Allegra Goodman’s latest novel is the Cookbook Collector, a story about two radically different sisters, Emily and Jessamyn Bach, both living in California during the dot-com boom at the turn of the century. Jessamyn, a graduate student studying philosophy, works for an antique book store in Berkeley, owned by a retired Microsoft millionaire named George. One day, George discovers a cookbook collection of unparalleled quality, and with the aide of Jessamyn, attempts to acquire it for himself. Goodman’s novel is littered with references to heirloom cookbooks, some I had heard of (The Alice B. Toklas Cookbook), some I hadn’t, but wished I could read. Craving more, I asked Goodman to provide The Daily with a modest list of her favorite five.
1. Ruth Graves Wakefield, Toll House: Tried and True Recipes. This cookbook from the 1930s contains a primer for brides with instructions on how to brew coffee, bake a potato, roast a chicken and bake an apple pie. Even I—scarcely a cook at all—can bake Johnnycake (Corn Bread). This book is truly useful.
2. At the other end of the spectrum—Barbara Tropp’s China Moon Cookbook is my fantasy cookbook, full of recipes I love to read. I bought this book in graduate school and I’ve never tried to a single recipe. They look delicious. I love Chinese food. But you see, you have to start by making your own Ten-Spice and Cayenne Pepper Oil. You have to roll out and cut your own soba noodles. Yikes. China Moon inspired my novel The Cookbook Collector with its motif of cookbook collectors who do not cook.
3. Jennie Grossinger’s The Art of Jewish Cooking is a down to earth and sensible book. My mother gave it to me when I got married, and her inscription reads: “This book contains some of my favorite recipes—Enjoy, enjoy—Mommy P.S. Try Chinese meatballs on p. 15.”
4. Bruce Aidells and Denis Kelly: The Complete Meat Cookbook a superb guide to roasts and chops for carnivores living in an all too vegetarian world. I mean really—who can survive on dandelions and ruffled kale? What, as my eight year old daughter says, is the “main chorus”?
5. My mother, Madeleine Goodman, was a superb and supremely unfussy cook. She liked her recipes simple, and her flavors clear and clean. I’ve come to see the difference between occasional cooks who like projects, and serious cooks who are there for you every night with a good healthy dinner. (How I miss her!) Well, my mother adored The I Hate to Cook Book by Peg Bracken. I see that this one is just now back in print, and I need to buy myself a copy, and one for my sister too. It’s very funny and also very good. Try the recipe for three bean salad. Delicious and perfectly balanced. Not too tart, like the bean salads you find at the salad bar.