Cooks & Books

Sunday, July 29, 2012

Cookbooks are funny.

Despite the fact that they follow a rigid structure and are fairly circumscribed, the personality of the author comes through so strongly. Maybe because they’re prescriptive — the reason they exist is to tell you what to do — and people often have a visceral reaction to being told what to do. For instance my default reaction to people telling me what to do is to do the opposite. (I’m not saying that’s a good thing, just how I am. I’m working on it.)

So maybe the voice of someone giving you orders is particularly prominent, even if they’re not trying to be.

There are some very successful and popular cookbook writers I do not like at all.

Deborah Madison, who was chef at the acclaimed vegetarian restaurant Greens, has written a number of respected and well-received cookbooks that have become kitchen standards, including The Greens Cookbook and Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone. I have both of those, and while I love the concept of Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone, what’s not to love, I don’t love the cookbook. I find the recipes stuffy and overly precise, they call for ingredients I don’t have and may or may not be able to get (epazote? dulse?), and they discourage substitution. In general, the cookbook is useful, and there are recipes I like, but I pull it out grudgingly and put it away quickly.

Another cookbook writer that everyone loves that I do not is Mark Bittman.

I do love the idea of a column called the Minimalist — how could I not? — and what could be better than The Minimalist Cooks at Home? Yet I don’t find that his recipes live up that billing. I think maybe being a minimalist is relative, and his starting point, as a New York Times writer and denizen of New York, is so much higher than mine that even his minimalist version is more than I can handle.

On the other hand, I love Mollie Katzen of Moosewood fame. I find her recipes accessible and almost always good. And my favorite vegetarian cookbook is from someone who is (or was, at least) a chef but who I know only from her cookbook — Vegetarian Planet by Didi Emmons. If one of her recipes calls for exotic ingredients, she tells you why it’s important, where you might be able to get it, and what to substitute if you can’t find it. No pooh-poohing people who don’t have a Lebanese/Japanese/Scandinavian market on every corner.

I feel like Deborah Madison and Mark Bittman are looking down their noses at me, they’re likely to tell me what I did wrong and how what I made was not quite right, while Mollie Katzen and Didi Emmons are people I wouldn’t mind having in my kitchen with me while I cook. They would be happy with whatever I came up with and would think it was just fine. Go team!

A number of years ago — so long ago that I can’t remember when — my aunt and uncle who live in England but often spend summers in California gave me a Christmas gift of The San Francisco Chronicle Cookbook. This is a great cookbook. It has recipes from many different people who contributed recipes to the San Francisco Chronicle food section over the years, and one of the main contributors to the paper was Marion Cunningham.

I think the first recipe I made of hers was Ginger Jack Cookies. This is a more-or-less basic cookie recipe that includes corn flakes, which make them light and crunchy; oats, which make them chewy; and candied ginger, which makes them both sweet and spicy.

So they are cookies that are light, crunchy, chewy, sweet, and spicy.

They are really, really good.

Another Marion Cunningham recipe I happened upon in the cookbook was for Lone Star Chicken, which is one of those magical recipes that takes a bunch of things you already have in your house — canned tomatoes, onion, garlic, chicken, a few basic spices — and turns them into a fabulous meal with hardly any work at all.

I soon learned that this is a hallmark of Marion Cunningham’s recipes: simple ingredients, prepared in an easy, no-nonsense way, resulting in a meal that is deliciously satisfying, and that, no matter what else is going on in your life, makes you feel like maybe life isn’t so bad after all.

I still don’t have a copy of the Marion Cunningham revision of the Fannie Farmer cookbook (I do have a version of the original, which is an interesting reference) but I have several of her cookbooks that I use all the time.

The Supper Book is my go-to cookbook when I want something easy and good, and Learning to Cook with Marion Cunningham is an invaluable resource, even for people who already know how to cook.

I think I came across Learning to Cook with Marion Cunningham when I was browsing the shelves at The Regulator here in Durham, and I believe I first bought it as a gift, then later bought a copy for myself. It’s now out of print, though I recently bought a copy for a friend when I was at Powell’s Books in Portland, Oregon. So you may not be able to get it locally (well, unless you live in Portland, in which case you’re set), but you should be able to pick up a copy online.

