What is American food? It depends much on where one lives. Far from large towns and cities one will find food that derives from a very old history of Northern European cooking. It will depend on meat and wheat, dairy and fish.. There will be vegetables, but their preparations will rarely be very inspired. Near any large or medium-sized city one will find plenty of so-called ethnic restaurants - Chinese, Italian, Mexican, Thai, and so on.
There are places where American cooking means barbeque. There are places where it means steak and burgers. There are places where it means spaghetti and pizza. There are places where it means hot dogs and ice cream. The good news is that good cooks from all over the world bring the best that their cultures have to offer to our shores. And many of the good cooking sensibilities from these cultures have been absorbed into American cooking.
One of the great cookbook institutions in America, Joy of Cooking has been gracing kitchens for over three quarters of a century in one form or another. It is an ambitous cookbook, undertaking to explain food and cooking as well as to provide good recipes. It's hard to find a cookbook on the market with more recipes. The book is ironically named, for of all the popular cookbooks to be found, this has the least joy - it inspires the least. It's a substantial flaw, but not enough to avoid buying it. Virtually no other recipe book is so comprensive, including recipes ranging from common to those bordering on esoteric. It is impossible to say if all the recipes are good - there are so many of them. But a good portion of them are are quite good. No American home kitchen is complete without one. Choose one with acid free paper and a solid binding.
There are three or four cookbooks that are popular with newlyweds, Good Housekeeping, Betty Crocker, and Better Homes and Gardens. The reason for the popularity is that they cover all the bases well and they are full of lovely color photos. A trained chef, or a person who has cooked for three decades may get no value from the photos, but a young person who seeks inspiration from a cookbook as well as cooking instruction definitely gains by having a lavishly illustrated cookbook.
The All New Good Houskeeping Cookbook contains a large number of foods drawn from ethnic traditions, making it a rich source of foods that might be new to many people. Black bean soup and small empanadas are recipes culled from Latin American source. Vietnamese chicken noodle soup is another. The recipes are fairly straightforward and the directions are clear. And the paper is high-gloss and slick, easy to wipe off in the case of an occasional dusting.
Any person who wants to get a hardcover book that tells how to make every food cooked in America's heartland will find it difficult to find better than Mark Bittman's book. This is a straight ahead, no-nonsense, thorough guide to the way America has eaten for a century or two. This is both the book's strength and its weakness. It is perfect as a first book for a person cooking for themselves, or as the second or third major cookbook in a small collection. It is certainly less comprehensive than Joy of Cooking in terms of breadth of recipes. But there are a lot of cooks who could get by on this alone. Those who want to get beyond the basics, or those who would learn to cook ethnic foods may find the menu a little uninspired.
Gourmet magazine has been publishing annual volumes of their best recipes for some years, so it was just a matter of time before they would publish a cookbook. Recipes in the magazine have always take food beyond the bounds of the ordinary, so one would not expect the recipes in this cookbook to be ordinary. Nor does it disappoint. It really is chock-full of recipes for foods that one would not ordinarily think of, but which can be made with fairly common or easily available ingredients and accessible cooking tools and techniques. This will not replace Joy of Cooking or How to Cook Everything: cooks lacking adventuresome tastes and those who do not live near a very well stocked supermarket will find little here tto hold their interest. Furthermore, there is a great furor over whether one can read the yellow recipe headings. I need glasses to read novels, but have no trouble with this book. Those who wish to go beyond where they have been, this is a vital addition to the kitchen library.
Eat well and prosper.
Copyright S.R. Brubaker 2002 - 2006.