Why I Love Literary Cookbooks

Lately, more and more, I find myself reading cookbooks for pleasure, snuggling up with them as I would a great novel.

Part of the reason for this, I think, is that people are writing such lyrical, story-driven cookbooks these days – where essays, illustrations and photographs are as compelling as the recipes themselves.

The cookbook author not only seeks to guide you in your creation of a dish, but to enlighten and inspire your shopping, growing, foraging.

Beautiful odes to ingredients, stories about their own adventures in farming, fishing, preserving, canning – about the traditions that brought them to the table – are thoughtfully and lovingly (sometimes humorously) told. They can also be extremely educational.

I have so many cookbooks that I turn to regularly for recipes, but ones that I also equally love reading for reading’s sake.

Among my favorites:

Cooking in the Moment: A Year of Seasonal Recipes by Andrea Reusing

Not only are the recipes (arranged by the season) magical, but Reusing’s accompanying essays are delightful. Whether she’s praising the underrated cauliflower – “Wrapped gift-like in pale leaves, the four small, creamy heads of cauliflower cost $10 but will be the foundation of several meals this week” – profiling a North Carolina man who cultivates and forages his woods for native mountain vegetables, or reminiscing about birthday crab feasts on the jersey shore, it’s impossible to not be lured in by her poetic voice.

M.F.K Fisher Among the Pots and Pans: Celebrating Her Kitchens by Joan Reardon

At a used bookstore, I found this small-trimmed gem of a book that chronicles the many kitchens that M.F.K. Fisher called her own. Each one, be it her childhood homes or her adult ones throughout France and California, are rendered with beautiful watercolor illustrations. Reardon’s research brings to life the kitchens, with stories of Fisher’s time spent in them–of not only what she cooked there, but how the kitchen, with its respective quirks, memories and visitors, guided her culinary journey. In the chapter on Le Paquis we read about she, her husband and her lover’s ambitious garden, while in the chapter on California we find her returning to the kitchen of her youth to care for her sick father. This interesting style of biography makes the recipes themselves even more appealing.

The Sweet Life in Paris: Delicious Adventures in the World’s Most Glorious—and Perplexing—City by David Lebovitz

It’s hard not to fall in love with this story of a food writer who, after many years working as a pastry chef and cookbook author, decides to pack it all up to go live in the city of his dreams. Yet when he arrives, he finds that the charming apartment he thought he’d be spending glorious days cooking in barely has enough room for him, let alone any professional equipment. The mishaps and misadventures continue throughout his stay, yet despite them, he falls ever more in love with the maddening city. Recipes punctuate each of his funny, trenchant insights.

Preserving Wild Foods: A Modern Forager’s Recipes for Curing, Canning, Smoking and Pickling by Raquel Pelzel and Matthew Weingarten

Full disclaimer: I’m a bit biased on this one. Written by my college love, the guy with whom I traveled the world and moved to New York with in my 20s, this beautifully-written book by Matthew Weingarten (who, had he not been enchanted by the world of food, probably would be a famous writer) is a loving homage to the natural world and, in particular, to the homeland of his Slovakian wife. With tales of urban foraging in Brooklyn to mushroom hunting and sausage smoking in Eastern Europe, this lovely book is truly a poet’s take on the bounty of the land and how we gracefully preserve its essence.

Do you love to read cookbook narratives too? What are some of your favorites?

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