The idea came from Rux Martin, the outstanding cookbook editor at Houghton-Mifflin who publishes such legendary authors as Dorie Greenspan, Jacques Pepin, Rick Moonan, Jane and Michael Stern, Jonathan Waxman, Cat Cora, Pam Anderson and one of my personal favorites, Michele Scicolone. Rux has flawless taste, and had been reading my personal blog about finding a second chapter after living in New York for nearly 40 years. I moved to Portland, Oregon where Beau, my French Bulldog and I have expanded our living quarters from 800 to 2400 square feet! Rux sent me a wonderful mash note about the blog along with an insistent suggestion that I had to start a cookbook blog. Well why didn't I think if that? The minute she wrote to me about it, I totally embraced it. After all, I've been promoting cookbooks to consumers for more than 30 years. I consider myself a really good cook. I read cookbooks like novels and have very strong opinions about them. I constantly offer unbidden details about the food I eat on my many travels to Europe and South America. So my blog about my new life in Portland, also covered the the very lively food scene that is active in this city. I'm not shy about telling chefs about their cooking. I'm told I can write and have come to accept this talent as a gift. So here is my opening salvo for StoveTopReadings.
The first cookbook I worked on was one written by Sylvia Schur, the lady who developed Cran-Apple juice and Metrecal, authored recipe booklets that accompanied kitchen conveniences such as mixers, blenders, and other appliances, consulted with many top food companies, and was influential in creating the first menu of the legendary New York restaurant, The Four Seasons. I was reminded of Sylvia because she recently died at the age of 92. Sylvia started a cooking school in the late 70s and she didn't have quite enough students for her first class. She invited me to join the class for free, and I enthusiastically agreed. For twelve sessions lasting more than five hours each, Sylvia called on her highly skilled friends in the food business to teach us how to make quenelle's de brochet, trim a crown roast of pork, properly beat eggs for a souffle, saute, poach, braise, roast, sweat, peel and trim vegetables, carve, bone a whole fish, pit a cherry, make bread, roll out pastry, and hundreds of other important techniques. This was the period before the food processor was declared a kitchen miracle (though we made those quenelles in a Robot Coupe, the precursor of the more famous Cuisinart food processor). The term foodie did not exist, and the big names in cookbook publishing were giants indeed: Craig Claiborne, Julia Child and James Beard. New legends were just earning their reputations: Marcella Hazan, Pierre Franey, Maida Heatter, Bernard Clayton, Jr., Edna Lewis, Lee Bailey and Jacques Pepin. Sheila Lukins had yet to thrill young hostesses in New York with her Chicken Marbella. She and Julee Rosso were still cooking in their tiny little storefront shop on Columbus Avenue.
As a publicist I got to woo authors and media contacts at some of the New York's best new restaurants. This exposure gave me an incredible education about food and wine, foreign cuisines, and immeasurably enhanced my knowledge of the food world. Luctece was the most important French restaurant in town. Gourmet ruled the magazine stands with no rivals. Gail Greene's outrageously witty, sensual and playful reviews of the city's top dining spots were considered must reads for the emerging food scene that finally flowered in New York in the early 80s. By the time Le Bernadin, Le Cirque, The Quited Giraffe, and Bouley arrived, New York was in the grip of full foodie madness. And it was spreading everywhere. Alice Waters opened Chez Panisse in Berkeley, California, establishing the West Coast as a distinctive culinary territory not taking orders from the East Coast. Wolfgang Puck became a celebrity overnight cooking at Patrick Terrail's popular Los Angeles bistro, Ma Maison. Paul Prudhomme was slaying them with his blackened redfish at his New Orleans Cajun restaurant. The revolution of food in America which began with Claiborne, Child and Beard came to full flower as new culinary stars would emerge behind the stoves of instantly famous restaurants or in front of a TV camera, and in newspapers and magazines. The books of Patricia Wells, Rick Bayless, Rose Levy Beranbaum, Penelope Casas, Marcella Hazan, Barbara Kafka, Nick Malgieri, Martha Stewart and so many others would bcome the standard bearers of this newer generation.
