The BHB’s Top 10 Cookbooks That Are Just Plain Good Reads

Good afternoon, friends and neighbors!

Did you know that a cookbook can be more than a collection of recipes? It can actually be… A BOOK.

Yes, yes, how shocking.

 

If you think about it for longer than a second, cookbooks don’t need to as dry and dull as your college textbooks. Food is an extremely personal and social thing, and so people who choose to write a book of recipes have the opportunity to fill in the gap, so to speak.

A cookbook can absolutely instruct- “This is how you make my favorite jambalaya.” Much more interesting and enjoyable, however, is “I make this jambalaya especially for rainy, crappy days, because it reminds me of when I worked in this great restaurant in New Orleans. Let me tell you, the chef there was so particular….”

See that? The recipe became a story. It had a background, and a special meaning for the writer, which they just offered to you. Maybe you’ll never make that jambalaya except once or twice? Maybe it’ll become your favorite, and you’ll want to go to NOLA yourself one day, find the authors old restaurant, and taste the real deal.

The BHB’s Top 10 Cookbooks That Are Just Plain Good Reads

Cover of M.F.K. Fisher's

Consider this- it’s wartime in America. Rationing is a reality, and all around you people are trying to make do using what’s available or coming up with ways to make their own. Things you used to enjoy on a regular basis are suddenly “luxuries,” and even staples like butter, eggs, and sugar have to be minded carefully because of the War Effort.
Then you find this book by a young woman who insists that, just because everything is going to hell and your resources aren’t what you THINK they used to be, DOESN’T mean it should be canned tuna every night forever. With a sardonic, tongue-in-cheek tone, Fisher offers advice on resourcefulness, making do, and-yes, even ENJOYING your food- despite circumstances.
With simple recipes and common-sense advice for avoiding waste, peppered with her dry humor and anecdotes of friends and acquaintances from whom she learned a thrifty way of life, “How to Cook a Wolf” is a classic for a reason. I’ve been going through it at a regular pace since picking the book up, and I rarely go 10 minutes without a laugh or a “…well I’ll be damned” moment.
In case you are wondering, yes- the advice on cutting costs and finding resources STILL holds up 63 years after it was first published. Get it for the recipes and advice, stay for the story.

Cover of Poorcraft

No, it’s not technically a cookbook, but hear me out.
You might notice a theme on this list of a number of books discussing how to eat well for less. I’ve written about it myself. Everyone- especially people in my age group- is looking for ways to live comfortably while holding on to a bit more of their hard-earned money- and one of the drivers of the culinary world has always been “How can I make something good and tasty out of what’s available?”
Poorcraft is a comic book of advice for living a happy, busy, comfortable, and frugal lifestyle. It discusses finding and maintaining somewhere to live, clothing, medical situations/insurance, transportation, entertainment, debt management, and- of course- FOOD.
The food chapter highlights how to grocery shop, what staples should be in your pantry, and- much like How To Cook A Wolf- how to make what you pay for go a LONG way. It even includes some kitchen help for people who don’t KNOW how to cook- how to choose a kitchen knife, basic definitions, the idea of mise en place, etc. The recipes included are also quite effective- especially the Roasted Chickpea Snacks.
​If you want a good read that’ll also help you look at your resources and how you use them in a new light, this is the book for you.

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This book has a very soft spot in my heart. My copy is from the 1950s, and was left to me by my grandmother. The book is rife with splendid old recipes for Jewish cooking staples, ranging from appetizers, soups, salads, main courses, breads- and of course, desserts.
Beyond the emotional attachment to my copy, however, the writing is in a wry, satirical style that simultaneously plays into and mocks the voice of the stereotypical Jewish mother. With a host of anecdotes that proceed each section (“It shouldn’t happen like it happens” being the title of the “soup” chapter,) you can easily imagine your own Bubba fussing around the kitchen trying to make dinner for her family, clucking to herself when things aren’t JUST SO. There is even an (extremely brief) chapter on cooking for Yom Kippur.

If you got that joke, you should probably pick up a revised, new edition of this book. Fix yourself some matzo ball soup, sit down, and enjoy.


Cover of

Ok, so similar to Poorcraft, techincally this *ISN’T* cookbook. If you don’t want to count them, then just combine the two and call this a “Top 9” list. You do you, buddy.
Hannah Hart’s journey started with a camera, a kitchen, a lonely night, and some alcohol. She made a goofy YouTube show where she would get drunk and try to cook… a thing. Something. Whatever was around. It usually didn’t work out too well- but neither Hannah nor her audience really cared. The fact is it was FUN- and Hannah’s practice of “reckless optimism” turned her “cooking show” into a community of love, acceptance, and just goofy joy for life.
That said,  you might guess that the recipes in her cookbook are… not necessarily stuff you’d actually want to try making. I picked up the book for Emily (who’s a super-fan) and together we tried one or two of the recipes (seriously, give the Hartwich a shot), but overall the book is just a fun, lovely read from a lovely person- reminding you to enjoy life and remember that cooking CAN really be just f***ing around in a kitchen.
But… “Latke Shotkes?” No thanks, I’m good.
Wait.. “Pizza Cake?”… Shit I might need to try that one…

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This one is hands-down my wife’s favorite cookbook. It is a constant reference for us, and lives on our kitchen counter in easy reach.
Cal Peternell was the chef of the famous Chez Panisse. When his oldest son went off to college, he sent the boy out into the world with a couple family recipes, some basic skills, and a prayer.
Within a week of his arrival at college, though, the calls for kitchen help came in- small details that came naturally to a chef or cook, and only slightly less so to an amateur who cooked at home regularly. To a teenage boy who had cooked with his pro dad, but actually ABSORBED a lot of it… well, it was problematic.
Thus, Twelve Recipes was born.
Peternell lays out the basics and some variations for a few recipes anyone with access to a kitchen should be able to make for themselves and a few friends. Laced through his easy, casual prose is stories about family, cooking, and the common-sense kitchen wisdom that too many people go without.

