Friday, February 6, 2009


I love cookbooks. I have a shelf and a half of them and always lookout for more at book sales or in charity shops. It must be an inherited trait: my mother had a good collection, and when I visited my brother in Ireland, I was thrilled to see that he shares my compulsion. “Oh yes,” he said when I mentioned it. “I love cookbooks!”

Some of the attraction must lie in the simple fact that they are books and I love books and words. My house (and my brother's) is filled with books. And some of our cookbooks are full of superlative writing. Maybe luscious illustrations were a reason that I bought some. Others found their way to my shelves because they have recipes that suit my lifestyle and the ingredients that I have available.

But I think that the main reason that I collect cookbooks is because, although food is the vehicle, the idea behind the cooking and sharing of food is that of nurturing and community, the forging of common bonds. The first cookbook that I remember impulse buying was in Waldenbooks in Kahala Mall on a visit home to Hawaii. It was Viana La Place's The Unplugged Kitchen, and the simple way that she conveyed the pleasure that her kitchen, her ingredients, and the associations that working in her kitchen wrought between her modern life in California and her mother's in Italy hooked me.

Who are my favourite authors? Well, Elizabeth David is one. No collection of cookbooks is complete without one of her volumes. She manages to embrace personal and cultural history – as well as passion for ingredients and method – in a single recipe, and reading one of her books is to acquire an education, not just in Italian Food or French Provincial Cooking but in the geography, demography, and society that produced them and the people for whom they are daily fare.

Fast forward to the present, and although I have not read nearly all the celebrity chefs' writings that are so popular today (something – fear of falling short of the mark? – keeps me from How to be a Domestic Goddess, although I really want to read it), I enjoy Jamie Oliver and Nigel Slater because they seem to truly enjoy what they're doing and are genuinely interested in conveying their experience so that other people can enjoy it, too.

Claudia Roden is one of my favourite food writers and her A New Book of Middle Eastern Fare is a volume that I have turned to at least once a week for the last ten years. When Arabesque, A taste of Morocco, Turkey, and Lebanon came out in 2005, I bought it at once. Her depth of understanding of the region and its peoples is unparalleled, and her books are full of stories whose characters come to life in a way that brings their food to life, and makes enjoying the dishes all the more intimate because, while preparing or eating them, you remember something of the other people that enjoy them.

But Elizabeth David, Jamie Oliver, and Claudia Roden are all big names. Some of my favourite cookbooks come from lesser-known names or groups of friends who put together a collection of recipes that have a particular significance for them. Gilli Davis spent time in Cyprus and grew to so love and respect Cypriot cuisine that she published The Taste of Cyprus – A Seasonal Look at Cypriot Cooking, and although for most Cypriot recipes I turn to my mother-in-law, I enjoy reading Gilli's experiences as she wanders the same paths that I do. Kopiaste: Cyprus Food, Customs, and Traditions – written by a Cypriot, Amaranth Sitas, but published in English – is full of priceless advice like: 'Incidentally, when you go and buy your olives, don't be talked into buying the large variety... What you need are the medium type of green olives, and nothing else will do. Now, take the olives one by one... No! First find a small stool to sit on – you can't possibly crush all those bending down! And take everything onto your back veranda...'

Four years ago my California brother sent me Palestinian and Jewish Recipes for Peace, a book that celebrated 'twelve years of sustained relationship-building and outreach by the Jewish-Palestinian Living Room Dialogue Group of San Mateo County, California'. The frontispiece shows a group of mostly middle-aged friends gathered in a room, above the quotation by Dr Harold Saunders, a former US Assistant Secretary of State and negotiator of the Camp David Accords: “There are some things that only governments can do, such as negotiating binding agreements. But there are some things that only citizens can do, such as changing human relationships.”

The book is about food – the kosher food of European Jews; spicy Arab dishes with a hint of the desert; Levantine food , the pittas and hoummous, tabouleh and felafel loved by both Arab and Israeli. It is also about people and community, compassion, and peace. The recipes are interwoven with stories – of celebrations and holidays and the recipes that accompany them; of families marking rites of passage; of the determination of a small group of individuals to see past stereotypes.

Take cookbooks at face value – flip through one to decide what to make for dinner, how to cope with the glut of eggplant in the garden, or to learn how to test the set of jam. But if you look a little deeper, you find a whole new world, and it's there that I like to dwell. I learn which variety of plum is the best for preserving; how, why, and by whom certain breads are prepared for Easter by Orthodox Christians; how to use every last scrap of a butchered hog; and how a long table and a commonly prepared feast can provide a foundation for understanding.

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