Craving Cookbooks

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By capturing the secrets of favorite flavors from a particular time and place, cookbooks provide a unique taste of tradition.

By Nancy Dorman-Hickson

Cookbooks represent slices of life, whether reflecting family, a place or a point in history. Through time, they’ve depicted what food was available, which dishes people liked and how meals were prepared. Sometimes, they even become family heirlooms, with scrawled margin notes and dog-eared pages that point to personalized favorites.

While recipe availability is becoming more common electronically, physical cookbooks remain staples in many American kitchens. “I like holding a book in my hands,” says author Damon Lee Fowler, who grew up cooking with his mother and grandmother. While writing “was always a big pull,” he worked as an architect for more than a decade before turning his attention to writing and cooking.

Fowler has since authored several regional favorites, including “Classical Southern Cooking,” “Essentials of Southern Cooking: Techniques & Flavors Of a Classic American Cuisine,” “Beans, Greens & Sweet Georgia Peaches: The Southern Way of Cooking Fruits and Vegetables” and “Ham: A Savor the South Cookbook.” 

“In places where there’s a strong identity with the cuisine, people feel an attachment to printed books that have been used by generations of cooks who perpetuated that cuisine through the years,” Fowler says. 

How Cookbooks Came to Be

Recipes have been found inscribed on tablets from ancient Mesopotamia, and the Greeks produced cookbooks as early as 350 B.C. In fact, almost every literate society has created cookbooks. However, the roots of modern cookbooks can be traced back to those that were made for royalty during the manuscript age, when European palace kitchens boasted recipe collections both for the preparation of food and as status symbols. The invention of the mechanical printing press in the 1400s expanded cookbook ownership, just as it did books in general. The first American cookbook, “American Cookery,” was written by Amelia Simmons in 1796. 

Initially, there were not any “Southern” cookbooks, per se. “They were books written about cooking as the author understood it—and the authors just happened to be Southern,” Fowler explains. “The first important ones had a state in their names, [such as] ‘The Virginia Housewife,’ ‘The Kentucky Housewife,’ ‘The Carolina Housewife’—but they were not consciously recording a regional cuisine, but rather their individual experience.” A more deliberate regional emphasis in cookbooks  started to become more common around the 1860s.

“Possibly it was nostalgia for the romance of a lost world, but we begin to see books that were consciously or self-consciously ‘Southern,’ ” Fowler says.

Changing Times

Today, the latest health trends, like the ketogenic diet, often top cookbook best-seller lists. Titles from celebrity chefs and even celebrities outside of the culinary world, such as television’s Joanna Gaines, are also popular. 

“I have noticed that more books are tending to concentrate on a specific genre or theme, rather than the more prevalent ‘all-inclusive’ cookbooks of my mother’s generation, or even mine,” Sue Jimenez says. 

In addition to recipes for Sea Island favorites like the Low Country Boil, “Soul of the South” features stories related to the dishes. | Photo: Jen Judge

As she is the current Guinness World Record holder for the largest cookbook collection, Jimenez is uniquely qualified to provide insight into how the genre is changing. She earned the record in 2013 with 2,970 documented cookbooks and, since then, she’s increased that number to 6,554. Jimenez, a retired forensic anthropologist currently residing in Albuquerque, New Mexico, describes herself as a “cook, cookbook collector, researcher, food writer, photographer, artist-wannabe, animal lover and darn good cookbook curator!”

For the most part, she doesn’t collect modern cookbooks, but acknowledges today’s popularity of certain trends. “In terms of the evolution of cookbooks, ‘molecular gastronomy’ is a prevalent theme now, as are diet and health-related cookbooks,” Jimenez says. “This does tell of our awareness of diet and how it impacts us but, oddly enough, I would say that when I browse the shelves in the cookbook sections of used bookstores or thrift stores, about 50 percent of these are diet or health-related books.” 

A Taste of the Past

While cookbooks that were published in recent years may offer reminders of short-lived health fads, older publications can offer unique insight into history. “You won’t find cookbooks being published today with recipes for rationing sugar or oil, as you did during the Great Wars,” Jimenez says. “Many books from the turn of the century have chapters on how to select a maid, duties of the servants, et cetera, which you would be hard-pressed to find now.” 

Then there are the well-loved, notated cookbooks in collections that are passed down through generations of family chefs and offer a glimpse into more personal history. “Well-splattered pages and handwritten notes make us feel as if we’re still connected to that person,” Fowler says. “Cookbooks that had belonged to and [were] well-used by a grandmother or great-grandmother were valued by those who had memories and connections to the person and to the food she had prepared.” 

“Soul of the South” features the recipe for Sea Island’s Summit Burger. | Photo: Jen Judge

Sometimes, beloved connections between food and people can stem from memories that were made at special places. Such is the case in the new cookbook from Sea Island, “Soul of the South: Recipes, History and Traditions,” which is paired and packaged with “The Spirit of the West: Recipes, History and Traditions,” the new cookbook of Sea Island’s sister resort, The Broadmoor. In each cookbook, chapters focus as much on stories from the resorts’ pasts as they do the recipes.

