Elissa Altman is the author of the blog and the book Poor Man's Feast, a collection of reflections and stories of her life in and out of the kitchen. She is also a longtime cookbook editor and very well versed in cookbooks and books on food. Clearly she was the perfect person to tap when we got to wondering about which books that have really changed our lives, the books that have inspired not only our cooking but how we view the world.
Read on for her thoughtful take on the five most inspiring, life-changing books on food that she knows.
Elissa says, "This was a hard task! There are so many books about food and cooking that I think of as more writerly books, ones that I return to again and again and have meant the most to me. These are the books that I will talk about to anyone who will stand still long enough! They've made me think about food and the act of cooking in a very different way, but I've also read them cover to cover in a more readerly fashion.
"Whether it is practical, how-to food writing or narrative food writing, the most important things for me are warmth and beauty and elegance. Without those things, even the most practical food writing becomes almost like widget building. It becomes routine, formula. It really separates us from the act of nurturing which is what cooking and food is all about."
Elissa Altman's 5 Most Inspiring and Life-Changing Books about Food and Cooking
1. Home Cooking and More Home Cooking by Laurie Colwin. I have read Laurie Colwin's food work since the 80s and for me her books are about the glory of culinary mundanity. It's the humanity that comes through over everything else. Her beef stew is watery and off-colored: I think she described it as the 'grey-green, greasy Limpopo River' from Kipling's The Elephant's Child. She goes out and buys fancy kitchen twine for trussing chickens and finds her very young daughter tying her kitchen chairs together with it. And of course there is the opening story where she gets stinking drunk at an office party and wakes up famished the next afternoon and lo and behold a colleague shows up at her door with veal cutlets and greens and a little cheese.
They're basic, simple stories but when I'm lost in a sea of books about architectural food and home-foaming sold to people who can't even broil a piece of salmon, I find that her books sort of tether me to the earth. And they remind me that no matter how fancy and fetishistic and fool-hearty the food world can become, it's always at its very heart about the act of nurturing and sustenance. She was an extraordinarily good writer.
Laurie Colwin's books hit the American consciousness at the same time as M.F.K. Fisher and Elizabeth David did. North Point Press had reissued M.F.K. Fisher's lovely little jacketed paperbacks at the same time that Home Cooking came out. Literally at the same time, around '87 or '88. So suddenly there was this great influx of narrative writing that was very different than what we were used to in the food writing world. I found my way to M.F.K. Fisher through Laurie Colwin.
Anyone has read Home Cooking and More Home Cooking (and her novels, too, of course) has felt really propitiatory about her and very connected to her. I remember exactly when I had heard that she had died. It was in 1992 and I was working for her publisher, in the production department, and we had More Home Cooking in production at that point. Her editor came down the stairs. His face was ashen and he told us what had happened. It was unthinkable. It was so crazy. It was shocking. She was 48!
2. Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone by Deborah Madison. This is not a narrative book, of course, but I've read it cover to cover like a narrative which has occasionally been a little unwieldy because it so gigantic!
I grew up, like most younger boomers, with the idea that vegetables came from a can and were meant to go on the side of the plate, surrounding a large piece of meat. When I went away to college in the 80s, I became a vegetarian because my paramour was a vegetarian. It was all about sprouts and east-west lasagna and stuffing hollowed-out zucchini with gobs of cheese. I think it was that way for a lot of in Americans because we have no natural vegetable lexicon. It's not like it is in Europe where there's that famous apocryphal story about the French housewife who was able to serve a 2-pound chicken to twelve people because there were a ton of vegetables on the table.
This book for me is my desert island book. Beyond her recipes being simple and elegant and extraordinary, Deborah has taught me how to think and talk about vegetables in a way that I never did before. It's as beautifully written, exquisitely written, from a narrative standpoint as it is from a culinary standpoint. Even the most practical information in Deborah's books has that warmth that I mentioned, it has that human connection.
I'm never really very comfortable in a kitchen that doesn't have Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone in it. It's like a security blanket for me! My copy lives on my kitchen counter and it's completely falling apart. I've taken it on vacation with me which is totally nuts, but there you have it!
3. The Unplugged Kitchen by Viana La Place. I never knew anything about this book until I found it in a book-lined cottage Susan and I rented in Mill Valley. There were probably hundreds of cookbooks in the eat-in kitchen — you would have gone nuts in this kitchen! It was crazy! But over and over and over again I kept gravitating back to The Unplugged Kitchen. I had never seen it before then but now I probably pick it up once a day and I read it like people read meditations. I got rid of my microwave because of this book! I barely use my food processor anymore because of this book!
The Unplugged Kitchen is about cooking with core ingredients — the best sweet butter, really good olive oil, the best greens tossed with a little Parmigiano-Reggiano. It is so compelling, the way she writes and the way she describes slowing down in the kitchen in this almost meditative way of cooking. Her writing is beautiful and I find that just reading it starts to slow me down, which is great.
4. Mediterranean Cooking by Paula Wolfert. I thought I would mention how food writing can be physically transporting. One of my first experiences of actually reading a cookbook was when I was living in New york and I discovered Mediterranean Cooking. I hadn't yet had the experience of reading food writing that was primarily culinarily orientated but also culturally orientated. I would take the book to bed with me and read it through the night!
It made me think about travel and it was so incredibly evocative that I could smell the garlic, I could smell the market in Tunisia, I was there. It is very important for writers to understand that readers need to be transported, that the most minute sensory details are enormously important, and in this book she really does that. She does that in all of her books, actually.
We often restrict practical food writing to process and as important as process is, we often forget that place is equally as important. It's as important to imagine how things are supposed to feel like and look like and that sometimes gets away from us. I didn't know what preserved lemons were when I first picked this book up. I suddenly wanted to read Lawrence Durrell, I wanted to read Bowles! I wanted to go there and its because I could smell everything, I could see everything, I could taste everything. It was all because of her writing.
5. The Art of Simple Cooking by Alice Waters. We food lovers and cookbook lovers are just inundated with good books these days. Every year there are so many of them, so many good ones! The thing that I look for and hope for, and that I don't always see, are books that are reflective of the time that we live in. Especially practical cookbooks. I think every age produces a cookbook that is reflective of its time. Certainly The Joy of Cooking has done that. It changed as the times changed and this is why people collect the various editions. Bittman's How To Cook Everything came out in the late 90s, right around the time when people were going out a lot after work and they just wanted to know how to cook everything quickly. It was a great resource for that time.
Alice Waters' The Art of Simple Food, which came out in 2007, is for me the book of our time. Of course, it's a basic cooking primer but it also reflects the challenge of our times, which is to not only cook great, simple food but to also understand the concept of using honest, authentic, good ingredients that were created with integrity and decency. This is the foundation and basic lesson of simple, good cooking. In order to have good food, to create good food, one must also understand this. Unfortunately, there are so many cookbooks out there that are devoid of this fundamental understanding.
In my mind it's not enough to get into the kitchen and throw together dinner from a good, basic recipe. You must have this basic understanding because you really can't have one without the other. You can't teach people about food without teaching people about what makes food good in relation to decency, the way it is grown and raised, the way it is produced, who is producing it, all the issues of food justice. They must dovetail together. Alice's book is one of the first to make that link in the most practical of ways.
So when The Art of Simple Cooking came out that was an indication to me that serious cooks and home cooks alike are ready at the most basic level to understand that you can't have one piece without the other piece. And of course, as ever, Alice was the person to make that clear.