Cookbooks that are worth reading in their own right

Category: Reading

“I read cookbooks like novels."

This statement, or something very like it, is often made by those talented people who win Masterchef or well-known cooks giving a glimpse into their lives and inspiration (Nigella, I’m looking at you). This begs the question – what riches are out there for a reader looking for something more than functionality and gastro-porn from their cookbook collection?

A little investigation suggests a number of possible answers and groupings. Firstly, there is the cookbook and travelogue mash up. There are so many of these to choose from that you are probably best to peruse the shelves at your local bookshop and find something that appeals. But, if you would like a little guidance to start you off, you cannot go far wrong with Tessa Kiros – her cookbooks are so evocative of place and culture that they transport you immediately. A good place to start is Falling Cloudberries, which pulls together the various disparate strands of Kiros’s cultural heritage. If you are looking for something immersive, search out the books by Alford and Duguid – these are mesmerising cookbooks hung together around stories and photographs from their travels. To get the full experience lose yourself in Home Baking: Sweet and Savoury Traditions from Around the World. This once married team have now split up – but Naomi Duguid continues writing – check out Burma: Rivers of Flavour for a more recent culinary adventure.

Cook Korean
If the aesthetic of the cookbook is more your thing then look out The Bookery Cook by Jessica, Georgia and Maxine Thompson. Rather than the obligatory saliva-inducing photos, the sisters have had their recipes illustrated by artists from all over the world. This book is a surprising and rewarding visual feast that deserves just to be looked at as well as cooked from. If you are curious about the link between chefs and their body art, Eat Ink is a fascinating and unusual book gathering both recipes and stories from chefs about their tattoos. In the same vein, Salad for President has interviews and photographs of sculptors, painters, photographers and musicians cooking their favourite food in their own kitchens. The author Julia Sherman loves salad, so there are also 75 recipes inspired by her conversations with creative people.

My favourite readable cookbooks at the moment are graphic novels. This seems to be a small but growing category and really lends itself to telling the stories behind food. If you love food from South-East Asia, grab yourself copies of The Art of Pho by Julian Hanshaw and Cook Korean by Robin Ha. For the story of one woman’s relationship with cooking, look no further than either DirtCandy (be careful when googling this – it’s amazing what could come up) by Amanda Cohen, Ryan Dunlavey and Gavin Hendrix or Relish by Lucy Knisley.

If you yearn a cookbook with a truly literary bent, I have two recommendations for your consideration. First is The Alice B Toklas Cookbook. Gertrude Stein’s lover was arguably one of the greatest cooks ever to get into print and her cookbook is a wonderful collection of recipes, reminiscences and anecdotes. How to cook well on rationing in Paris during WW2 and throwing dinner parties for the likes of Fitzgerald, Wilder and Picasso are all covered here, along with a deep and abiding love for the food of France long before Julia Childs or Elizabeth David started writing. For the full literary experience read this alongside Stein’s The Autobiography of Alice B Toklas.

Finally Eat This Poem by Nicole Gulotta is beautifully illustrated and each chapter is inspired by a poem. This wonderful book started as a blog that promises to nourish your stomach and soul, which is something all the best food writing should do. What more could you ask for?


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