My Secret Cookbook Gems

After yesterday’s cookbook slaughter, I thought I’d steer the blog to sweeter waters and talk about a subject I’ve never addressed on the blog before: my secret cookbook gems.

No, I’m not talking about books that I actually cook from. Those would be my favorite cooking cookbooks and you can find those on the lower right hand corner of the page under the heading “The Amateur Gourmet Recommends.” These books, my secret cookbook gems, are the ones with the most sentimental value: the ones that I cherish the most, the ones I’d grab first if the apartment was on fire.

Most of these books come with stories and that’s part of what makes them so special.

For example, the book in the above photo–“The Artists & Writers Cookbook”–ranks highest on my list of secret cookbook gems. A few years ago, I made the acquaintance of the brilliant playwright (and creator of “Brothers & Sisters”) Jon Robin Baitz. We had lunch at Brooklyn Fish Camp and made a date to have him over for dinner.

That dinner, which came a few weeks later, featured a pork loin from Suzanne Goin’s Sunday Suppers at Lucques as well as an heirloom tomato salad, and Robbie (his preferred nickname) came bearing gifts. One of those gifts was the book you see above: The Artists & Writers Cookbook.

I love this book. There’s something ancient and mystical about it, as if in there were recipes that included snips and snails and puppy dogs tails. Actually, that’s kind of tame compared to what you’ll actually find: recipes from some of the worlds great artists and writers, their names engraved into the cover once you lift it out of the box it comes in:


The book is beautifully illustrated, with gorgeous prints and bold green pages every now and then:


There’s an introduction by Alice B. Toklas (more on her later) and contributions from the likes of John Keats, Katherine Anne Porter, Richard Olney, Pearl S. Buck, and Paul Bowles. My favorite entry comes from Man Ray, who writes: “A Menu for a Dadaist Day.” Here’s an excerpt:

“Dejeuner. Take the olives and juice from one large jar of prepared green or black olives and throw them away. In the empty jar place several steel ball bearings. Fill the jar with machine oil to prevent rusting. With this delicacy serve a loaf of French bread, 30 inches in length, painted a pale blue.”

I haven’t tried this recipe, but I intend to someday.

My 2nd favorite cookbook gem was purchased recently–this summer in fact–at the greatest meal of our lives, our dinner at El Bulli.

There, at the entrance way, very tactfully tucked away are stacks of Ferran Adria’s books. I recognized several of them–especially “A Day at El Bulli,” which I’d received for Christmannukah earlier in the year–but one book stood out. A book written in Catalan with Adria on the cover holding plastic shopping bags. The book was called: “Cuinar a Casa” which I interpret as “To Cook at Home.”


This is a very cool book. How could it not be? It’s home cooking with Ferran Adria.

The only problem is that it’s written in Catalan, which means for someone who barely reads Spanish, it can be a bit of a challenge. Anyone care to translate this recipe title? “Els Ous Ferrats Somiats: El Rovell Poc Cuit I La clara Amb ‘Puntetes.” My best guess: “The insomniac ferrets in the Raval are cute like Clara the whore.”

Still, the pictures are so plentiful you can definitely get a sense of what Adria’s talking about. One technique I definitely want to try is his method for making a Torta–or, in Catalan, “Truita de Patata…En 7 Minuts!”

This is the dish that I mistakenly called a frittata in a previous post. We ate one at Cal Pep–one filled with potatoes and what might’ve been blood sausage. When I recreated it at home, I didn’t have the time or the inclination to boil potatoes, but Adria gives you a short cut. See if you can tell what it is by squinting and staring at this picture:


Can you see? Probably not. But he has you add potato chips to the eggs! Potato chips apparently rehydrate in the raw egg and by the time you cook them they taste like potatoes. No wonder they call this guy a genius!

[A similar technique is explained in Jose Andres’s book, so I’ll try to recreate it all for you in a future post.]

My third favorite cookbook gem is this:n


When I went to Paris, oh so many years ago, my favorite discovery was a district called the Marais: the intersection of Paris’s gay culture and Jewish culture. In other words, an intersection that describes me to a tee.