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My first exposure to Jacques Pepin was a little fraught- I’d just gotten a miserable grade on my final exam for a culinary school class (passed the class, but still…) because I’d utterly BUTCHERED trying to make a Chicken Gallantine. I was CONVINCED there had to be a better, easier way to get the skin off a chicken in one piece. When I got home, I did what I probably SHOULD have done while studying, and looked for a demo on YouTube. Sure enough, there was Jacques Pepin- cheerfully demonstrating in 3 cuts and 10 minutes to do perfectly what I’d just spent 40 minutes making it look I was using a chainsaw and a potato peeler.
Let’s be real here. Jacques Pepin is your grandpa.
He’s everyone’s culinary grandpa. Throughout his career as a chef, a cook, a writer, and an educator through television, Pepin taught us everything with a warmth, gentleness, humor, and easy sort of serenity that just makes you feel like everything is alright and it’ll all taste great. I fell in love with his writing by reading his memoir “The Apprentice,” was carried along on his voyage through the culinary world, and the constant wonder and love of food and cooking.
In Heart and Soul in the Kitchen, he brings that wonder and love straight home. Every recipe is beautifully presented, with the gentle reminder that none of it is set in stone- indeed, the chef ENCOURAGES you to tweak and annotate his recipes to fit your tastes and what you have on hand. It’s something I’ve noticed a lot of great cooks seem to say- “This is how *I* do it- now YOU do it the way YOU like.”

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You want food with a story? Sit down and enjoy, because he’re a f***ing story for you.
Back when we lived in New Jersey, I’d mused a bit about owning a food cart some day to my wife. What would I make? “I dunno… hand pies, maybe? That’d be cool- sweet, savory, meat pies, some veggie ones… could be interesting.” Then Emily got me L.A. Son for Chanukah one year, and I read the book cover-to-cover in about a week.
Roy Choi is the legendary king of food trucks, but he wasn’t always. L.A. Son serves as cookbook and autobiography, with Choi giving recipes as mile-markers on the path of his life: from immigrant, to troubled kid, to troubled young man, to a chef trying get his life right, to a chef being alive. In his writing, Roy doesn’t just tell you his story- he ENGAGES you. He pulls no punches, least of all with himself.
​The recipes are a mixed-bag, in no particular order except the memories of his life. For me, I keep coming back to the Ketchup Fried Rice (I do it up for breakfast, with diced bacon and egg) and his doctored-up ramen. Yes- 10 cent Top Ramen, with the seasoning packet, but done up with cheese, a poached egg, scallion, sesame, and I add a hit of chili garlic paste. It’s not fine dining- it’s GOOD. They ain’t mutually exclusive.


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Back to the “eating on a budget” shtick, but for real- this book swears like a drunken sailor with a stubbed toe, but it means BUSINESS.

Thug Kitchen got started back in 2012 because healthy eating shouldn’t just be for people with office jobs and disposable incomes. With a website devoted to foul-mouthed, mostly-vegan recipes that the economically-strapped can slap together in a minute at home, cranking out a couple of cookbooks was bound to happen. Yes, mostly vegan or vegetarian- because meat is expensive champ, and you can do better anyway. Have you heard the good news about lentils?

If you want to eat right and learn to cook for yourself, you’re officially OUT of excuses for why you just can’t get more fruit and veg in your diet. Get the book and step up your game.


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Ok, look… this book is just goddamned BEAUTIFUL. It feels wonderful to hold. The pictures are glorious. The recipes and instructions are documented with a precision and clarity that could make a chemist weep. Not a surprise, coming from the legendary Thomas Keller of The French Laundry and Per Se. What gets me, however, is the gentle prose of its authors. Their recipes are elegantly simple, and the importance of that elegance is underscored by the careful explanation of why each step is important. As Tom Colicchio said, “Simple doesn’t mean simplistic.” This book is a perfect demonstration of WHY I love simple desserts more than complex, multi-part edifaces- the craft is fully on display. If something is wrong, there is nowhere to hide- but if everything is right, everything shines in the glory it deserves.

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We finish off the list with a book that claims it’s not a cookbook at all. Naturally.
In truth, Ruhlman only offers one recipe in the entire book, for veal stock. What he offers instead is a collection of essays- Stock, Sauce, Salt, The Egg, Heat, Tools, and Finesse- the reading and meditation upon which will lead to tackling nearly any recipe with efficacy. In short, The Elements of Cooking doesn’t teach you how to cook recipes, it teaches you how to COOK, and ANY recipe you like.

This is far from a complete list, but what do you think? Any books I should include? What are your favorite cookbooks? Let me know in the comments!

Stay Classy,

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