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If you read cookbooks as literature as well as for recipes

Lately I've been exploring the treasures of Project Gutenberg, a website chock full of out-of-copyright publications that can be downloaded for free. In fact I'm so enraptured that after running through a ream of paper and three ink jet printer cartridges I finally broke down and ordered a Kindle.

It occurred to me yesterday to look around for books about cooking and household management. Lawdy me, if you've ever wondered how to make calf's foot jelly, not to mention how to raise and later slaughter said calf, needed to know the correct way to cook eels including pies ("The Eel is also good in Pyes, fry'd and boil'd, which every one knows how to prepare"), or looked for a good recipe for brown rabbit soup, your search is over.

The delights of Mrs. Beeton's Book of Household Management are worth a visit all by themselves.


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  1. I probably have around 150 non-recipe culinary books and therefore am delighted with the website you posted! Mrs. Beeton's BoHM is one of my all-time favourites.

    Thank you!

    1 Reply
    1. re: chefathome

      Jeremiah Tower's book, "American Dish..." is a very good read. His narrative style eclipses new-age poseurs like Bourdain and rips the skirt off Alice Waters.
      Good stuff.

    2. I often read cookbooks cover-to-cover. There's nothing like sitting down with Giuliano Bugialli or Julia Child on a cold evening with a hot cup of cocoa, or reading a book of recipes you know you'll never make just for the fun of reading them.

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      1. re: iluvcookies

        At one point in my book owning adventures I had a copy of a Charleston, South Carolina Junior League cookbook. I never made a single recipe from it but thoroughly enjoyed it as a sort of social history documentary. All the recipes were annotated not only with the contributor's married name (generally something along the lines of "Mrs. Henry Duplessis IV") but her maiden name as well ("Miss Alphonsine Gautier-Lagere.") My favorite recipe was for a Groom's Cake whose ingredients I seem to remember included 15 "wineglasses of brandy."

        1. re: mandycat

          I picked that up as well on a visit to Charleston. I've read it cover to cover as well!

          1. re: Firegoat

            I pick up this sort of thing for cheap at antique stores regularly. Very good and interesting reading.

            1. re: Naco

              I especially like the ones that call for "knobs of butter". I know that's how my great-Grandma used to measure.

      2. I've read Elizabeth David, Mary Taylor Simeti, Patience Grey, and Elizabeth Romer over and over again, just for the pleasure of their writing and personality. Liem reading Hugh Johnson about a wine and not caring about its "points".

        1. Nigel Slater's "Kitchen Diaries" fits nicely into this niche, a year in his life and his cooking.

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          1. re: buttertart

            I'm a cookbook collector - everythng from old first editions to the new stuff. I read cookbooks the way most folks read novels. And probably enjoy them more - lol!!

            1. re: Breezychow

              Join the club, I've been doing that since my teens. My mother thought it was very peculiar.

              1. re: buttertart

                Yes, I think that's a big club here on CH. And buttertart, I know my mother loves me, but I ofetn suspect she finds my obsession with cookbooks and my love of cooking and baking a little peculiar as well.

                1. re: flourgirl

                  With my mom, it was the cookbooks (although she bought me all of my first ones and did nothing to discourage it). The cooking and baking were completely understandable because she loved to bake - but I never saw her use a recipe to prepare a main dish, unless it was something "unusual" she had gotten the recipe for from the newspaper or a friend.

                  1. re: buttertart

                    My mom's a really good cook, but it was something she mostly did because she "had to", not because she particularly enjoyed it. And she never bought me cookbooks. I was more interested in baking than cooking as a teenager, but it was a family friend who bought me my first baking book (a book by Maida Heatter) not my mom. I don't think it would ever have occurred to her to do so.

                    And it's only after years of serious cooking and baking on my part that my mom has really accepted that this is a serious interest of mine. Now we talk all the time about what we're cooking, where we want to go out to eat next etc. I think I've been a good influence on her.

                    And yes, I think my massive collection of cookbooks baffles her, but I come from a long line of booklovers (I have tons and tons of non-cooking-related books in my home as well) and my parents' home was always crammed with books as well, so she at least gets the book part of it.

                    1. re: flourgirl

                      My Mom (well, many people) laugh at the stacks of one-subject books on my shelves such as "Butter", "Meat", "Olive Oil", "Chili Peppers", "Truffles", ""Salt and Pepper" and so on. But I am so passionate about them and have a need to know the hows and whys of things food related. The history of food and culture is also important to me.

                      But then my Mom's typical lunch can be boiled potatoes, a chunk of bologna, unadorned canned spinach and maybe a pomello for dessert. Whenever I spend time at her place I must bring along half my pantry and spices! And some books, of course.

            2. re: buttertart

              Haven't read KD, but I really enjoyed his memoir of growing up, "Toast," based on food memories.

            3. One of my favorite writers is M.F.K. Fisher, who wrote many books about food, some with recipes. She was a wonderful writer. "How to Cook a Wolf," published at the end of the Depression, might have something to teach us now.

              2 Replies
              1. re: Emma47

                She is one of my favourites, too.

                1. re: chefathome

                  Don't read a biography of MFKF, it'll burst her bubble.

