Vintage Cookbooks Add Spice
Why you won't find some of the South's best recipes online: Collectibles expert Martha Whitney Butler reveals the tried and true sources - collectible cookbooks.
If you think about it, Mrs. Butler is not going to embarrass herself by submitting a dud of a recipe. The ones she submits are for the most beloved, tried and true, consistently-pleasing dishes. The (sometimes-too-honest) feedback that her friends and family have spooned out over the last forty years is folded into each culinary composition with careful consideration.
Other local cookbooks to look out for are produced by Junior Leagues and Junior Auxiliaries. Those broads over at the Junior League would wear white after Labor Day before they submitted something off the side of a box. That’s what makes these particular cookbooks so trustworthy. These gastronomic assemblages of nonpareil regional cooking represent the palate of an entire community, and they WILL NOT disappoint. If you see one, don’t hesitate to grab it. You’ll be able to identify them easily, as they’re usually the ones with ragged covers and stains from the years of reference they endured.
Living close to the gastronomical capital of the U.S., there’s no shortage of fantastic publications out there authored by our favorite Chefs de Cuisines from New Orleans. I can’t help but get tickled every time I see Justin Wilson smiling from the cover of one of his Cajun cookbooks. I’ve referenced him twice already, if you haven’t noticed.
Paul Prudhomme will take you on a glorious exploration of Cajun Cuisine (and inspire a little melancholy since he recently passed away). Frank Davis lit up a conversation that I had with my husband just last night while Emeril was staring up at us from the coffee table.
Food is important in this house, with my husband being a chef. It’s really about all he talks about - there are food sermons every night in this house, and the cookbook is his Good Book. Even though he doesn’t ever follow directions (or ask for them), he uses the books as a guide for ingredients and inspiration and often quotes his Gospel of Gumbo this time of year.
His other sacred chef's go-to is a historic French encyclopedia of food wine, and cookery called Larousse Gastronomique by Prosper Montagne - purchased in a Bay St. Louis Old Town shop. The preface written by the maitre de cuisine, Escoffier, is particularly compelling and assures us that this book is pretty much the Webster’s Dictionary of food and recipes.
Historic cookbooks like this provide a lot of insight on how and why we prepare things the way we do. A lot of gastronomes of great tend to reference their grandmother’s or mother’s cooking in regards to certain dishes. I find that I mostly cook out of nostalgia. Recreating happy memories through the food on my table is something I do every year.
I call my grandmother every year to get her grandmother’s blackberry cobbler recipe. Even though I’ve memorized it by now, I just like to call her to tell her I’m making it and that I love her. Food will make you do that.
One of my favorite cookbooks, Mandy’s, is an example of a character formed from the memories of an author’s favorite cooks growing up. These types of cookbooks not only bear the heart and soul of a chef and author, they reveal the most intimate and loving aspects of the meals.
Even if we’re away from home, we can still take those recipes with us. Minutes after I posted an Instagram photo of a book I was selling - The Junior League of New Orleans: The Plantation Cookbook - a Waveland native living in South Carolina bought it. That’s the power of good cooking. It’s something that never leaves us and sticks to our insides like a perfectly prepared dumpling. We long for it and the notion of it resides within us forever.
Be on the lookout for these gastronomic gems this season, especially if you love regional fare. They are scarce and get snatched up fairly quickly at estate sales and by eager sister-in-laws.
I once had a customer who bragged to me of her mother’s estate, “My sister-in-law got the jewelry, but I got the cookbooks and recipes.”
They’re THAT important! If you really want to stumble on a gold-mine of great recipes, shop at your local bookstores and antique stores. After all - behind every great meal is an even greater cookbook.