Cooking by the Book

MY 1994 NEW YEAR'S resolution - to break loose from serious menu ruts by planning further ahead - has already led to more time at a favorite activity: paging through cookbooks. I'm browsing through the tried and true, and also borrowing new ones from the library.

If you take nothing else away from this column, let it be a recommendation to visit the cookbook section of your public library. I was dumbstruck by the sheer numbers of books when I first saw the Austin library collection. Three entire rows, floor to ceiling, were devoted to the subject of food.

One shelf contained nothing but chocolate cookbooks (although I did see one on vanilla hiding in that section). Another half-shelf boasted garlic cookbooks. Chinese cooking textbooks, French cuisine guides, one-minute meals, Weight Watchers tips, a sausage cookbook, a cactus cookbook, Cooking for the Hyperactive Child, Cooking With a Grain of Salt, and Bland But Grand caught my eye, as did the clincher, Who Needs a Cookbook? Obviously, a lot of us do.

On a recent visit, I sat and reread two books that have long influenced how I think about food: Laurel's Kitchen, by Laurel Robertson, Carol Flinders, and Bronwen Godfrey (Bantam Books and Nilgiri Press, 1976) and Diet for a Small Planet, by Frances Moore Lappé (Ballantine Books, 1971).

The first is worth reading just for the introduction, which is the chronicle of a friendship between a gifted cook and a novice vegetarian. Spiritual values and goals, creating community, nutritional discussions, and practical cooking advice are all present in this book. The sentence that won me completely was this: "Laurel is the only vegetarian cook I know whose food can manage to taste just like your mother's or grandmother's."

Diet for a Small Planet provides an entry point for anyone wishing to participate in solving the larger problems of our world - hunger, poverty, discontent. Our eating habits do make a difference, says Lappé, who jokingly labels herself "the Julia Child of the Soybean Circuit."

Another formative book that is down to earth is Jane Brody's Good Food Book: Living the High Carbohydrate Way, by Jane E. Brody (Bantam Books, 1985). Years ago this book affirmed and informed my decision to make bread, grains, potatoes, and pasta the centerpiece of my diet. Half the book contains her general philosophy and excellent descriptions of the histories, uses, varieties, and nutritional content of important foods. The other half contains user-friendly recipes.

I admit to a bias for cookbooks that make a good read. For this reason I have found a new friend in Extending the Table...A World Community Cookbook, by Joetta Handrich Schlabach (Herald Press, 1991). The proverbs and stories from around the world that accompany this recipe collection go straight to the heart, page after page. When I have just a few minutes to sit and read, it is often Extending the Table that I pull off the bookshelf. As per my New Year's resolution, I want to try out more of the recipes, too.

Books that I have seen in the kitchens of several friends and would like to explore for further inspiration include Sundays at Moosewood Restaurant, by the Moosewood Collective (Simon and Schuster, 1990); The Green's Cookbook, by Deborah Madison and Edward Espe Brown (Bantam Books, 1987), which emphasizes the use of produce; and its sequel, The Savory Way. (Madison is the founder of a successful San Francisco area restaurant; Brown is the author, in addition to Green's, of the whimsical Tassajara Bread Book and sequels.)

I could keep going, but I'm sure you have your own list of books, both read and unread. I urge you, on the next rainy day, to pull them all out...or go to the library!

CAREY BURKETT, former assistant to the editor of Sojourners, is now an organic vegetable farmer in Hallettsville, Texas.

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