July 29th, 2010
03:30 PM ET
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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
Knopf (1981)
When Dorothy cracked open the door of her tornado-tossed Kansas farmhouse and stepped from staid black and white into lilting, lively, color-popped Oz, it must have something akin to how I felt when my Dad suddenly started cooking from this book.

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
Book Sales (1982)
If Madhur Jaffrey was a portal to Oz, this book was my Narnia, opening up a door to the traditional cuisine of my very own state - and beyond. Even though we'd lived in Kentucky since I was two years old, I'd never known of this "mutton" stuff the folks further downstate were so wacky about. And burgoo? What kid wouldn't fall in love with a word like that? Too bad the recipe made enough for 30 people. I'd have to wait until my 30s, when I had my own kitchen and a patient spouse with whom to swap shifts during the 24-hour cook-down, but each Derby Day, he and I band together and feed friends from a double (!) batch.

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
Viking Adult (1998)
I didn't drink much in college and grad school. It wasn't a matter of morality or self-restraint - just that I was intensely focused on other things, and if I was going to dive into the world of drink, I wanted to do it right. In the late '90s, Wired Magazine's now-defunct drink-centric website Cocktailtime.com became a semi-obsession for me, because they CARED. Oh, did they give a hang about the geeky details - ice cube size, glass shapes, shaking strategies - and historical accuracy. I'll drink to that. Frequently, in fact.

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
Workman (1998)
The book itself is an excellent primer for anyone who wishes to immerse themselves in the world of at-home barbecuing, but one recipe - Elizabeth Karmel's North Carolina Pulled Pork Shoulder - made me the hickory scented, slow-smoking, hardwood lump charcoal addict I am today.

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
Kyle Cathie (2005)
I've got a can-do attitude when it comes to trying new things in the kitchen, and this guide to traditional methods of food preservation is chock a block with them. As much as I dig the ritual, and in fact take a week long "preservation vacation" in upstate New York each year, there are only so many jellies, jams and pickles that my loved ones and I can stomach in a year.

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.

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Filed under: Books • Booze Books • Cookbook Reviews • Cookbooks • List • Sip • Think

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soundoff (18 Responses)
  1. Nikki

    In junior high school, my school library had the Time-Life Foods of the World series. I read the majority of them one by one, and tried out some of the recipes in them... Sachertorte, puff pastry, a true Hungarian goulash, pastrama, mint julep, key lime pie, Greek and Italian specialties... the number of recipes I learned and experimented with from those books are endless. I finally started collecting my own set – and though I'm still missing some, the ones I have are dog-eared to death. lol

    February 6, 2011 at 3:26 am |
  2. muckraker

    "Betty Crocker's New Boys and Girls Cookbook" changed my life. This was my very first cookbook growing up in the 1970s. I picked up a copy at a library book sale a few years ago (bright yellow cover and wire binding still intact), and the recipes are altogether unpalatable to my refined grown-up self. (Bunny Salad with pears, cottage cheese and red hots, for example.) But just looking at it makes me think of my excitement of poring over the pages as a kid and making a recipe of my very own. Those experiences no doubt shaped my love of cooking that came later. Reading a recipe online is just not the same.

    September 11, 2010 at 4:40 pm |
  3. Karen

    I'm looking for the title/author of a cookbook I owned decades ago for which I do not remember the title or the author. Doncha love it? It changed the way I approached cooking for my family which I would like to pass along to my daughters.
    After trying a couple of "advanced searches" I've not been able to come up with anything and hope someone recalls this book and might be able to help. The unique thing about it was the concept of building an entire meal around a favorite ingredient, even if it was contained in a side dish. It was geared toward the home cook concerned with pleasing varied tastes in the family. The author's first name seems like Michelle. I can say for sure that it was published before 1995, maybe as early as 1980. I would appreciate any help you can provide in the way of suggestions for tracking it down.

