I don't have family recipes - at least on my side of the marriage. More on that at another time, but most of my culinary heritage is stitched together from books that somehow made their way onto my shelves and into my psyche.
Here are a few that changed the way I eat, drink and think, forever.
1. Madhur Jaffrey's World-of-the-East Vegetarian Cooking – Madhur Jaffrey
While my Mother, a grudging, by-the-numbers cook who specialized in grey meat and jarred sauces, was off running Sunday School, my Dad started to experiment. Suddenly, our suburban Kentucky kitchen was thick with the scent of toasting cumin, stewing currants and heady curries that were the most exotic thing my young olfactory glands had ever taken in. The flavors were even more intoxicating and I knew I needed more of this - a world beyond tuna casserole and cube steak - in my life.
2. The Fifty States Cookbook – Culinary Arts Institute
And that's just the stuff from the Bluegrass State. Recipes for exotica like jambalaya, clam chowder and honest-to-goodness cowboy chili sparked in me a passion for regional cuisine that to this day, has me screeching to a halt on Southern backroads and Western mountain passes in search of the flavors of someone else's home.
3. Cocktail: The Drinks Bible for the 21st Century – Paul Harrington and Laura Moorhead
Way back when, the notion of wi-fi and web-enabled smart phones seemed like the stuff of science fiction, so I bought the associated book. I make, if I may say so, a thoroughly splendid Sidecar, Jack Rose, Do Be Careful, Pegu Club or whatever classic cocktails might wet my guests' whistles. It's all because of this book.
4. The Barbecue! Bible – Steven Raichlen
After New York City, where I've lived since the mid '90s, went through a radical barbecue renaissance a few years back, it seemed as if you couldn't walk a block without sniffing the exhaust from a smoker vent routed outside into an alleyway. I am in no way saying this was a bad thing at all - just that it was a bit of a wicked taunt, because I had barbecue scent on the brain at all times (and in my hair and my clothes), but didn't always want to go out to a restaurant to get it.
Then I came across Elizabeth's recipe. It was straightforward and simple and inspired me to buy an inexpensive barrel smoker, which has become my preferred method for cooking anything and everything - from salads and cocktails to entrees, sides and desserts. I'd ditch my oven for a smoker if temperatures in the Northeast weren't so punishing in the wintertime. Everything I needed to know about spice rubs, offset fires, the use of chips, and the sweet, sweet art of food smoking was all in that recipe and lucky me - I even got a friend out of the deal. I put out on Twitter that I was interested in smoking a cow's head, and who should answer, but Elizabeth, herself. Since then, we've cooked a heck of a lot of cow and pig together, low, slow and always delicious.
I can't swear that the same thing will happen for you, but pick a cookbook and reach out to the author. You never know.
5. Preserved – Nick Sandler and Johnny Acton
The British duo's irreverent, un-precious guide got me pressure canning cow's tongue and Malaysian lunchmeat (much to my husband's chagrin), processing lurid, gold piccalilli and booze-bombing innocent clementines. Next up, I'm stringing fish under the stairs (again with my husband's chagrin) and am culling supplies for a cold smoker.
Any book that gets anyone off the couch and running pell-mell to the nearest hardware store is A-OK with me.
Your turn - what are the books that cooked your particular goose and why? Tell us in the comments below and we'll share in an upcoming feature.