Photo credit: Gael Hees

There’s nothing better in my book (cookbook, that is) than a recipe with a story. Sure, it’s great to have the perfect recipe for lobster bisque, but if it comes with a story about the author’s memories of eating it in Maine as a special treat when his favorite aunt came to visit—all the better. And if there’s a picture of the aunt with stylish clothes, a huge handbag and long red fingernails—well, that’s just
the best.

Many of us are lucky enough to have recipes from friends and family members written by their own hands. OR, one might have cookbooks that have been annotated with notes written in the margins about changes in the recipes (a pinch more of this, or a cup less of that). Sometimes there are reminders, such as earmarking the recipe as someone’s favorite, or perhaps warning against serving it when grandma comes to visit because
she’s allergic.

So, here are three of my favorite “story” books by cooks (more to come later):

How many of you remember Molly Wizenberg and her long-running (and James Beard award-winning) blog, Orangette? It was an inspiring treatise on life lived in the kitchen. Her first book A Homemade Life: Stories and Recipes from My Kitchen Table (published in 2009, but available on Amazon) is a collection of essays, each ending with a related recipe. Her writing is absolutely reverently irreverent: about her cooking methods (using a colander rather than a heart-shaped dish to prepare Coeur à la Crème with Raspberry Sauce because, “I don’t believe in kitchen equipment that serves only one purpose, even if that purpose is creamy and delicious); about the food itself (ginger cake described as “wonderful; pale brown and spiced, sauced with warm, caramelly pears.”); and about herself (“I’m happy to eat the same thing, day in and day out, for a whole week. No matter how big the batch, nothing goes to waste with me around.”) My favorite recipe is Vanilla Bean Buttermilk Cake with Glazed Oranges and Crème Fraîche. I love it and I don’t even eat sweets (although come to think of it, it’s not terribly sweet, just a marvelous texture with a hint of sugar, not counting the oranges of course).

I found, Cleora's Kitchens: The Memoir of a Cook & Eight Decades of Great American Food by Cleora Butler tucked away in a used bookstore on a trip. Originally published in 1985, used copies are available through Amazon’s secondary book sources. Cleora was born in 1901 and grew up in Oklahoma after a Freedman’s wagon ride out of Texas. The first recipe she followed was for biscuits made with the new Calumet baking powder that came with a picture cookbook. She pulled them out of the wood-fired oven looking just like the picture as her father walked in the door from work. I’ve made those biscuits, cutting them with my grandmother’s tiny biscuit cutter, and they’re as light and fluffy as biscuits should be. Over the years, she worked as a cook in the homes of Oklahoma oil barons and owned a catering company. The recipes are simple—not easy. Scattered through the book are pictures of cooking implements that without the cutline, you might not have a clue as to how to use them. This book is a must-have for any cookbook collector.

This one is a little different, titled Yashim Cooks Istanbul, it is by Jason Goodwin, who is the creator of Yashim, which is a series of mysteries set in Ottoman Istanbul. This book is a compilation of recipes for the many meals encountered in the series. The recipes are appropriately simple and use ingredients representative of the place and period. Throughout are sections from the mysteries that denote various meals and the person or people Yashim is feeding. “He handed Yashim a cup of lentils, which he poured into the pan like a cascade of treasure, stirring them around for a few moments with a small spoonful of white sugar.” Having the cookbook and being able to prepare one of Yashim’s popular meals while reading about it is great fun. Highly recommended. 

Something Funny:  I had a pretty zany friend years ago who had “developed” a whole collection of Road Kill Helper products modeled after the real life Hamburger and Tuna Helper packages. He actually mocked up the boxes and they were pretty terrifying. To be honest I don’t remember the exact names, but imagine something like, “Struck Possum with Potatoes,” or “Flattened Armadillo on the Half Shell.” With California’s new law allowing motorists to take and eat animals they’ve killed on the highway, I’m hoping he still has his drawings!