Skip to main content

What makes a great cookbook? A generous serving of storytelling, personality and philosophy

In Jane Grigson’s Fruit Book, first published in 1982, the doyenne of English cookery writers begins an entry on strawberry desserts with an extended image quoting from Grimms’ fairy tales. It winds and segues into relating the story of her own experience finding a thatch of strawberries to pick before eventually – five pages later – getting to the actual strawberry recipes.

Recipes are instructions. But just as food is never simply something to eat, good cookbooks are never just books. They’re memoirs, they’re madeleines. In food writing, this is chiefly thanks to the headnote – that sometimes short or more often, as in Grigson’s case, protracted, introductory blurb that appears above the recipe.

If the headnote doesn’t start with “Set your oven to…,” one particularly impatient commenter recently wrote beneath a food blog post, “I’m done.” To him and his ilk, I urge the internet’s bottomless search engine to cough up something suitably terse and devoid of narrative. But personally, I’d no sooner skip a headnote than I’d buy a cookbook written by the unknowable creator of the cookie recipe on the back of the Chipits bag. Whatever its length, the ideal headnote is what differentiates food writing from recipe development, because it establishes a sense of person and place with every word.

Story continues below advertisement

Bestselling celebrity chefs come and go, as do books on techniques that eventually get mastered. The cookbooks that outlive them, reliably survive bookshelf spring-cleanings and entice readers into the kitchen to cook are those that pair good recipes with storytelling, personality and maybe a little philosophy, through headnotes.

The cooks at Food52, the wildly popular New York-based food site, consider a great headnote to have four hallmarks that are equal parts practical and entertaining: recipe variations and any warnings, but also humour and storytelling. They’re designed to lure readers into the kitchen, yet even when they’re pithy, good headnotes also reveal personality. “Leftover grits solidify in the pot as they cool,” writes Todd Richards in his new autobiographical cookbook Soul, before his recipe for grits, “and usually get discarded as a round sphere of misfortune.” Some deceptively succinct entries nevertheless contain novels – as when in Nigella Bites, from 2001, Nigella Lawson writes that a Chocolate Fudge Cake recipe is the right thing to make when one’s been chucked: “Serves 10. Or 1 with a broken heart.”

As U.S. food writer Tamar Adler reminds us – in a headnote! – in her new book Something Old, Something New (Scribner, 272 pages, $36), even the thorough and briskly efficient Irma S. Rombauer classic Joy of Cooking has its moments; the 1943 edition – a steadying brick adapted to wartime rationing – saw fit to quietly empathize with home cooks and remark, “A turnip is not necessarily a depressant.”

“Cookbooks always told stories – even when they didn’t think they were,” Halifax writer and editor Valerie Mansour says. “And today it’s even more because people want the story. Readers want to know the recipe story and what your connection is and why.” For her recent cookbook Nova Scotia Cookery, Then and Now (Nimbus, 200 pages, $27.95), Mansour spent time in the What’s Cooking living-history project of the Nova Scotia Archives, where the adapted recipes date back to the Halifax Gazette of 1765, and include a cross-section of material from wartime newspaper-supplement recipes and community cookbooks.

Even a cursory scan of the digitized collection shows that many shared recipes were already imparting more than the ingredients and mechanics early on, offering bits of whimsy and entertainment. Like a vintage 19th-century Church of England Institute “receipt book” in the collection archives. “In the beginning, they have a poem,” Mansour says of the verses that set the tone and serve as headnote. Similar treatment is found in the 1912 LaHave Cook Book of St. John’s Church in Bridgewater, N.S., with puns and self-deprecating, ironic sing-song rhymes about domestic drudgery. “There was always something beyond just the cooking element,” she adds.

If tips on sourdough starter are what you’re after, there are lengthy analyses and posts on any number of internet platforms and feeds. The April release Cake (Penguin, 96 pages, $34), on the other hand, pairs Barbara Scott-Goodman recipes with illustrations by Maira Kalman. The first cake is chocolate, eaten while pressed onto the cool stone tiles of a Tel Aviv apartment terrace as relief from hot summer. You could easily find similar recipes for the lemon cake, carrot cake with cream-cheese frosting and 15 others featured through an Instagram hashtag – but not the moments they bring to life and assemble with text and vivid art. Taken as a whole they shape a larger, memorable story.

That’s why the just-published How to Eat a Peach (Octopus Books, 224 pages, $38.99) is British food writer Diana Henry’s best cookbook yet, because she groups stellar recipes into two-dozen menus organized thematically, and shares personal essays on memories of place and meals – zucchini fritters, for example, are part of a menu that was an excuse for a dessert of the first apricot tart that ushers in summer. The whole book becomes a shared experience. Even the novelty cover invokes the senses through tactile experience: It’s bound in a fuzzy flocked paper inspired by the same memory of moscato-infused sliced peaches that gives the cookbook its name.

Story continues below advertisement

In his 2014 study The Proust Effect, Cretien van Campen explores the neuropsychology of the memory of the senses, and in search of what makes Proust’s madeleine so vivid he considers what American memory researcher John LeDoux traces into two different emotional memory systems: the explicit and implicit. If you transpose the logic to food writing, the food itself (taste) is implicit but descriptions of the food are explicit, and can capture the imagination and spark memory.

