Remember when cookbooks were collections of recipes?
Today, as writers, cooks, and publishers march to the drumbeat of digital books, apps, video demonstrations, and narrative, it can feel quaint to pick up a book that tries to be nothing more than a collection of ideas about what to cook.
I am guilty of adding to the growing cookbook-as-more-than-recipes category. Cookbooks today have to tell a story. If you only want a recipe, you can Google it. Plus, there’s just so much more of a story to tell these days. There are butchers, cheese makers, wine producers, urban pioneers, etc., and most have personal tales that are too good to leave alone. There are new techniques. There are old techniques once forgotten. For writers, it’s fertile ground.
But sometimes we get carried away with the story and forget about the food. The extreme example is Noma: Time and Place in Nordic Cuisine. It’s beautiful, but can you really cook from it? Not unless someone tells me how to make vinegar powder and what comprises a “selection of seashore herbs in season.” (Just a hint, please.)
In these heady times, it feels good to turn back to those classic, simple cookbooks. Two books that have stayed in regular rotation in my family are the Junior League of Palo Alto’s Private Collection and Private Collection 2. They were published in the early 1980s. While flipping through Private Collection 2 yesterday, I was surprised by how many recipes I recognized. I assumed they were my mom’s. I had no idea she found them in those books.
One family favorite is simply titled Pasta Salad. “We would be remiss not to include a pasta salad, so we made sure that this one is the best! The vegetables are stir-fried to ensure bright colors and perfect texture. The dressing is ideally proportioned.” And it is. The pasta salad is full of vegetables–mushrooms, artichokes, asparagus tips, red onion, broccoli, and cherry tomatoes, all dressed in a delicious pesto-like vinaigrette. It might not be strictly seasonal, but it’s still my favorite pasta salad.
I’m helping a family friend prepare cookies and tea sandwiches for an afternoon tea. She mentioned two recipes from 2 that she’d like me to make. Cheese Pinwheels and Surprise Sandwiches. “The surprise is not only how wonderful these are, but the variety of occasions they can bless,” the headnote reads.
I don’t read this book for headnote inspiration, though, I read it for the recipes. These recipes were written during a time when California cooks had better access than anyone to fresh produce year-round, but they also had limited pantries–no imported cheese, no exotic oils and spices. So their recipes used ingredients that weren’t terribly hard to find. Even better, these recipes were tested and tested by numerous Junior Leaguers before they made it into the book. They work.
The book is modest. It is small and cloth-bound. (I’m sure it had a book jacket, but we lost it years ago.) Instead of photos, it contains thoughtful illustrations of California flora and fauna, like poppies and humming birds, by Linda Newberry. In fact, it’s Newberry and Gerald Stratford, the book’s designer, not the cooks, who gets the biggest author credits in the back of the book.
And because it’s so not a glossy cookbook from a TV star, it feels, in a way, fresh and new.