"I've loved cookbooks forever," says Helen Rosner, Eater's Features editor. "My parents had a really amazing cookbook collection, and they'd talk about cookbook authors like Jane Brody and Sheila Lukins and Jeff Smith like they were family friends. When I was in college I started really getting into recipes, reading them for fun, and also trying to incorporate them into my academic work on computational linguistics (if you think about it, a recipe is sort of analogous to a proof or a computer program)."
After graduation, she landed a job working as the assistant to Suzanne Rafer, "the legendary director of cookbook publishing at Workman—she's the person who brought the world The Silver Palate Cookbook, Staff Meals at Chanterelle, really amazing stuff like that."
After moving up the totem pole and working as a Workman cookbook editor for a few years, Rosner hopped over to New York Magazine to blog about restaurants. Along the way, she founded Eat Me Daily with Raphael Brion. "It was a place where we could create the food writing that we wanted to be doing, but that didn't really fit into our day jobs," which included hard-hitting cookbook reviews.
"There was plenty of cookbook coverage," she notes, "but for the most part everyone writing about cookbooks was praising them, not really assessing them critically. So I started EMD's cookbook review column, and I established a style that applied really fundamental principles of cultural criticism to cookbooks: What does this book say it's trying to accomplish? What does it actually accomplish? Where does it fit into the canon of other books trying to do the same thing? Is it worth spending your hard-earned money on? I didn't feel obligated to love things: When I thought a book sucked, I didn't pull my critical punches."
After New York, she worked for several years at Saveur—where she masterminded the 1100-recipe Saveur New Classics Cookbook—before landing at Eater. "After being a cookbook editor and a cookbook reviewer, it's kind of crazy to consider that I'm now a cookbook author," she writes. "I've been on all sides of the equation."
Add to the list: cookbook collector. Before a recent move, Rosner had close to 450 cookbooks on her shelves. (After a 'tremendous purge,' she's down to 200 volumes.) So I was curious about her thoughts on what makes a great cookbook, what cookbooks she can't live without, and her favorite lesser-known cookbooks. Here's what she had to say.
What do you look for in a cookbook? The internet and its infinite depth of recipe content has, for me, really changed the value of a cookbook. I don't find myself in need of books that have sort of basic, weeknight-style recipes—I generally am not that into weeknight-cooking books by TV personalities, or general-interest cookbooks that revisit the same old versions of the pot roast, the lasagna, the chicken noodle soup, sort of standard American dinner fare—the sort of simple-dinners situation that really can more efficiently be addressed by a website or a recipe app.
"You can find pretty much any recipe online, so a book needs to give me more than just a recipe, it needs to give me context."
Instead, what I look for in a cookbook is a story, a point of view, a thread that ties all the recipes together. Often that means a sense of time or place, a coherent gastronomic philosophy. I look for cookbooks that are excited to give me a framework in which to consider their recipes, some sense of history or geography or personality or technique. It doesn't have to be high-minded or fancy, it just needs to be honest and coherent. You can find pretty much any recipe online, so a book needs to give me more than just a recipe, it needs to give me context.
Two things bug the hell out of me in a cookbook: Too-brief headnotes when there's plenty of empty space on the page, and photos that haven't been color corrected properly and look green and sickly. I'd rather have no photo at all than a bad one.
If your house was on fire, which cookbooks would you grab on your way out? My 1965 Betty Crocker Boys & Girls Cookbook, which was my mom's when she was a little girl and was the first book I ever cooked out of (canned pear bunny rabbits with cottage cheese tails!), the 1979 two-volume edition of the Gourmet Cookbook I was given as a college graduation present by a dear friend, and my signed copy of The German Cookbook by Mimi Sheraton—she's one of my heroes, and that book is an absolute classic. Everyone should own it.
I also love this random late-90s cookbook for picky eaters someone gave me as a gift years and years ago (I'm not a picky eater, I don't totally know why he gave it to me) called One Bite Won't Kill You. It's by Ann Hodgman, who is a genuinely hilarious writer—like, I snort-laugh when I read this cookbook—and the illustrations are by Roz Chast. I've used it so much that the pages are falling out.
What cookbook really taught you something new?
Fat by Jennifer McLagan should be essential reading for everyone. Reading her introductions and headnotes alone made me into a better cook, and helped me deeply understand the importance of fat in bringing out deep, rich flavors—so many of the most incredible flavors and aromas are fat-soluble, so you need to be generous with your butter or oil or lard to develop them to best effect.
What cookbooks do you turn to when planning dinner parties? I was born the year the Silver Palate Cookbook came out, and I still think of its revolutionary-for-the-1980s food (arugula! balsamic vinegar! smoked salmon!) as the epitome of dinner-party elegance.
What cookbook do you like to give as a gift? I think I've given half a dozen copies of the Frankies Spuntino Cookbook as gifts over the years—the recipes are sophisticated but really approachable, the illustrations are so fun, and the book itself, as a physical object, is just gorgeous: the heavy binding, the gold detailing. It's one of the most beautiful books there is.
Favorite baking books? Dorie Greenspan 'til I die! I'm such a reckless baker, and Dorie makes the case for slowing down, paying attention, doing things the right way. She doesn't condescend, but she also seems to see right into my impatient, know-it-all soul and anticipates my questions and my mistakes. Her latest, Baking Chez Moi, is fantastic.
I'm also so in love with all three of Matt Lewis and Renato Poliafito's Baked books—those guys are creative geniuses, and they have such an infectious sense of fun and spectacle. And Brooks Headley's Fancy Desserts is just an amazing piece of work. The recipes are brilliant, but its zine-y, retro-baroque-punk-grandma aesthetic is also just such a clever, hilarious, totally fresh way to construct a cookbook.
Favorite books for comfort food? I cannot express the depth of my love for Thomas Keller's obsessively meticulous take on comfort cooking in Ad Hoc at Home—I read his recipes to get inspired, and then I go and roll up my sleeves and actually make a slightly more manageable version of whatever recipe from some totally different book. But for me, real comfort food means simplicity—the food of my childhood, which means the food my parents came of age with in the 60s and 70s and then cooked for me in the 80s and 90s. So I make things from my old, old Betty Crocker cookbooks, or I pull out one of the volumes of the Time Life Good Cook series. If the recipe calls for a can of cream of mushroom soup, I'm probably going to love it.