I was struggling with a dish early in my professional cooking career, and so I asked a chef where I could find a recipe for guidance. The chef flatly told me that recipes were for old ladies.
That may or may not be the case, but it by no means prevented this chef and myself from eventually discussing our cookbook collections at length. Very little of this talk was about the recipes; instead it focused more on a book's approach or perspective on food. Most people tend to see cookbooks as repositories of recipes to be skimmed through when you have a lot of zucchini or some other ingredient lying around. Some cookbooks—great ones, in fact—are tools for that purpose, but others are more substantive.
Consider Cooking by Hand by Paul Bertolli, the former executive chef at Berkeley's famed Chez Panisse. Bertolli's book expounds upon the flavors and ideas made popular by the Italian and California-inspired cuisine at his restaurant Oliveto. There aren't a huge amount of recipes in Cooking by Hand that couldn't be found in another book with only minor variations, but Bertolli gets lost while discussing his recipes—so much so that he almost renders Hand impractical as a cookbook. While trying to cook dinner, you'll have to flip past Bertolli's letter to his infant son about balsamic, his reminiscing on climbing trees for fruit as a child, and when you reach his "Pasta Primer," you'll be completely overwhelmed with information on the complexity of something as simple as pasta dough, with details on grinding your own flour and mixing different types of grinds for small alterations in the dough. Bertolli doesn't care if the reader is dying of hunger pains; he'd rather wax philosophical on meal organization (complete with graphs). It is Bertolli's self we are reading about, not just food.
This is anti–food porn. In no place do you see a completed dish. Instead, the book lives up to its title—there are lots of photos of hands working on food. It's shocking, really—Bertolli doesn't even seem interested in advertising his restaurant. Even the working-by-hand shots are not in a busy professional kitchen; instead we see workers huddled together over wooden tables. I can assure you, this isn't how a professional kitchen works, but Bertolli wants you to understand food as he does, through his eyes. In no better place do we see this than in his explanation of prosciutto curing. After a lengthy explanation of his 14-month curing schedule, Bertolli demonstrates the proper preparation through a series of sepia photos with film noir–style lighting. While somewhat instructive, it is more about displaying the meat as Bertolli looks at it—with romantic love.
Cookbooks, just like any other book, can communicate not just messages of devotion, but also cultural norms and current dilemmas. Take a recent addition to the genre, Lamees Ibrahim's The Iraqi Cookbook. The recipes are good and provide a way to learn more about a country that the United States has inadvertently married itself to. However, this is not a book that will bridge any cultural divides. You'll enjoy the food, but The Iraqi Cookbook nonetheless reinforces the poor ideas that put our country in Iraq in the first place. No better indication of this is seen than in the introduction, where a two-page picture shows an Iraqi family enjoying their meal not in Iraq, but in something that looks like a Norman Rockwell portrait. A near-mansion-size house, Western clothes, and even a luxury sedan parked outside—one can't help but wonder if George W. Bush would say that's all he ever wanted for these people: our idealized reality in place of their actual one.
Au Pied de Cochon by Martin Picard is gentler, politically—Picard is Canadian, after all—but his book is a bit more abrasive for anyone just looking to cook. A good book transports you to another place, and Au Pied de Cochon excels at this. Montreal may not actually be populated with drunken pigs, renegade chefs, or piles of foie gras on every corner, but Picard's book makes it so. Yes, there are recipes—wonderful, revolutionary recipes that truly reflect Quebecois cuisine. However, the recipes are surrounded by the stories that inspired them. You'll want to cook these dishes, but the recipes are really only vehicles for entering Picard's world. Through the interlaying of line-cooking shots, terse and unromantic anecdotes, artwork, naked pictures, and the comic antics of a cartoon Picard and drunken pigs, this place comes alive.
If literature comes down to expressing the human condition, then it is clear that, at least for Picard, we are here to love food, explore our homes, and express ourselves in culinary terms as well as through art and stories. As a hunter who uses game in his shop, an avid server of foie gras, and someone who has no shame regarding the importance of death in the creation of his food, Picard presents a world that might bother some. This is, however, his world, his book, not our idea of what the world should be. It's no different than any other literary endeavor, which we may disagree with but nonetheless enjoy a trip to and return from enlightened.
Yet these are all specialty books, which the general home cook may not be interested in. Most people buy cookbooks for the recipes, and some of the better books in this regard are massive compendiums that contain every conceivable dish. These can end up feeling more like dictionaries than anything close to literature. Ruth Reichl's latest book, Gourmet Today, adds to the stack of books from this subgenre like How to Cook Everything and Joy of Cooking. Hers is not written to cook everything, but to cook within the landscape of American food—the one we find in the supermarket. Yes, we do have lots of mass-produced homogenized food that is probably killing us, but we also have easy access to specialized ingredients from all over the world. This massive book represents a snapshot of how we live now on a daily basis, and the recipes reflect this reality, not an idealization.
But this book shouldn't just be treated like a dictionary. Though recipes can be checked and cross-referenced in the index, with this book and other compendiums like it, you need to spend time just reading it. In this simple process, you'll find the gems and learn more about food almost every time you flip through it, which will alter you as a cook in both your physical skills and mental approach to food.
For all of these four books, and many other cookbooks besides, it's about reading and creating a relationship with the book more than eating. Someone else's culinary worldview mixed with your own creates something that can leave you altered for the better rather than just fed.