Cookbooks: Passing the Grandma Test


Illustration by L. Nichols

My grandmother was born in a little village in Uganda when it was still British East Africa. As a girl she helped my great-grandmother cook traditional Gujurati Indian dishes, and as a young wife in Kenya, she replicated those dishes for her husband (who liked to cook as well but was busy founding the Kenyan ice cream company Dairyland). As they traveled my granny developed a taste for other things, returning home with a heart-shaped waffle machine, a ceramic fondue set, black lacquered chopsticks. Her culinary repertoire, along with the rest of Nairobi's middle class, was expanding.

At one dinner party, my gran served an enormous Floating Island in a cut crystal bowl, the poached egg whites striped with caramel. But she had infused the custard with saffron and cardamom instead of vanilla and topped the confection with pistachios rather than almonds. After nightcaps, friends wobbled home with her recipe and handed it to their cooks. It became a kind of summer smash.

I asked my grandma for a few of my favorite recipes once, including her Floating Island, a couple of African curries she made particularly well, and a pea-filled pastry. "Why not a whole book?," was her ambitious reply. Together we imagined a gigantic collection of traditional East African Asian foods divided into chapters that would include road trip tiffins, tea time snacks, cocktail parties, dinners, early breakfasts, and brunches. But we never started the project. That was nine years ago. Last week she called to ask if there was a dot in the middle of my email address and if I still wanted those recipes. She was having trouble getting started, she said.

Each book has the culinary force of a thousand grannies.

Her timing was good. I was working my way through three gigantic cookbooks. Granny books, I'd started calling them. Not because they are written by grannies (they're not) but because they are practical volumes of traditional recipes. Each book began as a collection of recipes from home cooks all over its country of origin (France, Italy and Greece), edited by equally practical cooks and cookbook authors. As a result, each book has the culinary force of a thousand grannies. Hoping to inspire her, I told my gran all about the cookbooks. And she responded.

I Know How to Cook (Phaidon, $45)
Je Sais Cuisiner was the French home cook's introduction to cooking, entertaining, and running an efficient home in 1932. It has been updated several times since then. This new English translation is just as charming (butter curls!) and no-nonsense as the one I used in the 1990s to make chocolate mousse. It's also much, much more attractive these days. The book is bound with a bright pink cover and peppered with colorful illustrations, its cuteness tempered by its crystal clear recipes. As Julia Moskin pointed out Mathiot's Boeuf Bourgignon recipe has fewer steps and fewer ingredients than Julia Child's more famous recipe because it was geared for home cooks. Mathiot's cassoulet recipe is fuss-free too, allowed a half page of instructions just like the other recipes. There are no special tips or tricks, and zero romanticizing. This cookbook is not so much a lesson in classic French cuisine as it is in smart, sensible cooking. It's no surprise to learn that Ginette Mathiot was the Home Ec teacher of Home Ec teachers and oversaw the curriculum at La Sorbonne. The new edition, adjusted and updated by a team including food blogger and cookbook author Clotilde Dusoulier, is worth its weight in truffles.

Granny says: "For a newly married girl it's good to have all the instructions in one book. Or for the boy. Boys also like to cook these days. Look at your brother."

La Cucina: The Regional Cooking of Italy (Rizzoli, $45)
La Cucina was compiled by a group of Italians at The Italian Academy of Cuisine, a Milanese educational program that collected recipes from all over the country for about 50 years and first published the collection in 2001. This English translation has a remarkable quantity of recipes: 2,000. But chapters, which one would assume from the title to be organized by region, are divided by type of dish. And the soup category, for example, while unbelievably thorough, navigates like a foreign motorway map. The word choice to "safeguard" Italian cuisine stood out in the introduction and I found the Academia's mission--a moral obligation to preserve food and defend the civilization of the table--a bit severe. It suggests a culinary xenophobia--would the Academia declare my gran a culinary terrorist for throwing in fried parsley and green chillies at the end of what she calls Italian tomato sauce? Well, yes actually, because they are the official guardians of Italian culinary heritage and that is their job. But the Academia's collection, dry as it is, lands us with some lovely things like cauliflower jam, quite a few goat dishes, and an endless number of things to do with beans.

Grannny says: "I love Italian food. I love the small roasted aubergine with tomato sauce. Really, I love Italy."

Vefa's Kitchen (Phaidon, $45)
Vefa Alexiadou is a cookbook author and cooking show host with the enticing, glamorous air of a Romance novelist perpetually reclining on her divan with a glass of port. She also has a degree in chemistry. Alexiadou is a kind of national treasure in Greece, famous for documenting, updating, and popularizing the country's cuisine outside of Greece. She ran a contest on her 20-year-long running cooking show asking people across the country to send in their home recipes. The winners were published in her magazine and like this, Alexiadou collected thousands of recipes from women all over the country. This book is essentially a comprehensive collection of Greek grandmothers' recipes and Alexiadou's own; it's gorgeous. Cookbooks from far away places sometimes choose to take on the challenge of representing the mother country to their foreign audience and Vefa isn't just an introduction to Greek cuisine, it's an introduction to Greece--its regions, its religious calendar, its history, its people. While the writing occasionally teeters on ministry-of-tourism style, the book is full of heart, an endearingly enormous amount of national pride, and tons of traditional recipes, familiar and esoteric. It would have been nice to have more writing from Alexiadou herself, but like the other two fat cookbooks, this is an old-fashioned educational recipe book and not a food memoir.

Granny says: "That's good. You have to ask the old people for recipes before it's too late. You have to write down what we say."