Cooking's Greatest Hits

'101 Classic Cookbooks'

by Diane Leach

9 April 2013

When 22 food luminaries assembled to decide on 101 classic cookbooks, one can only imagine what kinds of fights, food or otherwise, transpired. Remember, these are people with very sharp knives.
cover art

101 Classic Cookbooks

Marvin J. Taylor, Clark Wolf, Editors

US: Oct 2012

The Food Studies Collection at New York University’s Fales Library began at Marion Nestle’s behest. In 2003, Nestle approached Marvin Taylor, director of the Fales Library and Special Collections, suggesting he build a cookbook collection supporting NYU’s new program in food studies. Taylor, an avid cook, agreed to the idea.

The two visited Cecily Brownstone, longtime Associated Press food reporter. In 2003 the aged Brownstone lived in a four-story townhouse filled with cookbooks. She agreed to sell her 7,000 book collection to the library.  Thanks to a donation from chef Rozane Gold, The Fales also acquired Gourmet Magazine’s library just days before Condé Nast planned to throw it out.  (Note to S.I. Newhouse, again. Bring back Gourmet!!). 

The Ladies’ Home Journal donated their cookbook collection, as did the James Beard Foundation. Numerous private citizens with amazing collections followed suit. The result is a much-used, comprehensive collection of cookbooks, pamphlets, and writings about food. And 101 Classic Cookbooks.
101 Classic Cookbooks’s co-editor, Clark Wolf, notes the book is not an attempt at a cookbook canon: “Rather, it is a selection from the collection. It’s a sort of ‘greatest hits’ from an extraordinary cache that has been built into the largest collection of its kind in the United States.”

To create this greatest hits collection, Wolf and Taylor gathered 22 food world luminaries, including Michael Pollan, Florence Fabricant, Alice Waters, and Ruth Reichl, among others, asking them to undertake an amusing if impossible task. The group was to winnow down countless cookbooks that shaped 20th Century American cooking down to 101. The books had to have lasting impact, serving as resources for both professionals and home cooks. Clark Wolf dubbed these books the “go-to” list: the cookbooks serious stovehounds continually reach for. 

One can only imagine what kinds of fights, food or otherwise, transpired while decisions were made. A few ground rules likely helped avoid more murderous moments (remember, these are people with sharp knives): the books had to be published between 1900-2000. The editors were seeking an historical arc, from the earliest popular works to the fin de siècle (Thomas Keller’s French Laundry Cookbook is number 101.). This means you are not permitted indignance if your favorite recent cookbook isn’t listed. 

Yet the very notion of choosing 101 cookbooks as definitive will upset some readers by its omissions. Like me. They left out Laurie Colwin. Home Cooking did make the “Books Considered” list (hmph!). I would argue Colwin had tremendous influence on two generations of cooks—men and women lucky enough to be reading her Gourmet  column (Yo! Mr. Newhouse!) while she was living, then the slightly younger generation, people my age, who came to Colwin’s work after her 1992 death.

101 Classic Cookbooks is divided into halves. The first offers facsimile photographs of the selected cookbooks, accompanied by essays, often written by esteemed food writers or chefs. Those pieces not penned by the likes of Laura Shapiro or Scott Peacock are ably handed by Marvin Taylor.

101 Classic Cookbooks begins with Fannie Farmer’s The Boston Cooking-School Book. In 1893, Farmer became principal of the Boston Cooking School, an institution intended to teach young women housekeeping. Farmer had Polio as a child, which interrupted her schooling and left her with a limp. She was uneducated and unmarriageable; neither stopped her. Farmer is remembered for her precision measuring and the confidence she gave nascent cooks. Laura Shapiro’s essay on Farmer, includes mention of the recently deceased Marion Cunningham, who modernized the Fannie Farmer Cookbook, and in so doing, returned this masterwork to contemporary kitchens across the land.

The book’s facsimiles are vibrantly printed, so clear one can read the selected pages, marveling at what our forebears consumed. The manual labor common to early American lives is reflected in the sizable meal suggestions. A sample Fannie Farmer breakfast menu lists “Sliced Oranges, Wheat Germ With Sugar and Cream, Warmed Over Lamb, French Fried Potatoes, Raised Biscuits, Buckwheat Cakes with Maple Syrup, and Coffee.” Hardly modern fare for a day at the office, but necessary for the farmer or laborer. 