There are a number of things I love about this cookbook.

From an information design perspective, I think it’s brilliant. It explains things in very clear, very direct terms — after all, it’s designed for people who literally do not know the first thing about cooking — yet it manages to do so without being at all condescending, and in a way that people who already do know how to cook can read and use without being annoyed.

That is no mean feat.

And I feel like even if you do know how to cook, you don’t necessarily know how to cook everything. When I was starting to cook on my own, I didn’t buy meat because I couldn’t afford it, and as the years went on, I started to feel like there was a significant gap in my knowledge base. For instance, pot roast. How would one go about making a pot roast? I had no idea. Until I got Learning to Cook with Marion Cunningham. Now I know.

All of the recipes are good, there is nothing exotic or complicated about any of them. Just food that anyone can make without too much effort. And there is no showing off — it is not about Marion Cunningham. It is about you and what you can do to make your food better, and your life too. Because Marion Cunningham was above all a champion of home cooking, and as much for its importance in our lives as for the food.

Simple food, prepared simply. That was the beauty of Marion Cunningham’s work.

I’m grateful for her legacy and everything she did for American cooking. And she is certainly someone I enjoy having in the kitchen with me.

I’m not sure if this is my favorite Marion Cunningham recipe — as I said, there are so many I love, it’s hard to pick just one — but it’s the first one I remember making. And also it is one of the most requested recipes I make; I don’t think I’ve ever served these cookies without being asked for the recipe. So by virtue of that, it gets the nod.


Ginger Jack Cookies
from The San Francisco Chronicle Cookbook, edited by Michael Bauer and Fran Irwin
recipe from Marion Cunningham

1-1/4 cups vegetable shortening
1 cup granulated sugar
1 cup packed brown sugar
2 eggs
1 tsp vanilla extract
2 cups all-purpose flour
1 tsp baking soda
1/2 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp salt
2 cups corn flakes
1 cup uncooked oatmeal [rolled oats]
1-1/4 cups finely chopped candied (crystallized) ginger [approx 4.5 oz.]

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Grease baking sheets.

Put the shortening into a mixing bowl and, using the back of a large spoon [or an electric mixer] cream it around the sides of the bowl. Slowly add both sugars and continue to cream and blend until the mixture is smooth. Add the eggs and vanilla and mix well.

Combine the flour, baking soda, baking powder, and salt; mix with a fork until mixed. Add to the creamed mixture and beat until thoroughly mixed. Add the corn flakes, oats, and ginger. Mix well.

Drop by teaspoonfuls 1-1/2 inch apart on the prepared baking sheets. Bake about 8 minutes, or until the edges of the cookies are lightly golden. Transfer the cookies to racks to cool.

Store or freeze in airtight plastic bags.

Yields about 7 dozen 2-inch-diameter cookies.

13 Responses to “Cooks & Books”

  1. Liz Adams Says:

    This is a wonderful post! for starters, you finally told us where you live,and this is very useful information, helps us anchor what you say.

    And yes, I get you on those cookbook writers you don’t much like. I don’t like Katzen at all, though, feel as if whatever I did, it wouldn’t be granola enough for her! but perhaps that’s because I’ve been in the original Moosewood restaurant, and had exactly that feeling there! friendly if you belong in a narrow pre ordained group. The friend who took me there belonged, I clearly didn’t.

    But I have to pursue Marion cunningham’s work now, thank you!

    I really like your writing, too, by the way.

  2. No mention at all of the Joy of Cooking? This must be on purpose because it is hard to overlook. That book is where, after years or sorta cooking, I really learned to cook. I like the difficult recipes and I like the simple ones. If I only had one cookbook to choose, I would go with The Joy.

  3. K Says:

    I have a cookbook by Madhur Jaffrey, World Vegetarian, and I think it’s a great example of a cookbook where the author’s voice comes through. You might like that one.

  4. lessisenough Says:

    It didn’t occur to me to mention The Joy of Cooking in the same way it wouldn’t occur to me to talk about my dictionary.

    I love my dictionary, I stole it from my father when I left for college. Literally stole it, surreptitiously and deliberately. It is an American Heritage dictionary, and I was going to get one for myself to take with me but a new edition had just come out and when I looked at it, I didn’t like it. I’m change averse. I didn’t want to have to get used to a new dictionary, and I didn’t think he cared as much about his dictionary or getting used to a new one as I did. So I took his. I still have it and love it very much.