These connections between food as an expression of personal history are so powerful that they became the method former Food & Wine editor Emily Thielin used to finish writing the biography of Paula Wolfert. Pioneering food writer Wolfert was the creator of Columbia House’s short-lived mail-order subscription “party boxes” of 1970, which contained thematic recipes and their harder-to-find ingredients (the progenitor of today’s meal-kit delivery services). What the immersive and adventurous cookery writer is best known for today, however, is for her cookbooks popularizing the traditional food and cooking of the Mediterranean (beginning with Morocco – she’s the reason couscous arrived in North America).

Standing in the kitchen cooking with Wolfert, making and tasting a lifetime’s worth of iconic recipes, helped to trigger the anecdotes of her life, and those triggers were needed because in 2013, Wolfert was diagnosed with dementia. Thielin thought taste could help elicit the inextricably intertwined memories and she was right about the reverse-engineering: The result is the 2017 cookbook-memoir Unforgettable, where recipes literally preserved autobiography that was otherwise irretrievable.

Laurie Colwin, who died in 1992, was a spiritual descendant of Jane Grigson and added wit to that personal and pragmatic approach to recipes and ingredients. She has also become a cult figure admired by a legion of readers, who return to her conspiratorial comfort-food prose again and again.

Colwin’s irresistible, autobiographical Home Cooking turns 30 this year. “Unlike some people, who love to go out,” she begins. “I love to stay home.” Her headnotes become personal essays, and darkly humorous exhortations on how to cook and eat (and therefore live) well. Both her recipes and reasons for basic dishes such as potato salad, fried chicken and dressed salad are seasoned encouragingly with Colwin’s wry humour.

Her food writing is some of the best out there,” observes fellow food writer Kate Young. “She writes about what we have on a table and what brings us around a table better than almost anyone else.”

Story continues below advertisement

Colwin was also a fiction writer and that work, too, is laden with food descriptions and eating scenes; she understood how they could paint images, set plots in motion and express the essence of a character. Whether it’s fiction or non, that technique inspired this current generation of food writers (“She is a goddess and I adore her,” is how Young, for example, declares her Colwin allegiance) and their headnotes. As the indomitable food writer Betty Fussell, 90, who was recently inducted into the James Beard Foundation Cookbook Hall of Fame, once put it: “Eating, it could be said, is our way of tasting images, as talking is our way of tasting words.”

Before Young and I got to talking about favourites such as Henry, Nigel Slater and Olia Hercules, I’d rung up the Australian-born writer at her home in England’s Cotswolds with a specific query: If we cherish favourite cookbooks as though they were beloved novels, why is the inverse also often true? I’d be hard-pressed to remember the names of the characters or their defining physical characteristics in Ian McEwan’s Enduring Love, for example, but I can tell you exactly what they had laid out on their picnic beneath the oak tree.

For Young, the passages from fictional books foremost in her memory are also food-related, as she’s chronicled for several years on her literary food blog the Little Library Café – a collection of which has just been published in a sumptuous volume called The Little Library Cookbook (Sterling Epicure, 320 pages, $33.95). Young creates recipes based on meals described in classic and contemporary children’s and adult novels, from Roald Dahl and J.K. Rowling to Banana Yoshimoto and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.

“I think that food and books are both really strongly rooted in emotion,” Young says. “Definitely in my life but I think in a lot of people’s lives. We tell a lot from stories and we glean a lot about characters from the food they eat, I think it tells us a lot about somebody – what they sit down and eat and with whom. Whether they cook, whether somebody else cooks for them.”

We talk about the Proustian madeleine effect and its primal, still-mysterious connection to emotional memory. “It’s more primal than visual things. It’s a visceral thing,” Young agrees. “There is that instant connection back – taste does that. And reading about taste does that. The idea of being transported back to childhood or elsewhere.” (Young’s Honey and Rosemary Cakes inspired by Winnie-the-Pooh are a good example.) “That’s why I don’t really trust novels that don’t talk about what we eat,” she adds with a laugh.

And why I don’t trust recipes that don’t talk about who we are.

Report an error Editorial code of conduct
Comments

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff. Non-subscribers can read and sort comments but will not be able to engage with them in any way. Click here to subscribe.

If you would like to write a letter to the editor, please forward it to letters@globeandmail.com. Readers can also interact with The Globe on Facebook and Twitter .

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff. Non-subscribers can read and sort comments but will not be able to engage with them in any way. Click here to subscribe.

If you would like to write a letter to the editor, please forward it to letters@globeandmail.com. Readers can also interact with The Globe on Facebook and Twitter .

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff.

We aim to create a safe and valuable space for discussion and debate. That means:

  • Treat others as you wish to be treated
  • Criticize ideas, not people
  • Stay on topic
  • Avoid the use of toxic and offensive language
  • Flag bad behaviour

Comments that violate our community guidelines will be removed.

If your comment doesn't appear immediately it has been sent to a member of our moderation team for review

Read our community guidelines here

Discussion loading…

Due to technical reasons, we have temporarily removed commenting from our articles. We hope to have this fixed soon. Thank you for your patience. If you are looking to give feedback on our new site, please send it along to feedback@globeandmail.com. If you want to write a letter to the editor, please forward to letters@globeandmail.com.