The cookbook – in all of its spaghetti-sauce-stained, dog-eared tangibility – speaks less these days to necessity and practicality than it does to who you are and what you value inside the kitchen.
Two definitive cookbooks that I turn to again and again in my own cookbook library are Moosewood Cookbook ©1977 written by Mollie Katzen, and The New Good Housekeeping Cookbook ©1963 edited by Dorothy B. Marsh. (Both books are available online, but if you peruse your local used bookshop, you might just score a copy with someone’s helpful and quirky notes written in the margins). Separately, these classic culinary volumes hold within them information, entertainment, and nostalgia. Combined, they are a dynamic duo of know-how, tastiness, and glee.
Moosewood Cookbook is a compilation of recipes from the vegetarian Moosewood Restaurant (est. 1973) in Ithaca, New York. This cookbook speaks on both the aesthetic and culinary level. I love the hand-lettered and beautifully illustrated pages, the simplicity of the recipes, the thoughtfulness and care put into grouping, and indexing ingredients and meals. I love its earnest sincerity and sweet, playful language. (“Carob is carob,” the author opines, introducing her Iced Carob Brownies, “but many people expect carob…to ring their chocolate chimes. That is unfair.”)
And, yes, when it comes to the food, you would do well to remember this is not just the ‘70s we’re talking about but (cue the sitar) the vegetarian ‘70s, which means Moosewood is bursting with dishes that are wild and weird, veggie-packed and flavorful, and not the slightest bit snooty. Some recipes fall short – the Carrot Mushroom Loaf comes to mind (why would you not sauté those carrots before loafing them?) But most dishes are surprisingly tasty and truly fun to make. The Lentil Walnut Burgers, for instance, are a family favorite and regularly requested by my (carnivorously highfalutin’) husband and son.
Much like modern, health-conscious cookbooks, Moosewood preaches vegetables galore and wholesome eats, but don’t be fooled. There is nary a mention of “gluten free” and the Moosewood crew fears not the divine trinity of butter, cheese, and cream. That said, each of these recipes is easily adaptable and many are naturally gluten free. There are lots of options for the lactose intolerant among us, and they also take well to on the fly modifications and some of the more indulgent additions. Bacon, anyone?
The New Good Housekeeping Cookbook is less a cookbook than it is an entire high school career’s worth of home economics crammed into one volume, circa 1960. It is literature. The recipes in this 739-page hardcover don’t even start until one hundred pages in.
My family knows if I grab this tome off of the shelf, dinner is going to be delayed by the time equivalent to three Brady Bunch episodes. I just can’t resist paging through all the enchanting sections such as “When Company Comes” (in which you are instructed on the proper layout for a buffet table depending on its placement in the room), or “Family Meals” (in which there are entire meals [appetizer, main entrée, salad, bread, dessert, and beverage] all laid out according to season with sweet and whimsical names such as Career-Girl Special or Celebrate The Raise).
Simply, what I love about this book is that delights me. The chapter on cooking animal protein is titled “The Story of Meats.” The chapter dedicated to vegetables? “Vegetables That Say More.” The few colored pictures that are inserted here and there scream nostalgia and leave me wondering about our perspectives of what constitutes “appetizing” and how those change over the years. As someone who was raised in a generation of ironic, too-cool-for-school hipsters, the well-meaning, prim and instructive tone both charms and intrigues me.
Is it a practical cookbook? Well – yes, and no. A lot of the recipes are fussy and call for things like shortening and monosodium glutamate, which I’ll never readily have on hand. I do look to the recipes, however, for basic proportions and techniques. Does meatloaf use breadcrumbs? How hot does the oven need to be if you are cooking an entire chicken? (Yes and depends on the weight, respectively. Who knew?)
Beyond basic, across-the-board (or should I say “table?”) information, what I really appreciate about this book is its little tidbits of foodie information. The sections “When You Go Marketing” and “Meal Planning Can Be Fun!” are not only endearing, but actually useful – how to store certain types of nuts, reactions and uses of different leavening agents, the tip to organize your shopping list by the “route” you follow in the store, (I still use that one to this day) – in our easy-come, easy-go world of handheld search engines, very little stays with us and everyone is an expert. I like to return to a time of knowledge and wisdom, even if there is a little MSG thrown in for “a good taste.”