Wednesday, August 18, 2010

The Best Cookbooks

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Yet another list of the "best cookbooks" was revealed by the UK's Observer Food Monthly in a suspense-filled two-part series last Friday and Sunday. Numbers 50 to 11 were listed here, and the the top ten finale appeared here.

In any ambitious list like this, what stirs me more is not what are in it, but what were left out. Yet, there were several titles that made me go, "huh?" And there were a few that prompted me to clap my hands, as they are obscure but genius choices.

The ones that made me go "huh?", include (and I only mention the ones I'm familiar with):
46 CATALAN CUISINE Colman Andrews
42 HOW TO EAT Nigella Lawson
25 TRADITIONAL SPANISH COOKING Janet Mendel
17 A PLATTER OF FIGS AND OTHER RECIPES David Tanis
5 ROAST CHICKEN AND OTHER STORIES Simon Hopkinson with Lindsey Bareham
2 FRENCH PROVINCIAL COOKING Elizabeth David
1 THE FRENCH MENU COOKBOOK Richard Olney

And the titles that made me clap my hands at the sheer genius of the selection (again, I include only the books that I've perused):
50 MOMOFUKU David Chang
35 THE RIVER COTTAGE MEAT BOOK Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall
26 CLASSIC CHINESE COOKBOOK Yan-kit So
9 SICHUAN COOKERY Fuchsia Dunlop

In the pantheon of cookery literature Elizabeth David has a hallowed place, but I would have chosen Mediterranean Classics, as it contains not one, but three of her best works.

I'm pained to critique the top pick of Richard Olney's The French Menu Cookbook, as I'm an ardent Olney fan. Not only do I have this book, but I have almost a complete library of his books, including Reflexions, Provence: the Beautiful Cookbook, Romanée-Conti, Yquem, and Lulu's Provençal Table (autographed by him). Nevertheless, in terms of impact and gravitas, I would place Fernand Point's Ma Gastronomie and Jacques Pepin's The Art of Cooking Vol. I and II ahead of Olney's

Another favorite that didn't make the cut is Teresa Barrenechea's The Basque Table. A groundbreaking book that was published well before nueva cocina exploded in the food scene. Even Ferran Adrià is a fan of Barrenechea's book.

The Observer list includes quaint titles such as English Food, Action Cookbook, and The Book of Jewish Food. My own personal preference in a category such as this is a small book that's long been a companion in my kitchen: Galing Galing. A collection of traditional Philippine cuisine recipes by the Dazas. My copy is thumb worn, a survivor of many cooking adventures.

Going over the Observer list a few times I can't help but notice Alice Waters' overarching presence, as well as that of her chums. Both David Tanis and Deborah Madison cooked at Chez Panisse. And, of course, the Chez Panisse Menu Cookbook made it to number 11. Waters is also closely associated with Elizabeth David and Richard Olney, and together they formed a kind of cooking clique. Interestingly, a good number, maybe even half, of the cookbooks chosen in the list have authors with ties to one of these three food icons!

Now, I really would like to see Daniel Patterson weigh in on this list.

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