Since you asked, I will answer, but we MUST get back to postcards one of these days. But being a blogger and thus not shy about sharing my opinion, I will pass along some thoughts on Iconic American Cookbooks. This is not a Top Ten because I haven’t got room for ten and, anyhow, I’d be bound to leave something out, as most of my own cooking is done by the Toss-Salt-On_=it-Put-It-In-The-Oven method. I rely for these notes on what I learned selling books at the Book Fair, especially from listening to the Cookbook Lady, Penelope Bingham, who lectured the length and breadth of Illinopis (at least) speaking on what we can learn about our history from cookbooks.
One of the things that fascinated the Cookbook Lady was expressed in a question guaranteed to start a conversation: What cookbook did YOUR mother cook out of? She was fascinated to learn that once she got more than five miles out of urban Chicago, the hands=down winner of this was generally FARM JOURNAL’S COUNTRY COOKBOOK, a mssive volume (over 1,000 recipes is what it declared) first published in 1959.
But in Jewish households, she found it was THE SETTLEMENT COOKBOOK. This came out of the Settlement House, a center for the assistance of new immigrants in Milwaukee, who at the start of the last century were mainly either Jewish or Italian. The cooking was robust and popular, but the Board of the institution jibbed at the price of printing a cookbook (it was 1901; the publisher wanted eighteen bucks) so its author had to sell it by subscription. Within a few years, the Settlement House, now known as the Jewish Community Center, was heavily supported by proceeds from the book, which had become a basic reference for Jewish (though not fully Kosher) cooking.
Irma S. Rombauer was 53 when her husband committed suicide. Ger children suggested she write down her recipes and thoughts on cooking to deal with the trauma, and in 1931, the first edition of THE JOY OF COOKING was published. For many people this is a basic reference, and it inspired thousands of sometimes surprising followers. (The author of The Joy of Sex called it that because the first cookbook he queried turned him down.) I was amazed, at the Book Fair, to run into people who detested The Joy of as time went on, the editors introduced the “Action Method” of writing recipes, in which each ingredient is introduced to the conversation when it is added to the recipe, instead of the Traditional Method, where you get a list of ingredients at the top and THEN are told what to do with them. (I prefer Erma Bombeck’s more basic excuse for disliking it: everyone wanted to spell her name with an I instead of an E.)
THE BOSTON COOKING SCHOOL COOKBOOK, also known as the Fannie farmer Cookbook was a follow-up to Mary Lincoln’s Mrs. Lincoln’s Boston Cookbook. What set Fannie’s 1896 volume apart, and led to HER status as a basic reference was her insistence on measurements. Before Fannie, a pinch of this or a handful of that might do, but it was Fannie who defined the level teaspoon, and asked that a certain number of ounces of butter (instead of “a lump of butter as big as a goose egg”) be used.
Anybody out there need to be told anything about Julia Child, who had a more massive following than any television chef up to her time? Didn’t think so. Her MASTERING THE ART OF FRENCH COOKING is a massive set, even if you bought only the original volume (the sequel is just as big, and you really need both.), and the one I had the most comments on at the Book fair from people who had lent their copy to a friend or given it to a grandchild, and regretted it, wanting it back.
Craig Claiborne revolutionized the art of writing about food for a newspaper; he was the first male ever to be put in charge of a major newspaper food section. Along the way, he edited THE NEW YORK TIMES COOKBOOK, a new generation’s Joy of Cooking. A customer came to me once at the Book fair with tears in her eyes. She had never expected to find a copy of this book in her price range, and yet here it WAS.
We are running out of space, and I have not mentioned James beard, or any of the Good Housekeeping cookbooks, or The Silver palate Cookbook, La Technique, The Victory Garden Cookbook, How To Cook Everything, The Cake Doctor, Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone, Dr. Garbee’s Wild Game Cookbook, and Mexico One Plate at a Time, all of which have their supporters online. Then too, as I learned from a lady who begged me to find a particular issue of Gourmet, the most important cookbook in your home is always the one which has THAT recipe in it.
For example, the Minute Tapioca cookbook is probably the source of the family Tapioca Meatloaf…oops, just out of space.