The Best Cookbooks Are Just Plain Good Reads

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The cookbooks that most move me — move me to cook and move me in the classic sense — are those that tell a story along with the recipe (and every recipe has a story).

I like cookbooks to be dirty (er, with use). I like cookbooks to have a personality, a personality that comes across in the prose as well as in the resulting finished product. Moreover, I just like a good read.

None of the cookbooks below completely fills my hunger for the perfect cookbook, but there's a certain loving straightforwardness in the overlap of each of these light-yet-big-hearted cookbooks that all food writing should aim for. (Note: Being that it's my first love, most if not all of these are Southern-based tomes. It's always said we produce some great literary writers down here, and our cookbook authors often seem to be cut from the same cloth.)

Shuck Beans, Stack Cakes, and Honest Fried Chicken: The Heart and Soul of Southern Country Kitchens by sometime Nashville resident Ronni Lundy: if for no other reason than we come from a similar music/food background and share a distaste for the flowery. Plus, she rarely fails me: I've used more of these recipes than most in any other cookbook I own.

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Seasoned in the South: Recipes from Crook's Corner and Home by Bill Smith: if for no other reason than this knowing line, by way of describing the influences of Crook's Vietnamese and Latino workers on his cuisine: "You can wash dishes in any language." And for meaning that in a way that is the opposite of offensive, and furthermore for being honest about it. To boot, the food at this quirky little Chapel Hill, N.C., joint (as originally prepared by the late Bill Neal) helped jumpstart the whole modern Southern food movement (such as it is).

A Gracious Plenty: Recipes and Recollections from the American South by John T. Edge: Great prosody, and a great chance to own, via one book, all the best recipes from every Junior League cookbook ever written. (Earlier this week Edge, director of the Southern Foodways Alliance, won a James Beard Foundation Award for a piece on Southern barbecue he wrote in Saveur.)

The Black Family Reunion Cookbook: Recipes and Food Memories by the National Council of Negro Women: Top-notch Southern vittles no matter your race, as the great majority of so-called Southern cooking has African-American origins. Plus, what other cookbook has five, count 'em five, recipes for pig's feet?

Smokehouse Ham, Spoon Bread, and Scuppernong Wine by Joseph E. Dabney: because it looks unflinchingly (and, moreover, interestingly) at the processes and copious dualities that go into the food we've grown up on and often still eat — truths that some folks would rather remain oblivious to. Which is too bad.

The Foxfire Book of Appalachian Cookery edited by Linda Garland Page and Eliot Wigginton: a time-traveling compendium of oddball — at least oddball these days — eats and drinks like sassafras tea, fried quail and lime pickles. Added points for keeping alive the arts of preserving foods, dressing wild game and cooking over an open fire.

Mama Dip's Family Cookbook by Mildred Council: Don't buy Council's handsome cookbook looking for precise-to-a-grain-of-salt instruction on how to re-create her famed Southern delicacies. The owner of Chapel Hill's Mama Dip's hasn't use for such truck. A lifelong proponent of "dump cooking" — a method wherein no recipes or measurements are used, in favor of cooking "by taste and hand" — Council will tell you right up front: The real secret to good cooking is great ingredients, preferably bought nearby at a farmers' market, farm or roadside stand.

Mind you, these are but a few of the books I return to time and time again — sometimes for the recipes, but more often than not for the stories they tell. A good cookbook might well be termed a book of short stories.

Along those lines, I'm excited to pick up James and Kay Salter's Life Is Meals, which I'd somehow missed entirely until a friend mentioned it a couple weeks ago. Fans of modern literature know Jim Salter has for years been one of the best writers we have going. The very fact that such a modern master (you can throw noted gourmet Jim Harrison's The Raw and the Cooked in here too) would devote so much of whatever time he has left to a book about food shows you the power food has to tell us stories about where we're from, where we're at and, if we're lucky, where we might go in the future.

So, dear readers, what are your favorite cookbooks not just to cook from, but to read, or perhaps quote? Drop us a line in the comments.

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