              2. One of my favourite cookbooks to read as a novel is "Escoffier: The Complete Guide to Modern Cookery". I love to read cookbooks so much I have very few novels in the house - I am a non-fiction reader and LOVE to learn as much as possible about all things culinary.

                1. I love cookbooks that include history, background and stories. One of my favorites is Peace, Love & Barbecue. I read the book cover to cover when I first got it, and I go back and enjoy various sections when I have some spare time. For me, part of the joy of cooking, is knowing the back story.

                  1 Reply
                  1. For idle reading I enjoy the 20th Century Cookbook and A Love Affair with Southern Cooking by Jean Anderson. Both have so many interesting side stories and historical bits.

                    3 Replies
                    1. re: Firegoat

                      'Dolce Vita' by David Rocco is amazing to read and look at! My wife used to think it was strange that I read cookbooks before bed, but now she just accepts it and even promotes it! She bought me "the 3 chefs", which is a compendium of recipes and asides from the three chefs featured on a Canadian lifestyle show called 'Cityline'. It's a great book, and a cool look into the world of part-time celebrity!
                      Also, anything by Tyler Florence is worth a read....

                      1. re: Leftychefty

                        I was wondering about that book, I've seen it at the store a few times but never picked it up although I like Massimo and Michael Bonnacini is an incredibly nice guy(I met him when I was in cooking school)

                      2. re: Firegoat

                        Her books are great and especially so because of that. Her "The Grass Roots Cookbook" (pub 1977) is oop but well worth seeking out for a big dose of American culinary culture.

                      3. Two of my favourite reads are Larousse Gastronomique and Heston Blumenthal's Fat Duck Cookbook. Brilliant. Just stick me on a deserted island with those two books and I'm happy!

                        1. The Taste of Country Cooking by the late, great Edna Lewis is one of my top three memoirs cum cookbooks. Anything by Elizabeth David, MFK Fisher, James Beard and Ruth Reichl. Her Tender at the Bone is at turns, howlingly funny and really sad. I also really like Bourdain's Kitchen Confidential, but he is for many an acquired taste. Marian Burros, former chief NYTimes food writer is terrific and I recommend all of her books without reservation.

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                          1. re: annabana

                            I have the full hardcover set of the old "Beautiful" cookbooks. Talk about fabulous reading!! Culture, background, photographs, & totally authentic recipes. They're still availabe here & there in softcover, but if you ever come across any of the old hardcovers in 2nd-hand bookstores, they're worth the price. Original price was around $50, but I grabbed up most of mine for far less than $25 via good hunting. I LOVE these books.

                          2. Always! Some of my earliest memories involve baking with my grandad & his reading JOC chapter intros. I was in heaven when I discovered 641 (cookery) in the Dewey Decimal catalog in the 4th grade. Ive been all around the world in many time periods just because I can read and taste as I go.

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                            1. re: marthasway

                              I love Bourdain's books. Fergus Henderson's Nose to Tail eating is very funny. Also Bemelman's books like La Bonne Table are wonderful. I too love to read Larousse Gastonomique.

                              1. re: bronwen

                                Peter Mayle's books are full of food and wine and fabulous reads.

                            2. Jeffrey Steingarten's books are so well written and hilarious!! They actually make me laugh out loud. "The Man Who Ate Everything" and "It Must Have Been Something I Ate" are a pleasure to read and are informative as well.

                              1. One of the first cookbooks to make it to the bedside table for reading was Diana Kennedy's "The Cuisines of Mexico" This was followed shortly thereafter by "The Art of Mexican Cooking". She probably hit stride with "My Mexico" which is more prose than recipe

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                                1. re: DiningDiva

                                  Let's not leave out Clementine Paddleford.

                                  I ran across her at a bookstore in NOLA and haven't looked back.

                                  She taught herself to fly so she could criss cross the USA in search of good regional eats.

                                  1. re: DiningDiva

                                    DK's "Nothing Fancy" sustained me through a bout with pneumonia years back, I'll always think of that book fondly.

                                  2. my husband takes War and Peace to bed to read, I take my cookbook of the day, it's his novel and it's my novel

                                    1. A quick vote for John Thorne's books. They're all excellent, imo. I'm also a fan of antique cookbooks; they are wildly informative in terms of social history; one of my cookbooks from 1854 advises housewives on which race/ethnic sort of person should be allowed to carve at a formal dinner....it's astonishing. One of the joys of antique cookbooks is the knowledge that one can gain in terms of how people lived their lives.

                                      Jeffrey Steingarten, Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, and A.A. Gill are all on my bedside table right now, (metaphorically speaking, of course).

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                                      1. re: SherBel

                                        Seconding John Thorne. And Ed Behr.

                                      2. very cool website
                                        I too enjoy reading cookbooks and love to buy them at tag sales

                                        1. Let's not forget the great mid-20th C English writers, Elizabeth David and a bit later, Jane Grigson. If you haven't read them you have a treat in store. I lean a bit more to Grigson (actually a lot more, she is my goddess, I even have a picture of her on my fridge) but both are marvelous.

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                                          1. Another one that's interesting from this aspect - Jake Tillson's "A Tale of 12 Kitchens" - a memoir of food and travel - he's an artist and the pages are mostly his collages of photos, drawings, and ephemera. A nice bedside table middle of the night can't sleep sort of book, very companionable.