Molded foods, savory and sweet, abound, while the most informal family meal boasts elegant table settings now associated with formal events. Sarah Tyson Rorer’ 1902 A Manual of Housekeeping advocated fresh vegetables and a fondness for “color-themed” meals, with taste taking a backseat to the aesthetics of the all-white dinner.

Other early entries range from the 1901 The Times Picayune publication The Original Picayune Creole Cookbook, intended to preserve Creole recipes, from “the old-time ‘Mammy’ who could work magic in that black-raftered kitchen of long ago” (sic). Ouch. Less painful is Mrs. Simon Kander and Others: The Settlement Cookbooks: The Way to a Man’s Heart, still a staple in many Jewish households. 

In 1911, Rufus Estes self-published Good Things to Eat, as Suggested by Rufus. Estes, born into slavery, learned to cook after The Emancipation Proclamation, becoming a professional by age 16. He worked for Pullman, U.S. Steel, and private families. The man’s range was astonishing—from boiled eggs to truffled poultry, apple pie to preserves. Only 12copies of his original manuscript remain. Luckily, a facsimile reprint appeared in 1999.  Jessica B. Harris’s essay is an overdue paean to this amazing man.

The entry for 1950’s Gourmet Cookbook reads “Food in America changed with the first publication of Gourmet magazine”.  Enough said. There are entries on Julia, on Joy of Cooking, on Elizabeth David.  Strangely, of the many Chez Panisse books, only Chez Panisse Vegetables is represented. 

On the ethnic cookery front, there is Rick Bayless’s Mexican Kitchen, a book awash in complex sauces, Jeffrey Alford and Naomi Duguid’s peerless Seductions of Rice, Lynne Rossetto Kasper’s The Splendid Table: Recipes From Emilia-Romagna, The Heartland of Italian Food, entries on Indian, Hungarian, South American, Chinese, and Japanese cooking whose calls for “exotic” ingredients now seem quaint. How easily we forget that supermarket staples like quality paprika, canned palm hearts, and tofu were once difficult, even impossible, to locate.

There are early entries on vegetarianism, including 1976’s Laurel’s Kitchen, a book still readily available here in hippie Berkeley. Interestingly, the page reprinted, titled “Dinner”, has less to do with food than the necessity of a family meal without a blaring television. Mollie Katzen’s Moosewood Cookbook merits entry, but the editors overlook Katzen’s excellent solo cookbooks. Deborah Madison’s Greens Cookbook  is here, but not the seminal Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone

Martha Stewart’s 1987 Weddings is shocking if only for the jacket photo of today’s Omnimedia Ogre, attired in a lace dress, smiling sweetly beside a classic four-tiered wedding cake. You may not love Martha, but can you whip up a croquembouche in your kitchen? A four-layer chocolate ganache groom’s cake? 

The entry for In Memory’s Kitchen: A Legacy From the Women of Terezín, will make you cry, so don’t read it on the bus. The story of how this book came into being is amazing; Dalia Carmel Goldstein, a serious cookbook collector, was friendly with an aged neighbor, Anny Stern. One evening Stern showed Goldstein a sheaf of recipes, handwritten in German and Czech. The papers were penned by Jewish women interned in Thereisenstadt. Stern’s mother held on to the little booklet, entrusting it to another inmate before dying of starvation.

Twenty-five circuitous years later, Stern received her mother’s book in the mail (imagine such a thing arriving in your mailbox). Goldstein, realizing the treasure she held, made copies and had it translated by another Holocaust survivor. Many publishers were hesitant to accept the work, but when Jason Aronson, Inc., did, In Memory’s Kitchen met with tremendous acclaim. It is the most heart-rending cookbook in my collection.

The size and scope of 101 Classic Cookbooks defies discussion of every entry. For every book mentioned here, there are dozens more worthy of your time.

