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300 Cookbooks and Nothing to Eat:
Building a Cookbook Library

by Patrick Cullie

I read cookbooks with the passion and concentration of seventh-grader nose-deep in the latest Harry Potter. I read them in bed at night. I take them on airplanes. I buy them obsessively. I have around three hundred of them, although most are boxed up in storage. (My monthly food magazine count is too embarrassing to go into.) I should cook more and read less, but I've decided that since I like the two endeavors equally well, I shall continue.

Cookbooks are fantasies of great meals in much the same way that travel books are fantasies of perfect vacations.

Cookbooks produce visions of perfect paellas and eye-rolling mussels marinière. As I pour through them, I can almost smell the house filling with the herbaceous smell of a veal Marengo. I can clearly see my dinner guests looking at me admiringly as they soak crusty hunks of bread in the dark wine and garlic-rich coq au vin sauce. Of course, the burnt, overdone, even foul tasting, reality of cooking, as we all know so well, is often far removed from the succulent fantasies of the cookbook.

I used to only buy cookbooks with pictures. I was just starting to get serious about cooking and I needed that picture to guide me. To give me a concrete destination towards which I was shakily heading. But I think I'm getting beyond that. What I look for now are good directions. I've come to realize that they're much more important than a carefully styled food photograph. So now, instead of looking at the pictures, I read the text. I read and try and tune in to the voice that is speaking to me.

Because I still have a around one hundred cookbooks stashed openly in the kitchen/dinning room of my too small, 100-year old ex-farmhouse, people have asked me which are my favorites. So, here's a list of what I think are must-haves, from basic to advanced. And, unless you like to spend money, check out your local flea market and garage sales first. Great deals on a world of cookbooks.

Joy of Cooking (Irma and Marion Rombauer and Ethan Becker/Scribners). This is kind of the McGuffey Reader of cookbooks. If you're a beginner, you have to have it. It's strong on the American comfort foods like tuna casserole, twice-baked potatoes, macaroni and cheese. I prefer the older editions, but the recently revised edition is more up to date in terms of how we eat today. It's well organized and pretty fail-safe. It's not a gourmand's bible, far from it. But if you're just starting to cook or looking for a recipe that your mama made, it's probably in Joy.

Best Recipes or Classic Recipes (Boston Common Press). From the great test kitchens of "Cook's Illustrated" (the cooking magazine subscription to have if you're having only one), this covers a lot of bases and tells you how the recipe works and why you have to use heavy cream instead of whole milk because they tried that and this is what happened. The instructions can be a little hard to follow occasionally, but this is close to my bible. This is a cookbook for readers. You learn stuff. It's a cooking lesson with a simplified chemistry class on the side. And there are almost no pictures. Just little line drawings. So you have to read and pay attention. But the rewards are great. There's no fussiness and very little exotica. Just your basic foods, with the why and the how. There's a bunch of these out there and they're all good. I just bought Baking Illustrated at Cosco for eighteen bucks. ( A lot for me.) It looks great, as well.

Any of the 'Quick' Martha Stewart series (Clarkson Potter or Martha Stewart Omnimedia). Say what you will, she knows her stuff. And although some of these recipes I swear would take a staff of ten a whole day to pull off, there are fast, incredibly delicious meals here that I repeat over and over. And she does a surprisingly good job of pairing sides and desserts with entrees, which can be very helpful to the less experienced cook. Her directions are always clear and concise. Watch out though for the odd expensive ingredient that can dent your cooking budget.

The Short-Cut Cook: Make Simple Meals With Surprisingly Little Effort (Jacques Pepin/William Morrow). As the title says. Great, simple recipes that one of the world's great chefs uses to feed his family everyday. Great salad dressings, especially his mustard vinaigrette that I have been using for years. He works hard to create dishes that you can build from your pantry. It's less fussy and technical than his step-by-step books, directed more at family-style cooking.

Mastering the Art of French Cooking (Julia Child, Simone Beck/Knopf). Hailed as the book

that changed the way America  cooks (and you thought it was the microwave,) this surprisingly easy-to-follow book is a classic. I was afraid of it for a long time, thinking it too classic, too French. But it's really wonderful. It breaks down the recipes into logical steps and is full of helpful tips along the way. You'll be flaming chicken thighs in brandy in no time. When I lit my first brandy in a sauce pan and the flames leapt toward the ceiling, I felt like a real cook and bowed deeply to Julia. I bought a boxed, hardbound two-volume set at a flea market for four dollars.

For Mediterranean cooking try Slow Mediterranean Cooking (Wiley) by Paula Wolfert. Full of great recipes (try the mouhamara, a pomegranate, roasted red pepper and walnut dip) by one of the greatest living food writers, this book reads like a travel adventure story of the Mid-East. Region by region, she explores the indigenous foods and translates them effectively to the modern pantry. She's one of those writers that can make you smell the lamb cooking on the spit.

Marcella Hazan's Classic Italian Cooking (Alfred Knopf) is almost as good as a week-long cooking course in Italy, and decidedly cheaper. Her explanation of the classic steps in Italian cooking and why you do them, is worth the price of admission alone. She is the doyenne of simplicity. Most recipes have only a few ingredients. Her simple, rustic recipe for pasta aglio e olio is a staple in my house.

There's a world is of cookbooks out there. Some are terrible. Some are too fussy. Some are too arcane. The new celebrity cookbooks can be the worst. I avoid them like the plague. The recipes are often indecipherable, expensive and flat-out failures. Or they forget that we're not opening a restaurant, we just want to learn how to make really good enchiladas. Older cookbooks (flea markets are full of them) can be great sources for the just-like-mom's recipe. But they often call for lard, oleo, and other ingredients that need translating into the 21st Century.

Bon appetite.


About Patrick: Patrick Cullie is a creative director at an advertising agency and a part-time musician. He is an enthusiastic, although not particularly accomplished, cook who lives in Lyons, Colorado in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains. He collects vintage cookbooks and stopped counting at 300.


Though he loves his cookbooks, they are sometimes only inspiration - try Patrick's own invention :

scallops with spinach and tomato vinaigrette


Patrick Cullie



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