In hard times, people need cookbooks


The book publishing business may be souring but, the New York Times says, in hard economic times, people need cookbooks -- pointing to research from May that showed an increase in cooking at home between December 2007 and May 2008. Now? That increase is sure to alter to an all-out dramatic rise, what with layoffs and a health care crisis. (In my life, I'm considering the tradeoff between paying for health insurance and paying for organic produce, raw milk, and other traditional, nourishing choices for a healthy lifestyle -- maybe I'm crazy but I'm really eating well.) The Times assembles a list of cookbook lists, but it's packed with celebrity options. The Alinea cookbook (in which you can learn to make asparagus tips with egg yolk foam and meyer lemon. Among other things) is probably not the choice for those seeking to save money by cooking at home. In fact, even if you used to eat out at elBulli before the recession hit, I'll bet you can't save any money by making the food at home, what with the requirement for the centrifuge, rotary evaporator, and vacuum chambers. And the 60 petri dishes.

In fact, though 2008 is the Year Of The Recession, you wouldn't know it from the glossy, celebrity-studded cookbooks in these lists. The only one I'd recommend is Lynne Rossetto Kasper's How to Eat Supper, a lovely tome filled with secrets, like the one for making your own salad dressing base that can be endlessly altered to please everyone in your house (and your every culinary whim). I am holding out hope for A Platter of Figs and Other Recipes by David Tanis; it seems to have the benefit of simplicity, and the requirement of few ingredients, on its side; but I fear the possibility of expensive ingredients.

Were I to make a list of cookbooks good for a recession, it would start many years in the past, with Sweet Basil, Garlic, Tomatoes and Chives, a vegetarian cookbook celebrating simple Italian and French cuisine. There are some expensive ingredients, but those that are asked for are required for many recipes, and are those that should be a part of any good home cook's kitchen essentials (extra-virgin olive oil and good parmesan-style cheese, for instance). Another French and Italian cookbook author, Patricia Wells, offers a number of country-style recipes in her Bistro Cooking and Trattoria collections; think whole chickens, carrots, potatoes, and cheaper cuts of beef and lamb. Though many of her recipes call for whole bottles of wine, I've had good results substituting homemade broth, a part of a bottle, or a little very good vinegar and water (to add a similar flavor without the cost). My mom bought me The Pepperidge Farm Cookbook a decade ago, and it's filled with traditional, very un-fussy, American and Irish recipes that use few specialty ingredients and value making things from scratch.

In hard times, people need cookbooks, but they need basic cookbooks. Skip the celebrity chefs and turn to the oldie-but-goodie collections of simple, traditional cuisine.