Y'all know The Homesick Texan. You love her blog, her pinto bean and Frito salad, her gooey, cheesy braised beef enchiladas, and her easy, delicious buttermilk bacon-fat flour tortillas. Lisa Fain just knows how to do comfort food right.
So I wasn't surprised that she has a cookbook collection about 250 volumes strong, heavy on the church compilations, the community cookbooks, and old classics. Which books does she recommend you add to your shelves? Read on to find out.
What do you look for in a cookbook? I like stories that give the collection a sense of place and help me understand why the dishes are important to the author. I also look for recipes that are either completely new to me or take a fresh approach to something familiar. Clear and clean design is also beneficial, and while I appreciate good photography, it's not the most important thing, as I grew up cooking with books that didn't have photos.
When you were growing up, what were your family's favorite cookbooks? I was a 1970s kid, so Diet for a Small Planet and The Vegetarian Epicure were big hits in my house. Helen Corbitt's books were popular with my family and my grandma likes to tell the story about how Corbitt once catered a cousin's wedding. We also used a lot of community, church, and Junior League cookbooks, with The Star of Texas Cookbook by the Junior League of Houston and Wild About Texas by the Cypress-Woodlands Junior Forum being particular favorites. And even though we're Episcopalian, my mom adored The Complete American-Jewish Cookbook, as it had a ton of solid recipes for every situation.
What was the first cookbook you really loved? The first cookbook I ever bought for myself was The New Basics Cookbook. It came out when I was in college in the late 1980s, and my housemates and I had a blast cooking from it. We felt very fancy making things such as Eggs Benedict with orange hollandaise and pesto pizza. It was a window into how I thought people in New York City lived, something that was very exotic to me from my perch in a small Texas town.
What lesser-known cookbook authors do you think deserve more love? Mary Faulk Koock's The Texas Cookbook is a heck of a lot of fun. She was an Austin-based restaurateur and caterer who was very charming, and this book is a chronicle of her travels around Texas and the meals she ate with her friends, such as Lady Bird Johnson. The book was written in the late 1960s, and it's a delightful snapshot of how Texans ate at that time.
Your favorite recently released cookbooks? Well, I probably don't own as many newly released books as I should, since most of my cookbook-shopping energy is spent looking for old, out-of-print Texas cookbooks. As for older books that are still in print, I love The Border Cookbook by Cheryl and Bill Jamison, as it's a great portrait of the Southwest and all my favorite flavors. Robb Walsh's books take up a lot of real estate on my shelves, with The Tex-Mex Cookbook being my favorite as it provides not only a history of the cuisine but also has excellent recipes that remind me of home. Diana Kennedy's Cuisines of Mexico was one of my first cookbooks, and I still refer to it for ideas and techniques. Edna Lewis's The Taste of Country Cooking is another one I look at often, as the writing is just so poetic and honest. The Flavor Bible by Karen Page and Andrew Dornenberg also gets a lot of use, as its lists of ingredients that go well together are an inspiration when I'm cooking or developing recipes.
That said, glancing at my bookshelves I do see two recent titles I've enjoyed reading, even though I haven't cooked from them yet. One is the Roberta's Cookbook. Roberta's is one of my favorite restaurants in New York City, and I took my dad there when he was visiting last fall. He's a pretty button-down, conservative guy, but he loved its freewheeling atmosphere and excellent salads and pizzas. Because he had so much fun, I decided to give him a copy of their cookbook for Christmas. While he was unwrapping it, he started to laugh. I wondered what was so funny until I opened a package from him and he'd given me the Roberta's cookbook, too. That worked out well since neither one of us had bought the book for ourselves just yet.
In the Charcuterie by Taylor Boetticher and Toponia Miller, proprietors of Napa Valley's Fatted Calf, has also been on my mind over the past few months. I've been eager to make Texas-style kielbasa and since Taylor is a Texan, it appears that his gorgeous book will be a good guide.
Do you think cookbooks as a form are here to stay? What about food blogs? Yes, I think cookbooks are here to stay. It's a very useful tool to have in the kitchen as I'd much rather spill flour and liquids on a book rather than my computer or tablet. Plus, as an object, they can be beautiful and it's satisfying turning the pages of a well-produced, gorgeous book. There's a connection you can get with paper that you can't get from an electronic device. But I also think food blogs are here to stay. People love sharing recipes and blogs are a terrific means of doing this.
That said, I do lament the decline of handwritten recipe cards. One of my greatest treasures is my great-grandmother's collection of recipes, and the ones that are scribbled on scraps of paper—bank deposit slips or insurance company letterhead—just conjure up so many stories.