    And that’s how I feel about Joy of Cooking. I use it as a reference and it’s great because it has everything. I have two versions, but not the latest one — like the dictionary, I couldn’t adjust to the newer version, I stuck with the one I was used to.

  5. lessisenough Says:


    I can see that about Moosewood, it definitely has that brown-rice-and-tofu thing going. I feel like that about Laurel’s Kitchen, which I like mainly for the nutritional breakdown in the back, it’s a quick way to check on calories and sodium of various foods. But the recipes feel holier-than-thou to me. I don’t necessarily feel that about Mollie Katzen, though. Maybe I would if I’d been to Moosewood.

    Glad you liked the post, and yes, you should check out Marion Cunningham, though unfortunately it seems like the cookbooks of hers that I like the most are out of print. But not Fannie Farmer, I’m sure you can find that. And you should be able to pick up used copies of the other ones online.

  6. lessisenough Says:


    Thanks. I have heard of Madhur Jaffrey but I don’t think I’ve seen the cookbook, I’ll have to check it out.

  7. Liz Says:

    K, I like Jaffrey’s indian cookbooks too.

    Other great cookbooks to me are:

    1)Doubleday Cookbook. –good info on how to cook pretty much any usual food.

    2) The Silver Palate Cookbook–a great combo of deli and bistro recipes. Favorites with a bonus.

    3) The Africa Cookbook–good intro to the different regions of Africa.

    4) The Essential Appetizers cookbook–diversity of foods plus helpful pictures. Pictures also appealing from an artistic standpoint.

    …more as I get a chance to post.


  8. Susan Wilbanks Says:

    It’s funny, I have the exact opposite reaction to Bittman and Katzen. Every Moosewood recipe I ever tried seemed labor-intensive and kinda bland, so I eventually gave it away. Bittman, however, though he can seem smug, puts out recipes that match my taste buds and lifestyle (though I still need to amp up the garlic & spice content sometimes), so the How to Cook Everything app is my go-to when I have an ingredient or two I’m not sure what to do with.

  9. lessisenough Says:


    I brought home a copy of How to Cook Everything from my aunt’s so I guess I’ll see how I like the recipes. I feel like my problem with him is more the personality than the recipes — though the recipes I’ve looked at are more high-end than I’m interested in. I’m feeling pretty simple these days. The two Mollie Katzen cookbooks I use are the original Moosewood Cookbook and The Enchanted Broccoli Forest. Though it’s possible I’m just a sucker for the handwriting.

  10. Susan Wilbanks Says:

    Maybe it was just the Moosewood recipes I tried, but they all seemed to take a lot of time–lots of chopping, long baking or stewing times, etc.–only to give results that didn’t justify giving up so much of my time. I enjoy spending a couple of hours on Saturday or Sunday on an elaborate recipe, but I feel like the end product should be something special.

    But most nights, I’m looking for something I can get on the table quickly that’s still reasonably tasty and nutritious, and a lot of Bittman’s pasta, bean, or stir fry recipes fit the bill. I work full-time and am an author trying to write fast and well enough to make that my full-time job, so speed is one of my top kitchen priorities.

  11. lessisenough Says:

    Well, Marion Cunningham is definitely my favorite for simple things, and I’m also a big fan of the How to Cook Without a Book approach, which focuses on basic techniques. That’s much faster and easier than anyone’s recipes. And no one is telling you what to do, either, you get to figure it out yourself and adjust based on how much time/energy you have and what you have around.

  12. Joshua Newman Says:

    I couldn’t agree with you more about Katzen’s tone. I can’t speak to the quality of the recipes as I haven’t cooked any yet but this line in her Chocolate Eclipse recipe:

    7. Pour on the boiling water. It will look terrible, and you will not believe you are actually doing this, but try to persevere.

    is the only time a cookbook has actually made me laugh out loud.

  13. lessisenough Says:

    Yes! I feel like it’s all about the person doing the explaining, if they say what they think and tell you things that are useful. And admit that sometimes things don’t work right. People who are perfect all the time make me nervous.

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