My Dirty Little Secret: Reading Cookbooks

Does anyone else read what I’ll call literary cookbooks? You know, cookbooks that combine recipes, poetry and storytelling? If not, I have two I can recommend, If I can Cook/You Know God Can by Ntozake Shange and Vertamae Cooks in The Americas’ Kitchen by Vertamae Grosvenor. Both books have great recipes but they also have stories, poems, folklore, family photos, and anecdotes. The recipes are just part of the narrative tapestry. In fact the narratives in Ntozake’s book are so good that you can sit down and read that and save the recipes for when you’re ready to cook.

Ntozake tells the reader in the introduction that “These perusals of history, literature, vernacular, culture, and philosophy, ‘long with absolutely fabulous receipts (Charlestonian for recipes), are meant to open our hearts and minds to what it means for black folks in the Western Hemisphere to be full.” She then begins the first chapter telling the story of how she was determined one New Year's Eve to cook a traditional, down home meal for her daughter, Savannah:

“Back we went into a small market, sawdust on the floor, and a zillion island accents pushing my requests up toward the ceiling. “A pound and a half of pig tails,” I say. Savannah murmured “pig tails” like I’d said Darth Vader was her biological father.

Nevertheless, I left outta there with my pig’s tails, my sweet potatoes, collards, cornmeal, rice and peas, a coconut, habanera peppers, olive oil, smoked turkey wings, okra, tomatoes, corn on the cob, and some day-old bread. We stopped briefly at a liquor store for some bourbon or brandy, I don’t remember which. All this so a five-year-old colored child, whose mother was obsessed with the cohesion of her childhood, could pass this on to a little girl, who was falling asleep at the dill pickle barrel….”

Ntozake ends the chapter with recipes for Pig’s Tails, Hoppin’ John (Black-eyed Peas and Rice), Collared Greens, and French-fried Chitlins.

As I said, Vertamae’s book has similar content to Ntozake's but the recipes are front and center in Vertamae’s book. She places the cultural narrative in footnotes like this one following a recipe for Philly Pepperpot Soup:

“During the Revolutionary War, when General George Washington’s troops were encamped at Valley Forge, it was bitter cold and the soldiers were hungry. The general implored the nameless cook, who was said to be a West Indian, to feed his men if he could. The cook’s stocks included only tripe and peppercorns but he nevertheless rose to the challenge. His peppery broth with chewy tripe not only fed the hungry fighters, but, some believed, also made them victorious.”

Because I love these books so much, I was thrilled to hear Bryant Terry,the author of Vegan Soul Kitchen on NPR yesterday. His book, contains recipes, poetry, photos, film recommendations, songs. I plan to get it.

A Google search of “literary cookbooks” pulled up several cookbooks that have been inspired by novels or children’s books. For example, a Winnie The Pooh Cookbook or Ann of Green Gables cookbook. There was also "The Literary Gourmet: Menus from Masterpieces" and "Book Lover’s Cookbook: Recipes Inspired by Celebrated Works of Literature and the Passages That Feature Them". These selections seem a little different than what I’m talking about. But on Alibris, a search of “literary cookbooks” did pull up these titles that I will check out:

Seasoned with Words: A Cookbook; Stories, Memoirs & Poems about Food

Plots and Pans: Recipes and Antidotes from the Mystery Writers of America

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