In Defense of the Uncookable Cookbook: Eight Books That Will Inspire You

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From Historic Heston – yes, it’s a photograph!

I get an average of 200 cookbooks a year sent to me. Yes, it’s like a dream, occasionally a nightmare actually. Sometimes so many arrive in one day that I start to fantasize about making furniture out of them. But this year was an order of magnitude of not only the quantity of books, but the quality. It was the year the coffee table cookbook came into its own. I don’t think I’ve ever seen so many large format books that were as impressive for the textual content as well as for the design and photographs. In fact I wish some had included a separate little book of just the text so you didn’t have to juggle a ten-pound book on your lap while reading.

Recently an article by Paul Levy in The Guardian took exception to the plethora of these kinds of books. They are beautiful, yes, but nearly impossible to cook from for the average home chef. All refer to modernist techniques and accompanying equipment. Most “recipes” are a master dish containing many recipes, each complex in its own way. But I disagree with Levy’s qualms. I grew up dreaming of Europe and a pre-war time of formalized service and food, my imagination stoked by cookbooks like Gourmet’s Taste of Vienna as foreign to me in the early 1970s as Alex Atala’s will be to most now. But that is the point of these books – not to be manuals for a few committed home hobby cooks, but to be volumes for the dreamer, the food obsessed who will soak up like a sponge, the history, geography, science and biology lessons to be found within.

That said, if you are thinking of gifting a friend who is a true food nerd and loves beautiful books here are a few recommendations.

D.O.M.: Rediscovering Brazilian Ingredients by Alex Atala

Historic Heston by Heston Blumenthal

Daniel, My French Cuisine by Daniel Boulud w/essays by Bill Buford

Manresa, An Edible Reflection by David Kinch

Coi by Daniel Patterson

A Work in Progress by Rene Redzepi