Favorite Cookbooks: Let’s Get Comfortable

Most people who do some cooking or have any cookbooks at all have a favorite. Often the favorite is not a book at all, but an index card box full of handwritten recipes from relatives and friends. Some people have reliable standbys like The Joy of Cooking. The books here are my favorite cookbooks from the standpoint of the ones I cherish the most. The first three on the list I’ve had for years; the other two were used-bookstore finds I wasn’t looking for and turned out to be old standbys for either looking at, re-reading, or cooking.

Watkins cookbook
Watkins Cookbook (1938, J.R. Watkins Co.) This plain-looking cookbook was likely a free premium my grandfather got when he was selling Watkins products. I remember it being the only cookbook in my grandmother’s, and then my mother’s, house. It contains the first recipe I ever made, Sand Tarts, as well as what seems like hundreds of other recipes. Since for me it has family memories, it’s relaxing to just leaf through the pages. Of course, many of the recipes contain a Watkins product. It’s also a great resource for old long-forgotten recipes, like Rockledge Popovers and Macedoine Salad. There are many recipes I now find amusing, things I would never make – Larded Beef, Boiled Tongue, Salmon in Gelatin, and Soup from Leftover Cereal. There is a section on “Food for Invalids” that will cure you just from laughing. I’ve never seen a recipe actually use the word gruel in a title until I saw Corn Meal Gruel, Egg Gruel and a bold recipe bravely called just Gruel (cornmeal, water and salt). Not surprisingly, many of the recipes for the infirm involve broth, and many have eggs. I think I would become an invalid if I had Egg Lemonade, Nutritious Coffee (coffee, milk, gelatin) or Fermanlactol Milk (a fermented lactose tablet mixed in a quart of milk, which is then allowed to stand at room temperature for at least 12 hours).

Chinese Village Cookbook by Rhoda YeeChinese Village Cookbook (1975, Yerba Buena Press) by Rhoda Yee is a casual peek in the life of a San Francisco cook who relates stories about her childhood in China, and the legends and traditions there. There are many delightful black and white photos. The recipes are actually fine for Chinese cooking, though more for standard fare than the fancy palate. Somehow this book is interesting every time you pick it up: there’s the photo of the whole roasted pig in front of the wedding party, there’s the photo and story about visiting a tea house, there’s the part about a Chinese chicken. Cookbooks that bring you back time after time to read them or look at them have a personal touch, and this one is Rhoda Yee all the way through. If the Food Channel had started in the 1970s, she would have been their first star.

Plain Jane's Thrill of Very Fattening Foods Cookbook by Linda Sunshine
Plain Jane’s Thrill of Very Fattening Foods Cookbook by Linda Sunshine (1984, St. Martin’s Press). I wasn’t even looking for a cookbook at the bookstore in 1984 when I picked up this thin, fattening (as promised) cookbook. The crazy colors and cover type grabbed me, and once inside, there was no pulling me away. There are real recipes – most of them desserts, of course – and she’s not lying. These are high-fat, high-sugar, and high-salt recipes. It’s the only cookbook I’ve seen that makes me laugh out loud. There are instructions for maximizing the licking of the bowl, a diagram of Plain Jane’s kitchen (with room, of course, for various candies, Twinkies and Velveeta), and wacky letters to Plain Jane. This is not the “Plain Jane” related to the CW reality show, by the way. Who knows whatever happened to the original “Plain Jane”? Linda Sunshine had a blog briefly in 2006 but I suspect is now a housewife in Levittown, New Jersey, still busy making Jell-O trifles.

Savoring the Seasons of the Northern Heartland
Savoring the Seasons of the Northern Heartland (1994, Knopf) by Beth Dooley and Lucia Watson. This cookbook was not a bestseller, but should have been. It’s a true gem with brilliant writing and great recipes. The northern heartland is specifically defined as eastern North Dakota, Minnesota, Iowa, Wisconsin, and the upper peninsula of Michigan. It’s a generous land filled with game, fish, native wild rice, farmstead cheese and vegetable bounty. The early 1900s brought Norwegians, Finns, Germans, Hungarians, Croats, Russians, Poles and many other ethnic groups to the area, creating a rich cuisine with tremendous variety. As said earlier, any cookbook calling you to reread it has stories, and this one tells about the many ethnic traditions around food and about the preparation of the natural food of the area as the immigrants adapted to it. My copy has many sticky tabs on it noting recipes to return to, and new ones to try.

Cooking from the Quilt Country
Cooking from the Quilt Country by Marcia Adams (1980, Clarkson Potter) is worth it as a coffee table book for beautiful pictures of Amish and Mennonite life. The bonus is that it’s a cookbook filled with their hearty recipes and detailed stories about their daily lives, beliefs and traditions. I visited an Amish community in northern Missouri many times over the years when I lived in that part of the country, but learned much from this book. It has an inside look on a lifestyle only a few people truly know. It has all the qualities of a great cookbook–incredible photos, highly-interesting text and (for me) creative recipes making ideal use of food in a way you might not have thought of, such as Tomato Gravy (delicious over cornmeal mush or cornbread) and Gooseberry Relish. This also has some classic and hard-to-find recipes, such as Bob Andy Pie (similar to Chess Pie) and an easy recipe for Apple Butter.

This list might sound somewhat esoteric, but remember that my favorite of all is the Watkins Cookbook – a promotional cookbook to promote a product. A friend of mine says hers is a simple Betty Crocker cookie paperback, and another friend’s favorite is the Mount Carmel Cookbook, printed in 1993 by the members of St. Boniface and St. Therese parishes in Richmond and Scipio, Kansas. Your own favorite doesn’t have to be a great cookbook. It only has to be great to you! What’s yours, and why is it your favorite?