The Cookbook As Literature

May 28, 2013 | 8 books mentioned 11 4 min read

coverIf you can read, you can cook — and if you can’t cook, you can always read cookbooks. At least that’s my philosophy. Although I’ve never been much of a cook, I have been fortunate to live with people who enjoy cooking — first my mother and now my husband. As a result, I’ve spent many pleasant evenings perusing cookbooks while someone else prepares a meal nearby. Growing up, I paged through The Enchanted Broccoli Forest, with its handwritten vegetarian recipes, and The Joy of Cooking — a somewhat joyless read and yet lively for the sheer number and variety of recipes. Now I am just as likely to scroll through cooking blogs in anticipation of a delicious meal, but I still love my cookbooks for their ability to take me back to a specific time and place. I also appreciate the stories and anecdotes that cookbook authors include with their recipes — although I sometimes wonder if only non-cooks like myself bother to read them.

What follows is a list of some of my favorite cookbooks to read while someone else does the cooking, a list that is, like most cookbook collections, highly personal and idiosyncratic. Please help me to round it out by leaving your own favorites in the comments.

The Enchanted Broccoli Forest by Mollie Katzen

coverThis cookbook brings me right back to my childhood, when my mother — and a lot of my friends’ mothers — was discovering vegetarian cooking. It was first published in 1982 and the recipes are very eighties: lots of quiches, soufflés, and casseroles involving tofu. It’s written in a casual, conversational way with a lot of underlining and phrases in all-caps — can we call this “pre-blog” style? The recipes are imaginative and sometimes whimsical, including the title recipe, a casserole in which broccoli stalks are made to stand upright so that they resemble trees. You have to love the author’s passion for vegetarian cooking; at one point she lists “innocence” as one of tofu’s attributes.

The French Chef Cookbook, by Julia Child

coverThis may be the only cookbook out there that is dedicated to a television station. It contains recipes from Julia Child’s television series, “The French Chef,” and the recipes are presented by show and arranged chronologically, so theoretically, you could watch YouTube videos of Child’s original program and cook along with her. The recipes are written in Child’s fastidious and charming prose, and many are accompanied by pen-and-ink illustrations by her husband, Paul Child. My favorite part of this book is the introduction, which describes the quaint early days of “French Chef,” when Child filmed her pilot episodes in a display kitchen at the Boston Gas Company, while her husband lurked just outside the frame ready to hand her a fresh saucepan.

Maida Heatter’s Brand-New Book of Great Cookies, by Maida Heatter

coverOf all the books on the list, this is the one I have used the most. It was published when I was in high school, and I learned to bake from it. Baking recipes must be precise and no one writes as precisely as Maida Heatter, who goes so far as to suggest how each of her desserts should be sliced and stored. (“I’m a Virgo. This might have something to do with the fact that when I make cookies, I want them all to be exactly alike.”) I love the sensible, grandmotherly instructions, as well as the serving recommendations — some cookies are for children, some are for ladies who lunch, some are for health nuts, some are for company, and some are best for mailing to college students. In Maida’s book, there’s a cookie for every situation.

Venus in the Kitchen, or Love’s Cookery Book, by Pilaff Bey, edited by Norman Douglas with an introduction by Graham Greene

coverThis is a cookbook of aphrodisiac recipes. I would be surprised if anyone has ever cooked from it, and even more surprised if they derived aphrodisiac benefits from the entrees, which includes a large number of recipes for brains and kidneys. It is the most literary of cookbooks and the most bizarre. Many recipes begin with declarative, faintly poetic instructions such as: “Feed your snails for a fortnight on milk”; “Boil the meat until it is practically cooked into rags”; or, my favorite, “Take some pig guts.” Many recipes end abruptly with a vague opinion: “Rather banal, I venture to think” or “Not everybody cares to treat oysters in this fashion.” If Evelyn Waugh and Edward Gorey collaborated on a cookbook, it might look something like this one.

A Culinary Traveller in Tuscany, Exploring & Eating off the Beaten Track by Beth Elon

coverThis is more of a travel guide than a cookbook, but from it I learned the basics of Tuscan cooking, as well as the Mediterranean diet, which most dieticians agree is among healthiest in the world. This book goes into great detail about the landscape of Tuscany and what grows in each area, an approach that makes a lot of sense once you realize that Italian cooking is about making the most of local produce — even if that’s just potatoes, onions, and beans. I’ve always loved Italian cuisine, but after reading this book I had even more respect for the beautiful flavors Italians coax out of humble ingredients.

