There is a certain type of person who is meticulous about her cookbooks. A certain friend—naming names would be unseemly—is so paranoid about getting a smear of sauce or a speck of pepper on her beloved books, she stores them outside of the kitchen; when I borrowed a pie recipe, the condition was that I transcribe it (after washing my hands) onto my own paper, lest her pristine book become befouled by my less-than-perfectly-hygienic apartment.
To me, those people are like people who won't write in their books: As foreign a species as those who make their beds every day or get up promptly at 6 am. My cookbooks are soiled, folded, written in, and generally besmirched; if a cookbook is unmarked, it is either new or bad. In my kitchen (where cookbooks are stored in a two-tiered system: those used most frequently on the top shelf, those that are merely reference books or curiosities on the shelf below), the grease stain is the ultimate compliment: My battered copy of Diane Forley’s The Anatomy of a Dish, for example—from which last week's recipe for roasted chicken slowly emerged—is crusted with the red stains of risotto made with pickled beets and the yellow remnants of a batch of homemade horseradish mustard.
My cookbooks tell the story of dozens of years of cooking as a vegan, vegetarian, and devoted omnivore. One of my most battered, ripped-to-shreds, grease-splotched cookbooks is an out-of-print Ten Speed Press book called Jump Up and Kiss Me: Spicy Vegetarian Cooking, which I bought at the Texas Book Festival in 1996.
Although I'm no longer a vegetarian, I still make (and love) Jennifer Trainer Thompson's recipes for okra and corn gumbo, southern black-eyed peas and greens, and stuffed poblanos with chipotle-tomato sauce (the recipe for which is stained red with chipotle soaking liquid). I remember making those stuffed peppers (which feature chipotles, rice, pumpkins seeds and five cloves of garlic—and are, shockingly, completely vegan) for a skeptical carnivorous boyfriend sometime in the late '90s; although his review was less than rapturous at the time, he asked for the recipe after we broke up. (I gave it to him, along with maybe 50 others, in a photocopied cookbook I made him for Christmas many years later).
Another cookbook that holds special, if somewhat predictable, sentimental value is my 1997 Joy of Cooking. Different editions of Joy, like different iterations of sports teams or bands (think ‘60s Stones vs. ‘70s Stones) have their partisans; my edition is the '97 version, both because it's the one I bought first, and because it rejects the lowest-common-denominator inclinations embraced by earlier editions (and reclaimed, in rather reactionary fashion, in subsequent ones)—canned cream-of-whatever soup, processed "cheese food," and the like.
If you’re making that kind of food, I figure, why even use a cookbook? And if you do use a cookbook, it certainly won’t be covered in fingerprints and notes, dogeared and splattered, the ribbons burned off by the stove—the way mine is. This is the edition that advised readers, wisely, to make their own damn Mornay sauce for tuna casserole rather than dumping a Campbell's sodium bomb in a pot; that taught me to make Bolognese the right way, with whole milk and shockingly little tomato; that included authentic (if simple) recipes for Portugese caldo verde and fried green tomatoes as well as standbys like mushroom rice pilaf and mac and cheese.
Joy was the first cookbook I read from cover to cover, a practice I highly recommend to any aspiring or experienced cook; it's also the book from which I've cooked more than any other, usually with great success. When a recipe is more "meh" than "yum!", I scribble a note to that effect in the margins—anathema, I know, to my cookbook-revering comrades. Paging through Joy, I can tell which recipes I like just by how many notes, stains, and fingerprints are on a given page. Chicken Ragu, made for a lover I knew I was losing but still wanted to keep; fried green tomatoes, which won out over the "authentic Southern" version in the Lee Brothers Southern Cookbook for their simplicity; basil, corn and tomato risotto, a dead-simple summer recipe that has never once failed to impress; and rabbit with mustard (ahem, Lapin a la Moutarde), a simple rabbit stew I served at a late-summer dinner with two girlfriends at my apartment overlooking the city.
Other cookbooks that are battered and spattered from years of use, or well on their way to being that way: Mark Bittman's How to Cook Everything (a book I got for Christmas just last year, and which I wish I'd had when I first started cooking some 20 years ago); the Junior League of Baton Rouge's River Road Recipes, the source of most of my mom and grandmother's cooking; Southern Sideboards, another Junior League classic from Jackson, Mississippi; an, of course, Mastering the Art of French Cooking.
Although I do read food blogs—dozens of them—you can't put a food blog in your lap, toss it next to the stove, splatter tomato sauce on it as you prepare an elaborate lasagna or a simple summer meal. For me, the most reliable measure of a cookbook’s quality is how much use it gets. By that measure, my top cookbooks are all winners.
Be sure to read last Tuesday's FoodNerd here. And tomorrow, we debut FilmNerd.