The second half of 101 Classic Cookbooks offers 501 recipes representative of the selected books.  While some are purely historical, most of the modern selections are usable. I write “most”, as some recipes suffer from lack of context, calling for companion recipes from their respective texts. The editors claim to have removed cross-references, but Emeril Lagasse’s “Big Easy Seafood Okra Gumbo” calls for “2 teaspoons Emeril’s Creole Seasoning”, while Deborah Madison’s “Black Bean Enchiladas” calls for “three cups Black Bean Chili”. Barring possession of Emeril’s New New Orleans Cookbook or The Greens Cookbook, the experienced cook may either substitute or seek other recipes.

The above means 101 Classic Cookbooks is unlikely to become a “go-to” in your kitchen. Frankly, 101 Classic Cookbooks is not a “go-to” cookbook by its very nature. The recipes, while a cookbook lover’s dream reading, are a highly disparate, opinionated selection whose unifying theme is historical popularity. And recipes, like fashions, change through time.

Sheila Lukins and Julee Rosso’s “Chicken Marbella”, from 1982’s Silver Palate Cookbook, was once the penultimate in chic dining. In the early ‘80s America was a nation emerging from decades of TV dinners and frozen broccoli. Chicken Marbella, calling for prunes, green olives, and sugar, was a game changer… until people realized they did not want prunes and sugar with their chicken any more than they wanted padded shoulders in their power suits.

Along with the Chicken Marbellas and the power suits, there are the classics: Mark Bittman’s Simple Roast Chicken. Prepare this, don your little black dress, and you are ready for almost anything.  It must also be noted that “Corpse Reviver (no.1)” from The Savoy Cocktail Book merits attention if only for its name. Comprised of vermouth, apple brandy or calvados, and more brandy, it’s recommended to be taken before 11AM. Even if it fails to revive you, you are unlikely to care.

On pages 320 and 321 one finds the Augusta Junior League recipe for deviled eggs facing Thomas Keller’s “Cornets”: salmon tartare with red onion and crème fraïche. Nowhere else on earth will you see these paired, so enjoy the juxtaposition of low and high. 

A more old-fashioned note is struck with Mme Bégué’s Recipes of ohe Old New Orleans Creole Cookery (1937). Mme. Bégué is credited with the invention of brunch, which she called “second breakfast”. Her recipes assumed a level of mastery few home cooks have; consider her turtle soup, which begins “Select a turtle of the desired size. Clean it well and cut in small pieces.” Amounts of other ingredients or cooking times are not given. Clearly the cook is familiar with “the quantity of bouillon needed”… and how to clean a turtle. 

Plenty of recipes will be more inviting to the modern cook. Julee Rosso and Sheila Lukins’s recipe for Pasta Puttanesca is invitingly simple. While you may not prepare goose regularly, Child, Bertholle, and Beck ably lead you through how to go about it should the mood strike. Baked goods range from easy to Martha’s wedding cakes (not easy). 

A final note on recipes. Thomas Keller’s “Macaroni and Cheese”, recipe, which is really Butter-Poached Maine Lobster With Creamy Lobster Broth and Marscapone-Enriched Orzo opens thusly: “We use so much lobster at the restaurant that creating new lobster dishes is always an exciting challenge.”

Words fails me. 

Faced with this 688 page tome, which lends itself neither to schlepping on the morning commute or nighttime reading in bed, one could rightly argue that a greatest hits compendium is unnecessary. Yes, it’s ginormous, opinionated, and leaves out Laurie Colwin. Plus it’s expensive: $50 dollars American, €39 Euros. So why bother? Because it’s hugely enjoyable and educational. Because the full-color facsimiles are beautifully rendered. Because too often, we cookbook lovers read only modern cookbooks.

The sheer variety of current cookery books, with their glossy photographs and enticing recipes, make overlooking the past too easy. I’m not even discussing social media, the sprawl of the internet or wee mechanical devices one can carry on or into trains, planes, and kitchens, fetching recipes whenever, wherever, from every known cuisine. 

We’ve forgotten that Americans once considered chicken a treat, that oven heat meant wood fires, that avocados and artichokes were rare and exotic. We’ve forgotten that icons like James Beard and Craig Claiborne, “confirmed bachelors”, went to agonizing pains to hide their homosexuality even as they led Americans by the hand into the world of good food.

If we want to be good cooks, with a sense of history—something, arguably, many Americans lack—we can turn to 101 Classic Cookbooks and be amused, edified, and moved by the rich culinary legacy we have been given.

101 Classic Cookbooks


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