of tartar, because who ever buys cream of tartar? Surely it’s in your kitchen somewhere from the last time you had to use it six months ago, right? None of this was Howard’s fault, to be sure. And sure, yes, the cookies ended up being the best part, but still. The rest of the banana pudding was a hot (warm) mess, and it took a hundred years to make. I took the bulk of it to my book club, and the host, literally the kindest, most generous woman I know, said “Maybe it tastes better than it looks?” It didn’t.
The pimento cheese grits with salsa and chips, on the other hand, was a solid gold hit. I wanted to make the most Southern dishes I could, because I thought that that might make me look a little bit more like Howard. She wanted me to make the pimento cheese and the salsa and the grits, and so it too took me a hundred years, but it was hard for my husband and me not to eat the entire skillet. I understand that this is how cookbooks work—and this dish was certifiably delicious—so I forgive her. Thank god she didn't ask me to make my own chips. Howard’s voice is folksy and endearing, and I loved her stories about her family and the Piggly Wiggly—and I wanted very badly for her to be cooking instead of me.
Does it make me a philistine if I took a second look at the other cookbook, Diana Henry’s Simple, and realized that my life was about to get a lot better? Every recipe is on one page. The roasted chicken and cauliflower? One page. The flourless chocolate cake with coffee cream? One page. My toddler and I baked the cake together in ten minutes. Eggs and potatoes (or, as Henry calls them, "Huevos Rotos") that look impressive but take four seconds to prepare, all in one pan? Diana, marry me. Grilled zucchini, burrata, and fregola (though I used Israeli couscous, because Diana is relaxed like that). Turkish pasta with feta, yogurt, and dill. Each of them were easy enough to do at the end of the day before collapsing into a heap.
And about that chocolate cake. It was so good that I was glad I hadn’t made it for a dinner party, where other people would have gotten to gobble it all up. I ate a piece every day for the next several days, and snacked on the it throughout the day, like my own personal chocolate cake buffet. Creamy, rich as hell, divine.
What happened is not Howard’s fault. I’m actually very grateful for this experience, because it helped me identify exactly what will make me scream at a cookbook fourteen times in one day. Here is what I discovered: My biggest cookbook pet peeve is when a recipe refers to one or more other recipes in the book in order to make a single dish. This may not always be true, but right now, with one three-year-old and one nine-month-old, I’m either cooking with one hand while holding a baby, cooking with two hands while trying to make sure that one baby doesn’t murder the other baby, or cooking after the babies are asleep and I am more than halfway there myself. The banana pudding took up, all told, about half of my childcare hours in one day, between the trips to the grocery store and all of the steps and the goddamn meringue and the cookies. Making it felt like when you look at travel times for flights across time zones—ready in +1 day.
Both of these books are gorgeously photographed, with encouraging, warm voices, and scores of enticing recipes. I felt like I got a lot more of Vivian Howard out of Deep Run Roots than I did Diana Henry out of Simple, and I loved her, but if the true test of a cookbook is how much flour is going to be caked into its spine, how many drops of oil are going to stain its pages, then I have to choose Simple. What I want most out of a cookbook is for it to make me feel competent and resourceful, able to understand basic concepts enough to repeat them without stress or strain. Deep Run Roots might be my crush, but Simple is going to be my new best friend.