    September 11, 2010 at 3:31 pm |
    • Kat Kinsman

      I put a Twitter query out for you. Fingers crossed!


      September 11, 2010 at 4:07 pm |
  4. kathleen

    A Table in the Tarn, Orlando Murrin – This book takes me away (the south of France) everytime I look at it. The story, pictures and the recipes!! An amazing journey. Should be required reading for every foodie.

    August 8, 2010 at 8:41 am |
  5. Jerome

    The bread baker's apprentice – Reinhart
    Charcuterie – Polcyn&Ruhlman

    August 8, 2010 at 7:41 am |
  6. Mac

    something i stumbled upon recently.

    They offer a "recipe of the week", by email, for brain healthy recipes. I think they are on 7 or 8, all appear to be really good. I especially liked the Banana Oatmeal Cookes and Superfood Fudge Pops...clearly a sweet tooth.

    Hope people enjoy!

    August 4, 2010 at 8:27 pm |
  7. Erin

    The Silver Palate Cookbook(s) – all of them, but the first one woke me up to creating fantastic food at home. I still get requests for the carrot cake and chocolate decadence cake, 30 years later.
    The Broccoli Forest – great vegetarian cooking that I used for side dish and soup inspirations even though I am not a veg. It beat the heck out of the bland canned veggies I grew up with...

    August 4, 2010 at 7:20 am |
  8. Another Tasty Morsel

    Its nice to see the enjoyment of great food flood the pallete with flavor. On a recent fishing trip the exquisite flame-cooked meal made of bass and trout caught at a nearby reservoir proffered us with Good times & great times.

    July 31, 2010 at 3:57 am |
  9. Kevin

    'Grand Dictionnaire de Cuisine' by Alexandre Dumas (Author of "The Three Musketeers", "The Man in the Iron Mask", "The Count of Monte Cristo", etc)- The best cookbook ever written. Period.
    I learned French just so I could read this cookbook... (Until this past year, nobody had ever translated the entire thing into English- just selected bits and excerpts)

    July 30, 2010 at 3:58 pm |
  10. Charlotte

    Fannie Farmer – any version
    Southern Living Ultimate Cookbook
    River Road – Louisana community cookbook

    July 30, 2010 at 3:50 pm |
  11. robnut

    Laurel's Kitchen in 1976 motivated me to become a vegetarian and a nutritionist

    July 30, 2010 at 3:31 am |
  12. Sam Meyer

    -Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking by Marcella Hazan;
    -my circa-1960 Better Homes & Gardens "New Cook Book";
    -The Joy of Mixology by Gary Regan. One of the best cocktail books out there, and he goes into more of the structure of drinks than most others;
    -The Best Recipe by Christopher Kimball and the editors of Cook's Illustrated. Love their trial-and-error, analytical approach.

    July 29, 2010 at 7:33 pm |
  13. cookanddishwasher.blogspot.com

    – Quick Vegetarian Pleasures, by Jeanne Lemlin. When I need anything in a pinch, I always turn to this...everything is quick, easy, and incredibly flavorful. It hasn't let me down yet! My mother had a copy, and so many of the recipes are nostalgic for me, but never seem outdated.
    – Modern Spice by Monica Bhide. This is a new one, but I've loved everything I've made from it. Everything seems both homey and hip. And is also light and delicious.
    - The All New Good Housekeeping Cookbook. A general cookbook with lots of instructional pictures. Which I need, by the way.
    - Cook's Illustrated, The Best New Recipes. Answers most of my questions, and solves most problems.

    July 29, 2010 at 6:32 pm |
  14. Cas

    -Savory Baking by Mary Cech. Because sometimes scones should have a kick and bread pudding should have bacon.
    -The Cake Bible by Rose Levy Beranbaum. Frostings and fillings.
    -The Joy of Cooking, once I take time to add all the notes from my mom's copy to my own.

    July 29, 2010 at 4:21 pm |
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