5 Non-Cooking Books That Taught Us a Lot About Cooking

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We read cookbooks cover to cover like novels — every page filling our heads with new ideas and ingredient lists, every delicious photo underscoring the urgency. Cookbooks are the obvious teachers of cooks: the subject master, the tutor, the first and always remaining thing that can move our cooking lives forward.

But they’re not the only books that have ever taught us about cooking, food, or life and love in the kitchen. How could they be? In fact, we’ve found inspiration in the most unlikeliest of places, in books that have nothing to do with cooking on the surface, and yet teach us so much within their pages. Here are five favorites.

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1. The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg

If you’ve ever struggled to set up and keep good habits in the kitchen — washing the dishes every night, eating more of this and less of that, prepping food for the week on Sunday, cooking every day without fail — this is the book for you. As an idealist who usually crumbles under the weight of her own expectations (wah!), I found it enormously helpful and practical to learn about how habits are formed, and that it actually is possible to learn to do the things I want to do, every day, if I go about it the right way.

A lot of the anecdotes in the book deal with exercise — a habit many people would love to have — but are equally applicable to any habit you’d like to pick up, in the kitchen or elsewhere.

An excerpt from The Power of Habit:

Anyone can use this basic formula to create habits of her or his own. Want to exercise more? Choose a cue, such as going to the gym as soon as you wake up, and a reward, such as a smoothie after each workout. Then think about that smoothie, or about the endorphin rush you’ll feel. Allow yourself to anticipate the reward. Eventually, that craving will make it easier to push through the gym doors every day.

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2. Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott

Bird by Bird is ostensibly a book about writing, but it’s so much more than that. It’s a book about being human, living life to the fullest, and not letting perfectionism or the enormity of all the things you don’t know or a fear of failure keep you from moving forward.

I take this to heart for my cooking life, too, particularly her concept on “shitty first drafts” — the idea that anything good begins with a terrible first effort. This is pretty much exactly how I came to make granola, and it’s something I try to remember whenever I’m feeling pressured to have it all together in the kitchen.

To give you an example of how I apply Anne Lamott’s words to cooking as much as I do to writing, take this passage (one of my favorites), where I’ve replaced the word “writing” with “cooking”:

Cooking has so much to give, so much to give, so many surprises. That thing you had to force yourself to do — the actual act of cooking — turns out to be the best part. It’s like discovering that while you thought you needed the tea ceremony for the caffeine, what you really needed was the tea ceremony. The act of cooking turns out to be its own reward.

And a few other passages, where I’ve subbed “cooking” or “cooks” for “writing” and “writers.” So many good things to remember.

Very few cooks really know what they are doing until they’ve done it.

Cooking is about learning to pay attention.

I don’t think you have time to waste not cooking because you are afraid you won’t be good enough at it.

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As Ariel wrote here, there are a few excellent takeaways for cooks we can glean from The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, Marie Kondo’s super-popular decluttering bible — not so much about the act of cooking, but rather about where we cook and what we cook with. Have we set up our kitchens to really suit our cooking styles? Are we overcomplicating our organizational system? Do we have too much stuff getting in the way that’s preventing us from really enjoying being in the kitchen?

If you’ve just finished the 2015 Kitchn Cure, you’re probably on top of this already. But if you’d like to learn more about how to think about your stuff — all of it, in the kitchen and around your home — in a thoughtful, considerate way, read this book.

Also, check out Ariel’s takeaways 5 Things I Learned About Tidying the Kitchen from Marie Kondo

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4. Little House on the Prairie by Laura Ingalls Wilder

When I polled The Kitchn team on non-cooking books that fed their cooking imagination, no other book (or series) was mentioned as often as the Little House on the Prairie books. For many of us, these books are the first thing that turned our attention toward cooking, preserving, and life in the kitchen.

I got so many quotes from my fellow team members, I thought I’d share a few:

My strongest memories of those books have to do with food and being in the kitchen: Ma’s perfectly molded butters, Pa building the smoke house, eating the roasted pig’s tail, and making sugar snow. I feel like those books taught me to appreciate the little details in the kitchen — not only taking a few seconds to make something pretty just because, but also to appreciate the little treats that happen like surprises — the edge of a pie crust that flaked off, the last spoonful of ice cream that won’t fit in the container, the heel of bread that no one else wants. There’s a feeling in those Laura Ingalls books that nothing is taken for granted and even the littlest things feel meaningful and precious. – Emma

The Little House books taught me to be interested in gathering and preserving food. – Marisa

[The Little House books] got me interested in cooking (I suspect the focus on food had much to do with how lean the lives were). I even tried to make “Vanity Cakes” as a child using whole-wheat flour and the unrefined sunflower oil in my mom’s hippie pantry. Needless to say, they were not light and puffy. – Tara

Oh man, Little House on the Prairie. Yes! Speaks to the efficient frontierswoman in me. – Carrie

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5. A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith

Another unlikely pick, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn — the story of a young girl growing up in early 20th century Brooklyn — has so many quiet, rich passages that reveal, with searing truth, how scarcity feeds us.

It was still early in the evening and the street lights had not yet come on. But already, the horse-radish lady was sitting in front of Hassler’s grinding away at her pungent roots. Francie held out the cup that she had brought from home. The old mother filled it halfway up for two cents. Happy that the meat business was over, Francie bought two cents worth of soup greens from the green grocer’s. She got an emasculated carrot, a droopy leaf of celery, a soft tomato and a fresh sprig of parsley. These would be boiled with the bone to make a rich soup with shreds of meat floating in it. Fat, homemade noodles would be added. This, with the seasoned marrow spread on bread, would make a good Sunday dinner.

We wrote about this book here and here, and it continues to be a favorite. As Dana wrote, “Today, when I read Francie’s Sunday menu born of poverty and deceit, I lick my lips. It is no longer strange and slightly scary but rich in flavor and authenticity. And while my life in comparison with Francie’s continues to be very different, I now find her food inspiring and delicious and immediately make plans to stop at the butchers this afternoon for a soup bone.”

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What non-cooking books have inspired or encouraged you in your cooking life?

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