July 6 is National Fried Chicken Day. After a few false starts—literary chickens, famous cowards—I asked a sensible person what books could possibly relate to food. I’m not sure which I value more: sensible people or books. But I can never seem to get enough of either.
To celebrate today, here are some cookbooks that are actually worth messing about with:
1. Mastering the Art of French Cooking
This might be fish in a barrel, but should you find yourself faced with a barrel of fish, you’ll want Julia Child in your corner. I didn’t care for Julie & Julia (it wasn’t just the lobster), and the PBS series didn’t ring my bell. But Julia’s My Life in France? I fell in love with this brilliant, determined woman who would not let the snobbery of Le Cordon Bleu, the third-class status of mid-20th-century womanhood, or a six-foot pile of onions defeat her.
Plus, she was probably a spy.
So, I dug in with the two-volume set, bought an omelette pan (yes, a pan for just omelettes) and practiced tossing coffee beans on the back deck per Julia’s instructions. My neighbors moved away, but now, years later, I can entertain respectably and crank out a truly masterful Boeuf Bourguignon.
My recommendation is to proceed the same way and start with My Life in France. If you don’t have a sense of who Julia is, you might be too easily deterred to ask your butcher what a lardon is. (That is a question that practically invites insult.)
2. A Beautiful Bowl of Soup
My local lunch dive has been written up in Saveur, GQ, and Bon Appetit. It is just about the best place anywhere to have a meal and you can get a patty melt and fries or the world’s best veggie burger with a side for less than five bucks.
The house is known for its range of vegetarian offerings and Mistress of the Kitchen Carla Tucker almost always has a big kettle of soup simmering. I love soup, but when I’d ask, the day’s pick might be something involving beets or some sort of squash and I’d chicken out (just too exotic for my pedestrian taste). But Carla kept trying. She’d offer a taste; I’d say no thanks. One day, while my order was on the grill, she dropped off a bowl of something unpronounceable: “Just try it.” And wow. I’m a believer.
Carla recommended this book to me when I raved about her soups. You have to be brave: These recipes have combinations you might never have tried, but they make a winter’s day something to look forward to. And, while I’m not vegetarian, I appreciate all the more a dish that can satisfy my appetite with the sort of ingredients I might otherwise classify as garnish.
3. Moosewood Cooks at Home
Again, not a vegetarian. Also not a Communist (check out the author on this one). But this edition of Moosewood is a beautiful pile of gorgeousness with one recipe that alone made the purchase worthwhile: the unimaginatively named Curried Vegetables with Dahl. In my house we call it “Roald Dahl,” because it takes less time to say. And, well, because obviously.
If, like me, you have one large pot and one dull knife, the chopping for this dish can take an actual hour. If, like me, you persist in making this dish weekly for years and never buy yourself a proper knife, shame on you! You’re going to lose a finger one day, mister, and then will you be proud of your frugality?
So get a knife and try some of these recipes. The Roald Dahl is a great dish to learn how to make a good curry at home (that’s about $1000 worth of carryout expense saved all by itself), and it forces you to keep things like fresh ginger about the house. Let me tread some dangerous ground and suggest that Roald Dahl is even better with a good dose of chicken added.
4. Better Homes and Gardens New Cook Book
My edition of this classic is old. Really old. The stains on the cover are lard.
But that’s what I love about it. As a young mother, searching for the basics on how to roast a whole chicken, I turned to this and found it truly, frighteningly basic:
“Remove pin feathers.”
There was something about beaks and feet too. I skipped down to the part where the chicken seemed to match what I was holding. Unfortunately (for me, at least), chickens of yore did not come with their gizzards jammed into their neck cavities. So that first chicken came out of the oven packing a surprise. I had to call uncle, by which I mean Mom, who assured me that paper-wrapped giblets won’t trash your chicken (but plastic-wrapped ones will). Kitchen victory!
I’m not sure if the newer editions have made the assumption that your groceries are processed and pre-packed. If so, scan your local thrift shop for an older version. Any book of cookery will be useful, but in the event of apocalypse, you’ll want to know how to round up some satisfying grub. Even if you have to remove its pin feathers first.
Surviving in the near-wild, learning to like vegetables, having wine quite literally with your dinner—is there nothing books can’t teach us? I submit, Dear Reader, there is not.