Dear Mr. Gold:
Do you always eat out? Do you ever eat at home? Do you have any cookbooks that you use a great deal? Just curious.
−Maggs, Mar Vista
Actually, I cook kind of a lot. A weird amount. I'm the guy who cooks red beans and rice or quail and grapes for 10, and then realizes that he has forgotten to invite anybody to dinner. (My children sometimes have unusual lunchboxes.) Anyway, in case you were wondering, these are the 10 most battered cookbooks in my kitchen:
1. The Breakfast Book by Marion Cunningham. Not only is this the essential manual of the American morning, from sour cream coffee cakes to shirred eggs, but by its very nature, it tends to collide with spattering bacon and inerrantly flipped pancakes. This is one book that should be sold with a commemorative chisel.
2. Essentials of Italian Cooking by Marcella Hazan. This is at least my third go-round with this book, after discounted QPB editions began to resemble the aftermath of a ticker-tape parade. I've cooked out of it so many times that I could probably recite the salmorigio recipe by heart, but by now the dogeared, waterlogged volume has become as much good-luck charm as guide.
3. Simple French Cooking by Richard Olney. Oddly enough, the native Iowan, transplanted to a stunningly rustic kitchen in Provence, may have known more about the American kitchen than anyone who has ever lived: The master braise recipe alone is enough reason to get the book. When I had dinner with Olney a few years before his death — Islamic Chinese food; he didn't like it — for some reason I gave him the spattered working copy rather than the pristine first edition to sign. You could probably grow mushrooms on it by now, but it has sentimental value.
4. The Cooking of Southwest France by Paula Wolfert. Still the only book I have cooked completely through. Coq au vin, cassoulet and confit are not kind to paper. You could probably think of my kitchen copy as a scratch-and-sniff edition.
5. Authentic Mexican by Rick and Deena Bayless. Before he was a restaurant owner, a celebrity and a food TV diva, Bayless and his wife, Deena, were cookbook writers, and really good ones. It could be argued that this first book is as solid an introduction to Mexican cooking as exists. Its status as a magnet for guacamole, enchilada sauce and carnitas drippings is irrefutable.
6. Chez Panisse Cooking by Paul Bertolli and Alice Waters. I'm pretty sure I have every Alice Waters book there is. The volumes stretch across half a shelf. Yet somehow, this is the only one that ever gets used. Bertolli's technical fixations do a great job of grounding Waters' culinary fantasies, and her ingredient fetishes somehow mesh better with Italian cooking than they do with the French-influenced menus in the other books. My copy has been assaulted by pomegranate seeds, green garlic puree and roasted yellow peppers. Colorful.
7. Bistro Cooking by Patricia Wells. I have all the French books you might expect a food writer to have — the usual suspects by Michel Bras, Joel Robuchon, Michel Guerard, Mme. St. Ange, Escoffier, Point, Bocuse, Meneau, Courtine, Troisgros, Curnonsky, Pomiane, Ducasse, Girardet and on into infinity. One can scarcely accuse the French of insufficiently documenting their cuisine. But Wells' slender paperback, which by this time looks as if it has been dipped in flourless chocolate cake and braised alongside the seven-hour gigot, has the gratins, the tartes, the sautes and the bistro dishes you are actually going to cook on a Thursday night.
8. In Pursuit of Flavor by Edna Lewis. First of all, I should warn you that the recipes don't work, not all of them anyway, and not all the time. If you want an Edna Lewis that works, you should probably get the thoroughly tested one she did with Scott Peacock, which also happens to include the best fried chicken recipe in the world. But I did a fair bit of important eating at Brooklyn's old Gage & Tollner when she was behind the stove, and the clean, seasonal, rustic and thoroughly nostalgic tone of this book, even soaked in corn pudding and brisket gravy, is a distillation of Southern cooking at its best.
9. Zuni Cafe Cookbook by Judy Rogers. I love restaurant cookbooks. I own hundreds of restaurant cookbooks. I have spent some of my happiest hours surrounded by stacks of restaurant cookbooks, puzzling out my last meals at An American Place, Campanile and Daniel. This may be the only example in history more useful as a cookbook than as an aide-memoire, and scarcely a week goes by when its romanesco-stained, stock-sodden hulk doesn't get pulled out again.
10. How to Cook Everything by Mark Bittman. It's not to say that I don't use it pretty often, because I do: It's the Boy's Own Joy of Cooking. But this must be the most shoddily bound cookbook ever to hit the shelves, guaranteed to leap free of its spine the first time you boil an egg and equipped with a dust jacket that seems to concentrate atmospheric dirt.