So we found out about a month ago that T'ai and I (and our roomate Dave) would be needing to move. Our landlords are deciding to build condos on the site, and while I'm wistful to give up the mantle of the Celebrity Cannibal Rat Boat Sex Box (memo to self: when naming a residency, think succinct!), it is probably time to move on from our possibly mafia-controlled digs and move on. The Sex Box (shorthand) has been a fantastic home since I arrived in New York, both due to its swell location off the Lorimer L, but also due to a fantastic roomate, who not only made my transition to New York from California much easier, but has also accomodated the large degree of kitchen activity and experimentation that has taken place since I moved in. (I mean, he tolerates having cases of fruit stacked up in the living room. He's a gem!)
As the search begins for new digs, it also means the packup for moving has begun, though not quite in earnest yet. No boxes have been purchased, no sales planned yet. I think there will be a clothing dump and maybe a swell couple of bags on its way to Housing Works, along with some bric a brac that has accumulated over the last four years. One of the biggest concerns, besides the entire pantry overhaul that is going to need to happen (coconut milk! rando grains! delightful yet minimally used fermented tofu!), is frankly going to be moving the cookbooks. And that has got me onto the idea of (gasp) maybe letting go of some cookbooks and making a visit to the Strand desk. But more particularly, it has gotten me onto the idea of what makes a good cookbook.
So confession -- that's not actually the question. That's the frame i'd like to use for the question, but asking about overarching qualifiers gets us into the game of Desert Island cookbooks, limiting libraries, and playing that Solomon-esque game of picking and choosing that, while occasionally fun, is rarely useful. And while I still have reservations about the Great Restaurant Cookbook Rut of 2013-4*, I don't like to admonish people for their selection of what may inspire or get them into a kitchen. Sure, the Manresa book may be completely useless, but damn if the ideas didn't get me jumping just a little to try a couple of new things (make your own vermouth!). So when I say what makes a good cookbook, as I prepare to move a couple dozen titles from one residence to the next**, isn't what makes a good book, so much as what makes a cookbook worth keeping.
While I don't like the listacle nature of the Desert Island books, there are in fact six books from this collection which do make the point of what to look for in a cookbook. And while they won't be the only six coming with me, they do define the characteristics of what to look for in books to keep:
1) "Every Grain of Rice" by Fuschia Dunlop. We used this in the cookbook club I hosted for the last two years, and it was one of the favorites. Dunlop does everything an author should in the genre: have a specific goal (introduction to Chinese home cooking, specifically of the southern Sichuan/Hunanese sort), a good pantry primer and methods primer in the first few chapters, and recipes that have been vetted within an inch of their lives. While not a deeply academic title (like Diana Kennedy's "Regional Mexican Cooking"), it fits along with "Rick Bayless Mexican Kitchen" for a primer in regional cooking. Both books are great for minimizing takeout needs, as the ease with which one can prepare order-in staples makes the effort worth it.
2) "Chez Panisse Cooking" by Waters & Bertolli. This entire lineage of books, including those made by Chez Panisse progeny David Tanis, Cal Peternell, and soon Russel Moore, could be a 7 book library unto themselves. The cookbooks written from la famille Panisse are accessible, thoughtful, coherent, and written with an eye to encourage cooking from even the most introductory cook. But "Cooking", and its later child "Cooking by Hand" from Paul Bertolli, who wrote the majority of the previous books text, is essential because of its copy. "Cooking" weaves together several categories of food (general categories of "Fruit", "Vegetables", "Meat", and others), in which basic methods for evaluating and shopping for raw product, basic preparation, and the infinity of uses for any given item are thrown together in a linear, helpful way. It takes the reader through such conceptual bits like how to plan a menu, what to consider, and even essays on bread and wine, giving the reader tools with the distinct charge of taking command of their eating and dining habits. In the age of "soylent dining" this kind of book is indispensable.
3 / 4) Good to the Grain by Boyce & Pure Dessert by Medrich. Spoilers! A two for one because (a) I'm a baking fiend, and (b) because baking, compared to cooking, can need a couple of iterations. Both books (as well as Medrichs entire library) are great for a couple of reasons. Breads and baked goods are different from basic cooking, and the components matter for both flavor and consistency. Both Medrich and Boyce vet out those distinctions and deliver not only good primers, but also means to explore the contours of a pretty wide field (grains) within a constrained field of use (baking). Boyce gives a good intro to both breads and baked goods for the home cook; Medrich does the same with pastry and baked goods, but also goes on the ingredient path, showcasing the way you need to think holistically about a medium, its components, and its additions. Both have been essential to understanding baking. (See also, Robertson's "Tartine Bread" for specifically bread baking).
5) Like the Chez Panisse books, Deborah Madison's "Vegetable Literacy" is a primer. But it's also, unlike them, completely encyclopedic. Single topic books like this, whether for regional cooking, or for singular topics (like Hugh Fernley Whittingstall's "River Cottage Meat Book") are a value because of their comprehension. They fill in blanks, they go into details general interest variety books leave behind, and they turn over stones you may not have thought to turn over (like the environmental and nutritional impacts of grass v grain fed meat, or the seed-saving potential of the home garden). They are amazing because they engage with information and their reader as a form of advocacy, yet still retain the ability to get someone behind a slab or meat (for grilling or breaking down), or into a market or garden to use produce in new ways. Whereas the Chez Panisse books hold their politics implicitly, these books offer professional depth to counter the notion that cooking work isn't thoughtful work.
6). Death & Co Cocktail Book. Basically, with the advent of the internet, the need for a general cocktail book is gone. And while I love cocktail books that showcase the originality of a chef, I find that, like restaurant books, they sometimes become undone because they feature things only the bar has access to or that can't be accessed by a reader. Great for inspiration, short on function. But a book that explains bar layout and glass type, prototype recipes for cocktails and variations puts a lot more strength in the hands of a reader. I like what bars can do for the home bar person, and the Death & Co book, more than most others, spells it out with little romance and a lot of caveats (which I appreciate).
A cookbook should make you want to cook and increase your capacity to do so. It should feed your brain as much as your belly. I'm not sure this list does anything to diminish the size of the library, but it does provide a window into what we like to see in the culinary world. I don't think we need dozens of cookbooks, though they certainly provide inspiration; truth be told, having not spent large amount of time in professional kitchens, most of my knowledge comes from the writing of cookbooks. But it's precisely because of that experience that I'm not sure so many need to belong on a shelf -- because good cookbooks give you a framework to run with, a methodology to approach from, and an encyclopedia to check-in with. But the rest? Well, that's up to you. And that particular joy is exciting, emancipating, and empowering.
*a rough period of two years when cookbooks came out from places like Manresa, The Restaurant at Meadowood, Noma Part II, Husk, Coi, and a number of other restaurants that fell into one of two categories -- beautiful but completely useless (the majority) or functional but perhaps not well written. It seemed that the promotional aspect of cookbooks reached a fever pitch in this period, and for all the press they received, it was rough as there were far better books out there in the world, but everything seemed to revolve around these restaurant titles, regardless of their actual functionality or literary merit.
**There is a closet full of cookbooks back in Los Angeles. It is a terrifying thing of beauty.