It might seem odd to derive much pleasure from reading cookbooks, but for me nothing (not even trolling Pinterest and watching cooking shows) gives me as much pleasure as leisurely flipping though a new (or old) cookbook. As part of my continuing education and immersion in all things cooking, I’ve picked up new cookbooks from the library as well as food memoirs which are always a treat. Many cookbooks nowadays are streamlined with large format, stylized, glorious pictures of the dishes and simple instructions. It was not always so. Many a cook has faced exasperation over trying to replicate an older recipe with often little more than a list of ingredients with questionable measurements. For example, there was a time in early American cooking when “a cup” meant pretty much whatever type of cup the cook had on hand at the time. The recipe might have contained as little information as “flour, sugar, eggs, seasonings. Bake for an hour.” How maddening! But this is, in part, because cooking was more often taught from one cook to another in person and not learned from a book.
In Julia Child’s Julia’s Kitchen Wisdom published in 2000, she doesn’t hesitate to give precise instructions while still allowing ample room for variations. I just loved combing through this book because it was less about presenting a set of specific recipes and more about approaching cooking as a discipline. I would go so far as to say that this should be first on your list if you ever want to learn how to cook as opposed to just follow a recipe. I remember when I was first learning, I would read “braise the meat” and think “umm, what does braise mean?” Thankfully I live in the age of the internet because I can not only find an answer to that question quickly, but also watch a youtube video of braising. In Julia’s collection of kitchen wisdom, however, she takes the time to define the different verbs used throughout the book. Additionally, she’ll provide the basic ingredients for a number of variations on a simple dish (like salad dressing) so you can see that the method remains the same and that salad dressing is really just a specific ratio of oil, vinegar, acid, and seasoning. The idea is to provide a depth of understanding and transparency that is often lacking in many cookbooks.
Reading even these short paragraphs of instruction will make you love Julia more and more. Her casual, encouraging tone is helpful without being condescending – the tone of a great teacher. I have the added benefit of having read her letters to her dear friend Avis, so by now Julia feels like a dear friend of mine. I thought I might get tired of her after a while, but reading this collection of kitchen wisdom makes me feel like I would have loved to learn from her and cook with her.
Julia’s Kitchen Wisdom is a small volume, perfect for the beginner cook in your life. Consider adding this his/her stocking this year and you won’t be sorry!