There in the Marais, I’d wander around, and one day, wandering around, I stumbled into a French/Jewish cookbook store and found the book you see above: “La cuisine juive traditionnelle” by Marlena Spieler.

It’s a big, beautiful book with bright, colorful pictures. What I like about it is that it brings the sophistication of French cuisine to the rustic splendor of Jewish cooking. And though I can’t read French, the pictures alone are enough to make me want to try this French Jewish version of kugel:


Actually, there are many recipes I’d like to try from this book. So maybe next time Clotilde or David come to town, I’ll kidnap them and force them to translate the book for me. Or I could just take French lessons? Nah.

And now a secret.

Last year, I worked on a book proposal that didn’t go anywhere. The book was called “Food of the Gods,” and the idea was that I’d traverse all of the world’s great religions on a hungry quest for recipes you can only find at religious holidays and ceremonies.

For the proposal, I flew with my friend Shirin to Elberton, Georgia to join her family for a traditional Islamic holiday: Eid-al-Adha. The meals we ate there were extraordinary–Shirin’s mother and aunt are amazing cooks–and the sample chapter that I wrote is still some of my favorite food writing I’ve done. (My plan is to post that sample chapter here on the site when Eid-al-Adha rolls around again this year.)

On our trip, we went to visit several of Shirin’s family friends, and one family friend was a Southern belle named Emily who let me try her tomato aspic (a Southern specialty) and handed me this next Secret Cookbook Gem on my way out the door:


It’s the Elbert County Cookbook: “A Taste of Southern Hospitality.” It’s a collection of recipes by Elbert County Residents, published by Calico Kitchen Press in Hartwell, Georgia in 1996.

The book contains a history of Elbert County (a history that starts in 1773), a section that tells you “Where To Look in the Bible” (if you’re jealous? Ps. 49; James 3; If you are starting a new job? Ps. 1; Prov. 16; Phil. 3:7-21), and an Herb guide (“Chervil is good with egg and cheese dishes, chicken peas, etc.”) Here’s a section devoted to hamburger recipes:


Here’s another cookbook with a story–“Joy of Liberace: Retro Recipes from America’s Kitschiest Kitchen.”


When I was hosting the FN Dish last year and we went to Las Vegas to cover the Wine & Food Festival there, we had the idea to frame our episode with Liberace as my Las Vegas spirit guide. We went to the Liberace museum and had a Liberace impersonator narrate our video. Unfortuantely, we couldn’t make that segment fit into the video, but on my way out the door the museum currator handed me the Liberace cookbook. And it’s definitely a gem:


I think I’m going to use this as inspiration to decorate our new kitchen:


And for our first dinner party, a weenie broil!


Of course, if this book ever gets to be too much I have the perfect antidote:


This, the Anita Bryant Family Cookbook, I found at Bonnie Slotnick’s in the West Village. I bought if for pure camp value and, as such, it really does the trick. (In case you don’t know, Anita Bryant famously campaigned against gay rights in the 70s–as illustrated in the movie “Milk.”) The book begins with, “Dear Lord, these mealtimes get so hectic, I really can’t remember why we even try to eat together.” There’s a chapter called “Peanut Butter–the Staff of Life” and “Hamburgers in Fifty-seven Varieties.”

Luckily, there’s a recipe for fruitcake, so you can expect a post–“Anita Bryant’s Fruitcake”–sometime in the future.

Finally, there’s a book you can get easily on Amazon or your local bookstore, but my edition, I think, is particularly cool. That’s the Alice B. Toklas Cookbook:


Alice B. Toklas, of course, was Gertrude Stein’s life partner. There are countless stories of their salons–how Stein would hold court with the famous writers and artists of their day (Hemmingway, Picasso)–while Toklas would whip up food in the kitchen. But be wary of Alice, she might be whipping up some of her famous Hashish Fudge:


According to some sources, if you actually follow this recipe it might kill you. Buyer beware!

And thus we end this epic post of my Secret Cookbook Gems. I hope it’s convinced you that I’m not just a destroyer of books, I’m a keeper of books that I love. And these are the ones that I love the most (minus Anita Bryant).

Let's dish!

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