Curated Collections 

From the modern publications that reflect the latest trends to vintage versions that bring the past to the present, the wide range of cookbook categories inspire cooks and collectors of all types.

“I care about historically significant cookbooks because of what they tell me, not because of what they might be worth,” Fowler says. “I don’t have a collection per se, but a library.” To him, cookbooks with substance “are those that resonate of the cooks’ own experience, history and traditions. I couldn’t care less if they’re actually an original, old book or just a facsimile reprint. Or whether or not it has a monetary value as an antique or historically significant document. It’s the content that matters to me.”

The recipe for blackened flounder is included in the new cookbook from Sea Island. | Photo: Jen Judge

His own library is heavily Southern because of his work in Southern culinary history and traditional regional cooking. 

“I have a few that are old that I treasure not for their value—they’re in terrible condition mostly—but for their content,” he says. He also owns cookbooks focused on international cooking, particularly Italian, and general American cooking.

Sarah Anschutz Hunt, author of the new Sea Island and The Broadmoor cookbook set, has collected dozens of cookbooks over the years that fill her home library and kitchen.

“I find that I return to my favorites all the time, but new cookbooks are an obsession,” she says. “For me, it is about the feel and look of a real book that I can read, enjoy, cook from—maybe spill on—that is really attractive. I don’t think that printed cookbooks are ever going to go out of style.”

Jimenez collects cookbooks first and foremost because she enjoys cooking. “I love to have a variety of recipes from different countries and cultures to try. I also read cookbooks like some people read fiction,” she says. “Cookbooks really are history books, with a bonus: recipes!”

Of course, as a Guinness World Record holder, Jimenez’s collection is larger than most. “We have a very long 40-foot hall in the west part of the house, and a lot of them reside there,” she says. “I have deemed it the ‘Great Hall of Cookbooks.’ ”  In addition, two guest bedrooms are full of shelves lined with cookbooks, and she stores the copies she hasn’t read yet in the master bedroom. 

To grow her collection, Jimenez searches used bookstores, garage and estate sales, thrift stores and eBay, mostly looking for out of print or unusual cookbooks. Among those she’s found is an early edition of “Les Dîners de Gala,” written by Salvador Dalí. 

Jimenez advises collectors to consider condition. “Like any other book, if you are talking about ‘value’ in the sense of buying and selling, condition is everything. A signed edition is also more valuable. The date of publication is really not that important, unless it is a rarely seen item and perhaps only one edition was ever published.” 

She adds that “uniqueness” is a relative term. “What is ‘unique’ to me may be humdrum to another collector,” she says. “I think people collect cookbooks for a variety of reasons.” For example, some choose to collect cookbooks created by celebrities, or they might collect vintage cookbooks and pamphlets produced by appliance-makers or food companies, such as Pillsbury. Church or charity cookbooks are another collection genre, as are collections based on a specific author, type of food or period of time. 

In general, out of print books are more valuable. Good condition enhances the worth of a cookbook, including an intact dust jacket. Those signed by the author are sought after, especially when the signature is from recognizable names such as Julia Child and Fannie Farmer. 

Whether they are featured in a small library in the kitchen or in a record-breaking collection, cookbooks capture and showcase the unique interests of culinary enthusiasts in the South and beyond.


A Perfect Pair

A new cookbook set captures flavorful traditions from Sea Island and The Broadmoor.

Sea Island, along with sister resort The Broadmoor in Colorado, recently published dual cookbooks offered as a set: Sea Island’s “Soul of the South: Recipes, History and Traditions” and The Broadmoor’s “Spirit of the West: Recipes, History and Traditions.” 

“One of our principal goals was to evoke a strong sense of place,” says Sarah Anschutz Hunt, who authored both cookbooks along with help from the teams at the properties. “While geographically very different places, there is a unifying spirit of warmth and hospitality that ties these resorts together.” 

Merry Tipton, director of marketing communication for Sea Island, notes that the publications are more than simply cookbooks. “They do have a wonderful array of recipes, but what really sets them apart is the richness of the memories and the traditions that we have,” she explains.

Readers will find connections to particular places or treasured moments at Sea Island or The Broadmoor. For instance, the Summit Burger, which is served at the River Bar & Lounge, epitomizes the connection between Sea Island’s past and an included recipe.

“Sea Island hosted the G8 Summit that President George W. Bush held in 2004,” Tipton says. “When Jacques Chirac of France looked at one of the menus, he remarked that while it looked quite good, he would prefer to have a cheeseburger. Four other world leaders agreed that sounded good. And of course the Sea Island chefs hadn’t planned on that!” A wild ride from one side of the Island to the other, Secret Service in tow, yielded enough hamburger beef to satisfy the world leaders’ unexpected cravings.

Like the burger, all recipes featured in the books reflect dishes that have been offered at the properties’ restaurants, although not every dish is available year-round or at more than one eatery. The recipes have been scaled to measurements more suitable for the home cook. 

The cookbook set is available in all Sea Island retail shops and at shop.seaisland.com.

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