The New York Times was the influential center of this world through its Wednesday food section, the diversity and reach of the newspaper's food pages broadened to accommodate the explosion of culinary information from restaurants and personalities, to new products and trends. This is the culinary world that I was exposed to and by the early 90s when I left the world of corporate publishing to freelance, I began to specialize in the promotion of cookbooks. I loved the authors I worked with, and became friends with many of them. Their books and others became the mainstays of my burgeoning cookbook library. By the time I left New York, my 800 square-foot apartment was teeming with cookbooks stuffed into every nook and cranny of my home. I had tried to be ruthless about allowing new arrivals to take a permanent place in my collection, but failed miserably. The fall months were the worst when publishers put out their most expensive and visually arresting cookbooks to capitalize on the Christmas selling season. It was not unusual to come home night after night and be handed a jiffy pouch by my doorman stuffed with new offerings.
The wonderful news is my Portland home is roomier. Still in order to make the move with me, a cookbook had to be written by someone I revered, or contain at least one recipe that I enjoyed preparing, or be a wonderful book to read, or was a book I had been involved in promoting. I still have too many and will continue to try to contain the collection.
Well written cookbooks are becoming scarcer these days. The demand for "food porn" tomes with lots of beautiful photos has supplanted the need for highly personalized works by people who have real voices, and can write recipes that capture the cook's imagination. Marcella Hazan, for instance, is known for her prickly personality, but who is writing the kind of book that compares to her unique voice in The Classic Italian Cookbook and the others that followed this influential work? Paula Wolfert's exacting standards for her many fine books on Mediterranean cooking make for mesmerizing reading. Maida Heatter could turn the most inept baker into a confident and competent one with her intimate voice and reassuring manner. I know. She made me the good baker I am today. There is nothing further to be said about the books of Julia Child. I once watched her remove the carcass from a small turkey on TV. With Julia Child & Company, her clearly written instructions worked, and this technique makes for a moist and delicious bird that I've served at Thanksgiving dinners ever since. Lynne Rosetto Kasper's recipes in The Splendid Table reveal the glories of foods from the Emilia-Romano region of Italy and are fascinating to read. Placing dishes made from any of these authors in front of your guests is a gratifying experience. Deborah Madison's cookbooks are amongst the most consistent and best written in my collection. I cannot resist Barbara Kafka's tough and opinionated and very funny headers to the recipes in her many cookbooks. Vegetable Love is as much of a gas to read as it is to cook from. Nigel Slater is a fabulous writer and The Kitchen Diaries is a joyful book to read. Jamie Oliver has made the transition from adorable Brit TV celebrity lad to an serious young chef and writer, who created careers for young kids with no culinary training and gave them a restaurant to make their mark with. Cook with Jamie amply demonstrates this maturity--the vegetable recipes alone are worth the price of the book. I am generally not a fan of restaurant cookbooks. There are chefs that can write and chefs that can cook, but rarely at the same time. But the recipes found in Suzanne Goin's Sunday Suppers at Lucques and Judy Rodgers' Zuni Cafe Cookbook, not only sing, but are made memorable through their texts. Lidia Bastianich is unquestionably to my mind, one of the two best cooking teachers on television (the other is Jacques Pepin). Her gracious books are sensational too--well-written, specific, creative, and are as compelling to me on the page as her warm and generous presence is on TV.
I will try to cover as many cookbooks as I can in all categories from highbrow to low. I won't ignore classic cookbooks and I intend to periodically remind readers about them and why I think they are great. I'll tell you which books I think best to cook from, and tell you which are better to read, and maybe every once in awhile, I'll alert you to those efforts better left ignored. I hope to interview authors and editors, and agents, and just about everyone involved in creating cookbooks. And of course, I'll include recipes and photos.
I have had the pleasure of working with some of the very finest cookbook talents out there including Jacques Pepin, Martin Yan, Deborah Madison, Paul Prudhomme, Maida Heatter, Pierre Franey, Richard Olney, Rose Levy Beranbaum, Jean Vergnes, Raghavan Iyer, Diane Rossen Worthington, Susan Wyler, Amy Schreiber, Joey Altman, and so many others. There is plenty of great culinary talent out there and I want to share it with you. And I hope Rux Martin, who inspired this blog allows me to interview her soon.
For my new dining room, I had bookshelves made to hold my cookbooks and for the first time they are, at least for the moment, in one place. Here are photos of the collection and close-ups of some of my favorite cookbook spines.
I look forward to sharing these wonderful books and hope you'll write me and share your own thoughts.
Now to the good stuff...