Cookbooks are not the first place one turns to for humor. Funny cookbooks do exist: Peg Bracken’s classic The I Hate to Cook Book (1960) is one; Amy Sedaris’ more recent — and terrific — I Like You: Hospitality Under the Influence (2006) is another. But most cookbooks assume people can’t handle too much humor with their how-to. Fair enough.
Cookbooks for rank beginners, however, make up a well-established subgenre that plays by its own set of rules. Rule #1: Keep ‘em laughing. Cookbooks for novices specialize in a very specific form of comic hyperbole, playing up the presumed ignorance of their target reader (usually a recent graduate or a bachelor) who is posited as either starving or idiotic, or both a hapless sloven who has just barely mastered the arts of chewing and swallowing. These books are easy to recognize by their titles: The Bachelor’s Guide to Ward Off Starvation, Help! My Apartment Has a Kitchen, and my personal favorite, Your Shirt Is Not an Oven Mitt! (All three, I’m proud to say, have a home in the Food Network Library.)
It’s all in good fun, and some entries in this genre are genuinely useful. But after recently looking over a few of them, I couldn’t escape the sense that they were outdated. The reason, I think, is that this hypothetical food novice, this character type, doesn’t exist anymore — or at least not in the same way. After 20 years of Food Network (our 20th anniversary!), today’s average college graduate (about 20 years old) has seen more food than a full-on gourmet of 30 or 40 years ago. Today’s novices may be inexperienced in the kitchen, but they are far from ignorant about food.
So what then to buy for today’s college graduate? What cookbooks are best suited to shepherd the transition from cafeteria to kitchen? The prevailing school of thought on this prescribes something all-encompassing, of the Joy of Cooking or How to Cook Everything variety. Both are excellent choices. But in my view, when you’re just starting out, when you find yourself responsible for your own sustenance for the very first time, you don’t need to know how to cook everything; you just need to know how to cook something. You need a teacher, not an encyclopedia.
The books I am recommending this month all share that teacherly quality. All of them (including the one from Food Network Kitchens; okay, so I’m a little biased) are authored by accomplished, experienced cooking teachers who understand beginner cooks because they’ve spent years working with them. While they are not averse to a little humor, they offer what the novice needs: empathy, wisdom, guidance.
For many, this month marks the end of a college education; but give any one of these three books to a graduating senior and their kitchen education has just begun.
How to Boil Water: Life Beyond Takeout, Food Network Kitchens (2006)
With its highly visual layout, friendly tone and cosmopolitan sensibility (migas, mojo, Thai rice noodles), How to Boil Water is the most contemporary beginner’s cookbook I know of. The book is absolutely packed with great information, yet it’s all so winningly presented — aided by clear charts, helpful photographs and playful graphics — that it never feels overwhelming. You’ll learn how to shop, store ingredients, compose a meal, pick a wine, even throw a dinner party. I include it here not out of obligation, but because I know for a fact just how smart and useful it really is. How to Boil Water nods at the cooking-for-doofuses genre only to transcend it. It’s a great place for your young scholar to start.
Get in There and Cook: A Master Class for the Starter Chef, Richard Sax (1997)
The tragically short-lived Sax was a celebrated New York City cooking teacher and a prolific author best known for his book Classic Home Desserts. Get in There and Cook, published posthumously, exemplifies the virtues of cookbooks written by cooking teachers: It’s plain these recipes have been taught many times over, such that the author is able to anticipate the questions they bring up in the minds of novice cooks. Sax sets out to “take the fear out of cooking” for the rank beginner, and he succeeds.
The book is generous with advice. The two-column layout allows Sax to maintain a running commentary alongside each recipe, providing a printed counterpart to the cooking teacher at your shoulder, and allowing Sax to keep the recipes concise while providing plenty of help. Sax also understands that every recipe is the beginning of another — that leftovers are a working kitchen’s most prized ingredient — and this is another form of generosity. The recipes themselves lean toward Italian, and though many come across as mildly dated (four-cheese pastas, primavera and whatnot), the core techniques are evergreen.
Learning to Cook with Marion Cunningham, Marion Cunningham (1999)
A book that starts off with a stuffed cherry tomato appetizer is not exactly beginning at the beginning. But when it comes to learning the standard repertoire of “classic” American cooking — meatloaf, mashed potatoes, coleslaw, biscuits and burgers — no one beats Cunningham, a lifelong cooking instructor and James Beard acolyte who gained fame for her revised edition of The Fannie Farmer Cookbook. Her food is simple and familiar — unfancy in the best sense — and her recipes are unerring.
What I love best about this book, though, is the presence of Cunningham herself — or, more specifically, the presence of her nearly 80-year-old hands. Much as our culture idealizes grandma’s cooking, elderly cooks don’t make it into pictures much. But Marion’s hands are all over this book — in dozens of wonderfully instructive close-ups. In photograph after photograph, there they are: her wrinkled, knobby, knowing hands. With these hands guiding you, you can’t go wrong.