Cookbook collecting is much more complex than it used to be. But it is also more rewarding and challenging. For one thing, cookbooks are more numerous and more expensive than they've ever been.
Also, today's noteworthy books aren't emanating solely from the old New York inner circle of publishers. On the contrary, they're coming from publishers all across the nation. The field has been blasted wide open!
Obviously, then, whether you collect cookbooks for practical use, for financial investment, for ethnic interest, to build a specialized collection or for pleasure, it is now necessary to be more selective and discriminating than ever before. The following are my own guidelines to the better books: the good and the great.
Great cookbooks are timeless works--unique books of which we say, "Only he--or she--could have written this." They are books that allow us to step across boundaries of time and place and experience the cuisine of another part of the world, or of parts of our own country we may never travel to. They allow us to place ourselves at a point in history other than our own, or to dine with someone who in real life would never invite us to the table.
Good books, on the other hand, are practical; like apparel, we replace them through the years, as styles of food change, new foods and ingredients are introduced, cooking methods change, new appliances change the way we cook, etc.
Here are some keys to selecting better cookbooks:
1) Credibility-- When an author has written an inordinate number of books, don't be impressed--no one turns out masterpieces in a hurry. And when an author is described as having "studied with . . ." a number of famous teachers, that can mean merely having attended workshops. Anyone with the price of admission can do that. On the other hand, when a master selects one of his students to be his assistant, as Pellaprat did with the late Josephine Araldo, that is altogether different, and a book written by someone with such qualifications would clearly say so.
You can tell a lot from a bibliography: Is the author aware of the recent pertinent books? Of older important ones? Of foreign books on the subject? Are there too many books of less importance? In one case, I discovered from studying a bibliography that recipes in a book on a specific cuisine were not collected in that region but were taken from other books; some actually came from restaurants in a different country.
2) Accountability-- The author should state how recipes were collected and over what length of time. If it is an ethnic cookbook, we want to know whether primary or secondary sources were used. An author who goes to live in a small rural Japanese village, far from the cosmopolitan centers, as Lesley Downer did for her book "Japanese Vegetarian Cooking," will not fail to state so. The author who avoids any mention of the recipe-gathering process may, by omission, be more informative than he or she realizes.
3) Originality-- Does the book break new ground? Does it question the way things have always been done and come up with a better way? Until Rose Levy Beranbaum's "The Cake Bible," every cookbook called for baking soda when a cake was made with buttermilk to temper the tangy taste, but she questioned the wisdom of that technique and found that using baking powder instead of baking soda "allows the subtle, delicious tanginess of the buttermilk to come through and results in a cake with a much finer texture."
Three new books this season also have something new to contribute. Michael Roberts' "Fresh From the Freezer" is not merely about cooking with frozen food or about how to freeze food; it shows a new approach to using a freezer in home cooking, with techniques by which certain foods can actually benefit by freezing.
Julie Sahni's "Moghul Microwave" does not just take standard Indian recipes and adapt them to the microwave. She has collected and tested traditional Indian recipes that the microwave oven does better than the conventional oven, or recipes she did not include in her previous books because they required techniques, such as sun drying, that were not practical in home kitchens but can be admirably duplicated with the microwave oven.
Sally Schneider's "The Art of Low-Calorie Cooking" so successfully turns her low-calorie recipes into gourmet food that often the low-calorie versions are better than the originals.
Here are some of my favorites, by category.
1) Ethnic and Regional Books --The best are those by authors steeped in the cuisine, as opposed to those who are outsiders, unfamiliar with home cooking and seasonal specialties, and who have gained their knowledge from cooking schools or as tourists. These authors are often unable to present food in a context of culture, in contrast to books such as "Classic Sicilian Cooking" by Mimmeta LoMonte, which not only has excellent, authentic recipes but makes us know how it must have been to grow up in Sicily.