Books for Serious Cooks

Call me old-fashioned. I love to cook, eat, read about food, think about food and dine at the table with companionable friends and colleagues. I have worked with food and food-products my entire adult life and food & travel has become an un-separable part of who I am. What I learn about foods, cultures and cuisines I share with my customers.

It’s no surprise to find out that I also love cookbooks and rely on them for inspiration and cultural footing in the kitchen. To me, the best food writers use their knowledge to bring their readers to a place of understanding about the how’s and why’s of certain foods and authentic cuisines. These authors breathe life into the pages of their books by educating readers to the subtleties and regional diversity that exists within x, y or z cuisine.Some of the books that I treasure never made the top ten list, but they are jewels of wisdom and insight to me.

I also look for well-crafted ideas and good writing. And a distinctive voice of authority. Cookbook authors must be a kindly friend, a travel guide, a personal chef and the family member who loves to cook and wants to feed us well, all rolled into one. It’s a big job !

Cookbooks are like good fiction or a captivating movie: they hold my attention, paint a vivid picture for me of the author’s world and seduce me to want to eat that food, travel to that place, and sit at their table. Perhaps I feel this way because I am always a bit envious of food writers who come from family of spirited good cooks, and who are in possession of a treasure trove of beloved family recipes. Although my grandmother left Italy as a young woman to make a life in American with my grandfather, recipes did not come attached to my birth certificate.

My mother was the youngest of 13 kids, so perhaps by the time she was a young adult, my grandmother was worn out in the kitchen. Whatever the reason, my grandmother did not teach her how to cook. During her teens, her sisters and brothers married and one by one moved out to start their families. To be honest, none of my relatives was known for serving interesting Italian food when I was growing up, and no one really talked much about food, either. Family get-togethers did not focus on food; in fact, the food was pretty standard Italian-American fare.

My grandparents both came from southern Italy, so when I look at vivid, enticing cookbooks such as Nate Appleman and Shelly Lindgren’s A-16: Food & Wine or Maria Pignatelli Ferrante’s Puglia: A Culinary Memoir,  Nancy Harmon Jenkins The Flavors of Puglia, or Rosetta Costantino’s  My Calabria: Rustic Family Cooking from Italy’s Undiscovered South, I marvel at what I missed.

I did not begin to learn about the diversity and regional differences in Italian food until I was in college, and met my friend Alvira. She was like me, Italian, and grew up in a small town very close to our school. Her parents would often come to visit, and her mother always brought homemade foods and treats that we  feasted on after she left. When we had a car at our disposal, we would go to her home for the weekend. I knew that her mother did not speak much English –  there were many Italian women in her community and she kept house for her family, so she felt no need to learn – but she had recipes from home that she prepared as she would have back in Italy. She was a wonderful cook, and being around her introduced me to Italian foods and food customs that my own family did not have to share. She was exotic and fascinating to me, and I admired her for how she chose to live her life in a foreign country and for the attention she lavished on food and importance that she place on it.

Earlier this year I had the opportunity to hear magazine editor Dorothy Kalins speak about the direction of cookbook publishing in the USA. Her main point was that HOME COOKING IS COMING BACK. The reasons for this are many, but include thoughts like ROCK STAR CHEFS AND THEIR BOOKS INTIMIDATE PEOPLE WHO WANT TO LEARN TO COOK.

I was thrilled to hear Dorothy’s statements about the return of home-style cooking for many reasons. First, some of our friends or relatives of friends are among the best cooks that I know, and they don’t consider themselves chefs. They love food and cooking, and take the time to construct interesting menus, purchase good, sound meats, veggies and other ingredients for the dishes they will cook, and then spend whatever time is required in the kitchen preparing the meal. Most of our friends have entered our lives through the doors of our specialty food store or are food-writer colleagues. I am spoiled by the quality of food that we enjoy at the tables of others and that we cook in our own kitchen, so we are fortunate.

We live in a time of juxtaposing realities. Larger-than-life chefs and expensive restaurants are still on a roll, and it seems that the more cutting-edge or experimental the restaurant, the more clamor there is to dine there. And pay exorbitant prices for the experience. Pop-up restaurants are a good example, too, as many want to connect with the next ‘in’ thing. But at the same time, roaming food trucks, with simple but delicious, stand-up-to-eat-it ethnic foods or BBQ are equally popular. I understand the appeal of both experiences, and care less if I sit or stand as long as the food is worth the wait.

When I eat out, I always look for small little restaurants – the places that you find that you only want to tell your best friends about. Mom & Pop places with a soul or an edge that work hard to treat their customers to a delicious, well-prepared meal. There are more of these types of restaurant in the US now that ever before as more graduates of cooking schools eschew the corporate food world for the opportunity to follow their own vision.

I’m a traditionalist when it comes to food, food philosophy, and food culture. I think that eating with the seasons has always made sense. I like the natural appearance of foods, and am happiest when I can recognize what is sitting on my plate. I don’t need tall food or want plated food served to me in a bowl. Eating out doesn’t always make me happy, and I know enough to see through the hoopla.

So, to my delight I recently discovered an article written by Chef Sara Jenkins that ran in The titled: Why Home-Style Cooking Will Always Beat Restaurant-Style. And I applauded her statements when I read it. Her point is this: ‘“I’m perturbed that people have gotten so turned around that they think restaurant food is the best food, and that the highest level of cooking is to cook restaurant-style in the home. Even in the finest restaurants, restaurant food, while delicious and deserving of its place and entertainment and theatrics, is really not the best food of all.” And she goes on to explain why she believes that this is so, which I urge you to read for yourself.

I like that Dorothy Kalins said that home cooking is coming back, and that Sara is a defender of home-style cooking. I take these statements to mean that ‘real food’ is coming back, and that there is a discernible shift away from molecular gastronomy and recipes that call for un-findable ingredients and elaborated cooking procedures.

Perhaps home cooking or a return to traditional foods is trending back again. The list of cookbooks published this year ( and the end of last year, too ) features an abundance of titles from talented cookbook writers with defined platforms and well-honed areas of expertise. Fewer of them are chefs, and there are fewer high-minded restaurant books, too, than published in 2009/2010.

Selecting cookbooks to sell is not easy. It’s difficult to please everyone, and the quantity of published works is staggering. But as a specialty foods retailer my job is to narrow down, focus, select the best, and defend my choices. So I use the same criteria for selecting books for my store that I do when purchasing books for my own collection.

As a rule of thumb, I like serious books. I avoid cookbooks by food celebrities and always pass on cookbooks written by celebrities who have elbowed their way into the food world on their name and glamour. I don’t sell fad diet books or books about the latest momentary health craze; books by writers who look as if they need a good meal or who are prissy, or snarky; books that are cutey or written by someone with trumped-up credentials; and tedious books featuring dull-sounding food.

There is still so much to learn and appreciate about the foods of the world – I like to make every meal count!

Click here for the current list of book for sale at Cooks Shop Here:


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