Urban Italian by Andrew Carmellini with Gwen Hyman

coverIn the past few years, Chef Andrew Carmellini has become one of the most popular restaurateurs in New York, but this cookbook is meant for the home cook. At first glance, some of the recipes seem elaborate and intimidating, but each step is so vividly described that they are actually quite easy to carry out. The clarity of the prose is probably due to Carmellini’s co-writer, Gwen Hyman, who also happens to be his wife, as well as an English professor who wrote her dissertation on food in Victorian novels. This may be the only cookbook whose introduction I’ve read multiple times; it tells the story of how Andrew Carmellini became a chef, as well as an account of “the granddaddy of all Italian food trips.”

The Smitten Kitchen Cookbook by Deb Perelman

coverI have a feeling that this cookbook is going to be my son’s Enchanted Broccoli Forest. Born from a blog, the lavish color photographs Smitten Kitchen would seem to have little in common with Mollie Katzen’s low-tech pen-and-ink pages, but it has the same friendliness and the same whimsy, and there are quite a few vegetarian recipes, as well. More to the point, everyone suddenly seems to own this cookbook in the same way that all my mother’s friends seemed to have The Enchanted Broccoli Forest on their shelves. I received The Smitten Kitchen as a Christmas present from my husband, which is funny because when I looked at the inscription on my copy of The Enchanted Broccoli Forest, it appears that my mother gave it to my father as a Christmas present in 1983. This may be, in the end, the best indication of a readable cookbook — it’s the one the cook gives to the non-cook, hoping he or she will be inspired to do more than just read.

is a staff writer for The Millions and the author of Home Field. Her short stories have appeared in The Southern Review, The North American Review, The Chattahoochee Review, and Visions, among others. She writes about movies on her blog, Thelma and Alice and Read more at or sign up for her newsletter here.


  1. Great article – cookbooks definitely can be literature, and I’ve talked to enough customers over the years to understand why. The acid test is whether or not you can read them for pleasure without being in the kitchen.
    Some additions to your list:
    – anything by Nigel Slater – he writes with his heart on his sleeve, often including deeply personal anecdotes in the recipe descriptions. Wonderful and moving.
    – ‘Jerusalem’ by Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi – cookbook as literature, cultural history, history and implicitly a voice for peace. One of the most important books – not just cookbooks – to have been published in last few years.
    – ‘Plats Du Jour’ by Patience Gray and Primrose Boyd. the UK’s Persephone Books has reprinted some classic cookery writing, this is arguable the finest. Not so much a cookbook, more an advocate for a whole lifestyle!

  2. Beard on Bread, by James Beard. Reading this cookbook is like having James Beard in the kitchen with you. When I worked at Random House in the 80s, a colleague saw him going through the revolving door at the entrance of the building and told me, “He has really big hands.”

  3. i adore Laurie Colwin’s two cookbooks, collections of her columns from Gourmet: Home Cooking and More Home Cooking. They are the kind of books that make you want to go cook immediately, and/or throw a dinner party.

  4. Deborah Madison’s writing is always enticing and entrancing, but never more so for me than in The Savory Way. Her descriptions pf her kitchen equipment are as lovingly detailed as the setting of a novel.

  5. totally agree with Nigel Slater, Kitchen Diaries 1 and 2 excellent bed time reading and it goes seasonally, though opposite for us down here in NZ going into the winter months. truly excellent food writers are hard to come across find.

  6. Good call on ‘The Flavour Thesaurus’ Daniel. We have loved recommending this book – and there is nothing else quite like it! And there’s plenty of other authors here I’ve never heard of, so will need to start updating our cookery section…

  7. I’m another Laurie Colwin fan. Her columns in the old “Gourmet” magazine were so intimate and cozy; the literary equivalent of chatting with her at her kitchen table. So sad that she passed away so soon (in 1991, while still in her 40’s). A prolific essayist, she had left almost a year’s worth of columns that were published throughout the year after her death, which were a bittersweet pleasure to read.

    Suggest “The Supper of the Lamb” by Robert Farrar Capon. This has got to be in the Top Ten of most unusal book about cooking ever written, truly one of a kind.

    Don’t forget that subset of cookbook reader, the cookbook “collector.” I’m at 125 and counting, including books specializing in the cooking of Bulgaria and Japanese beno box cookery. I would need to live to 365 to cook everything, but it’s a harmless addiction, I guess!

    Maureen Murphy (“Moe Murph”)

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