Some cookbooks rival encyclopedias in their scope and the width of their spines. Still others are almost Biblical in their detail, while some strive to be the practical handbook we all sometimes need in the kitchen. The stripped-down, step-by-step approach is crucial after a long day when you’re grasping for some certainty in the hectic, weekday world.
But when the time comes to slip into PJs, wouldn’t it be lovely to break open a book that soothes you to sleep with flowing, lucid words about food—instead of worrying about the fate of characters in your novel or the sociopolitical climate of Russia—before you approach a dream state? Don’t we all miss the days when the books we read had colorful pictures on every page? How many times have you glanced at a cookbook and thought you would love nothing more than to pore over it for an uninterrupted hour, without having to make a grocery list?
This roundup is the answer to that craving. Reading cookbooks in bed isn’t about storing things on a mental to-do list. It’s about experiencing the gorgeous language with which these writers weave stories together—stories that just happen to feature radishes from time to time.
Ripe by Nigel Slater
Is there anything more calming than a subtitle like A cook in the orchard? That alone is more effective for putting your body in sleep mode than cucumber slices on your eyelids. (There isn’t a cucumber section in this book, but there are abundant stories of apricots and strawberries.)
Fruit varieties in Slater’s work sound paradisiacal: Mirabelle de Nancy plums, Merryweather damsons, and Moonglow pears could give the fairy names in A Midsummer Night’s Dream a run for their money. Each fruit becomes a character, moving through life from as far back as the Middle Ages, to life in Slater’s orchard, and finally to the kitchen, with accompanying recipes along the journey. Sweet and savory coexist peacefully in Slater’s Eden—Roast Leg of Pork with Spiced Rhubarb and Baked Figs with Red Wine and Vanilla are beautiful in their simplicity.
The act of reading Slater’s poignant musings is almost as satiating as eating the fruit itself. Descriptions of Proustian quality—“wine-colored berries from their blackened canes,” a garden that “darkens to the color of ginger cake”—ensure that only the most idyllic dreams will drift through your subconscious at 4 a.m. From now on, let’s all count gooseberries instead of sheep.
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Tasting Rome by Katie Parla and Kristina Gill
As the title suggests, Tasting Rome is cookbook escapism at its finest, but not in the usual indulgent sense. Parla and Gill take you behind the swinging doors of restaurant kitchens to discuss the real issues at stake in contemporary Roman food culture. Did we know primarily immigrants from South Asia and North Africa are running the dinner show at most establishments? Or that fewer young people are shopping at the city’s (literally) ancient markets, creating uncertainty about the nature of a tradition that has existed for millennia?
We didn’t beforehand, but thanks to the authors’ journalistic approach, we’re seeing the Italian food scene in a whole new way. It’s cultural education by way of carbonara, artichokes dressed in the socio-political, cacio e pepe sprinkled with slightly more bitter black peppercorns. It’s Rome in all its beauty and glory, existing right alongside the gritty imperfection.
Dinner at the Long Table by Andrew Tarlow and Anna Dunn
From two of Brooklyn’s most celebrated restaurateurs, the opening pages of this book reveal a poetry-like list of instructions. The first item is “EAT SUNSHINE,” opposite a photo of a bright yellow circle that one can only hope is the Crema Catalana that shows up at the Spanish feast later on. The linguistically minimalist commands are as bizarre and simultaneously attractive as the header that unites them. If recited out loud, you might think you’d stumbled into a spoken-word performance in a dimly lit coffeehouse. “Read…save the seasons…breathe fire…bathe in olive oil…speak in metaphors…feed your new friends…” Is this life in Brooklyn or an Edenic ideal?
If it all sounds a bit psychedelic, it’s probably supposed to. But the magic of Tarlow’s and Dunn’s book is that you’re so hooked, you promptly swallow the Kool Aid (except in this case, it’s the Fernet Old-Fashioned on page 80) until you believe you really are ready to tackle those three-day braised goose legs.
The poetic instructions gain clarity over the course of the book, as certain lines reappear under complex menus and recipes, catching your eye in a teasingly subtle way. “Don’t follow recipes” is the most striking point of the manifesto. It’s the author who’s speaking directly to you: “Don’t sweat. You don’t have to make this exactly like the recipe tells you to. The recipes are just part of my essay, part of my story. And stories can be interpreted differently. If you want to just read this in bed and not follow these steps at all, that’s okay, too.”
Dining In by Alison Roman
Aside from Alison Roman’s ability to show millennials they really can cook turmeric-roasted lamb shoulder and turn photogenic chocolate chip cookies into an internet sensation, she has more than a knack for appealing to the 20-something generation through the written word. The essays she sneaks into the middle of each chapter are light and sunny in tone, yet strike a genuine chord about “relationships, career goals, [and] general life anxieties,” all through the lens of food. From childhood memories of pasta with oven-roasted tomato sauce to the relatable situation of falling in love with a restaurant more than the date who takes you there, Roman’s writing captures the essence of how we use food to recreate a feeling of “home” in a city that hasn’t always been our own.
These interludes are as reflective as they are entertaining. Roman makes you feel as though you’re talking to someone you already know: “Congratulations!” she writes. “You just frosted a cake casually, as if it was no big deal.” It’s as if your best friend is teaching you how to cook, but all for the sake of teaching you something about yourself.
The Basque Book by Alexandra Raij, Eder Montero, and Rebecca Flint Marx
The subtitle says it all: sometimes a cookbook exists more as a mode of demonstrating a philosophy—a love for something intangible—than a practical, utilitarian guide. The recipes act merely as bullet points in the authors’ love letter, detailing the nature of their enchantment with the Basque region.
Breakfast, Lunch, Dinner… Life by Missy Robbins and Carrie King
The beauty of the first cookbook from Missy Robbins, chef-owner of the wildly popular Brooklyn restaurant Lilia, lies as much in its vulnerable storytelling as in its gorgeous, full-page photographs. One minute you’re reading about the integral role of red wine vinegar in your pantry; the next, you’re taken headfirst into essays detailing different points in Robbins’ life, including the period in her early 40s when she took a break from employment for the first time to make time for herself. It’s surprising at first—this is an uber-successful New York chef whose mafaldini is more Instagram-famous than your celebrity crush—and she’s talking about her dwindling bank account and trying to cook in a tiny kitchen.
Robbins has the talent to turn a handful of simple ingredients into a dish that looks worthy of a Michelin star all on its own. She also strikes a chord of the elegant blended with the humble: handkerchief-shaped piles of handmade pasta waiting to be splattered with with mortar-and-pestle-ground pesto are followed by Super Bowl Five-Chili Wings coated in a sauce made from Calabrian chili paste. Cacio e pepe becomes a cacio e pepe kugel, and fried chicken gets a leg up from a polenta crust and the “magic dust” that is fennel pollen. It’s comfort food without trying to be comfort food—an effortless manifestation of sophistication.
Much like her recipes, Robbins’ stories chronicle the highs and lows. The first essay immerses us in her immediate post-grad years, full of exhilaration and hopeful energy, and the rest take us all the way to the aforementioned time that Robbins took off from work to reevaluate how she measured happiness. The movement from anxiety to success mimics a novel’s plot arc: we follow the pasta-loving heroine as she goes from decorating her “first adult apartment” to traveling across Vietnam and Thailand in the name of food research to making a splash in the New York restaurant scene.
Prune by Gabrielle Hamilton
Prune might be the only recent cookbook that doesn’t include a direct address from the author to the reader—that is, there’s no acknowledgment that the reader’s cracking open the spine in the comfort of her own home. To Gabrielle Hamilton, the chef of the book’s eponymous East Village restaurant, the reader is a member of her kitchen—one of the line cooks who’s reading up on the shaved celery salad before dinner service. “You want a bright, assertive, unafraid dressing,” she instructs. “Make sure the Valdéon toast is still warm when the plate hits the pass.”
The cookbook exists in its own magenta-pink world as the Prune kitchen staff textbook. Illustrated masking tape strips are pasted on various pages with measurements and calculations scribbled in computerized Sharpie; notes in the margins are written in thin, slanted writing to mimic the chef’s own hand. Hamilton’s constantly questioning and reflecting on her own recipes and practices, revealing the creative workings of a chef’s mind. “We should figure out something to do with the interesting cured tomato water that accrues in the bottom of the plate by the end of service,” she muses. “Maybe the bartenders have an idea?”
Does a cookbook that contains no written word beyond the recipes qualify as a cookbook one should read for the writing? Within each individual recipe, yes: string beans are meant to look “lusciously oily—like they would do at a village restaurant on a remote Greek island.” The tone is commanding rather than gently pedantic, and there are plenty of culinary terms and ingredients that fly over the home cook’s head. But maybe the book isn’t really trying to teach you how to remove a pigeon’s skeleton before roasting it. Maybe, beyond providing beautiful descriptions of individual culinary techniques, it’s creating an illusion for you—the illusion that you exist in a magical world where mascarpone is fried in coconut oil, butter-and-sugar sandwiches are served at dessert, and chicken wishbones are saved for birthday patrons to wish upon.
With Prune, Hamilton has created the most subtly unexpected kind of fairytale, a land of make-believe in which you’re a cook at a beloved East Village restaurant and Hamilton is your fairy godmother. But perhaps this isn’t surprising for a chef, a profession whose aim is often to make customers believe, with every bite, that they’ve momentarily left the earthly realm and ascended into a magical one. Sometimes the chef chooses to do this through words on a page rather than through a forkful of fettuccine, and we’re endlessly grateful for both.
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