I frequently leaf through cookbooks and periodically pull the dusty ones. The donated leftovers are welcomed at the library or thrift outlet.
Are cookbooks out of fashion? Find a house for sale that has been staged, and cookbooks stand proudly in the kitchen. Web searches often deliver ads for ingredients, videos, and a few words about the recipe. Cookbooks, on the other hand, can serve as a reference on expert tips and techniques and connect the food to people, place, and time.
Cookbook author Carmen Delagado of Pleasanton remembers the first food-themed book given to her as a teenager by her aunt in Cordoba, Spain. “Though the book was old with traditional Spanish recipes that didn’t offer precise quantities, I cherish the traditions it teaches,” said Delgado.
When asked about cookbooks, Phil Ketchum, a busy Livermore millennial, said he owns over 25. “Cookbooks are how I learned to cook. Internet recipes aren’t always tested by a trained cook. When I relocated from San Francisco, I missed easy access to diverse cuisines and learned to make sushi from my first cookbook.”
My mother gave me my first cookbook when I got married and moved to London. The New York Times Cookbook edited by Craig Clairborne was a not-so-subtle hint to come back to the states. I had never tasted chicken chasseur with chicken, mushrooms and wine, a hearty hunter’s dish, until I read the book. The recipe remains made an all-time favorite.
Despite the continual weeding, I maintain a healthy crop of cookbooks. As a food writer, I’ve interviewed and met celebrity cookbook authors from Anthony Bourdain and Jacques Pépin to Julia Child. One of my prized cookbooks is Child’s Mastering the Art of French cooking which she signed at her 90th birthday party in San Francisco.
Marlena Spieler, author or contributor to 70 cookbooks, died this summer. Born in Sacramento, Spieler was a perpetual traveler with dual home bases in England and San Francisco. When I journeyed with her and other writers to Campania, Italy, her favored destination, Spieler was already a renowned author and Roving Feast columnist in the San Francisco Chronicle. Her last book, A Taste of Naples: Neapolitan Culture, Cuisine and Cooking, exemplifies her broad cookbook lens,
I found her enthusiasm about the world of food contagious. Her mission was simple—help people find pleasure and health in eating good food—which is the message many cookbook authors convey.
The subtitle of Delgado’s first book, Traditional Rustic Food (2021) is “easy and simple recipes for a healthy, happy and balanced life.” Delgado moved from Spain to Boston, then launched a food company in Australia. After relocating with her family to Pleasanton, her interest in healthy cooking accelerated. She wrote her book with the many recipes developed as a cooking teacher and caterer at Carmen’s Organic Kitchen.
Judy Wheeler, owner of Towne Center Books in Pleasanton, said she read through cookbooks like novels and added, “Foodies buy books for themselves, but gifting cookbooks is popular.” Wheeler holds periodic events with celebrities and local cookbook authors such as Delgado and Livermore based Michelle Smith, whose latest book, The Whole Smiths Real Food Every Day (2020), and blog focus on healthy, weekday recipes.
Towne Center Books stocks a broad, international selection of cookbooks and East Bay authors such as Tanya Holland, Samin Nosrat, and Faith Kramer. Chefs Kevin Gin at Bridges in Danville and Francis X. Hogan at Sabio’s in Pleasanton are featured in East Bay Cooks by renowned Bay Area food writer Carolyn Jung.
Rakestraw Books in Danville also serves up a large cookbook section. Owner Michael Barnard noted that cookbook sales are seasonal. “In the fourth quarter, cookbooks sell for the holidays and in the spring, it’s Mother’s Day then Father’s Day.” Barnard also emphasized that evolving food trends bring new titles to the shop. “Books on vegetable-forward cooking are popular. There are fewer diet books and fewer appliance books such as air fryers.”
Barnard has hosted events with famous authors such as Alice Waters of Chez Panisse fame and local authors such as Alamo-based Danielle Walker, a New York Times bestselling author. Walker specializes in gluten free and grain-free cooking. Her latest book is Healthy in a Hurry (2020).
New books are always on the horizon, added Barnard. “I look for more cookbooks emphasizing sustainability that include recipes and techniques for using, say, all the chicken parts or broccoli stalks.”
The latter example brought author Spieler to mind. She often featured simple ingredients in her books such as Grilled Cheese. I recall her joy in finding caciocavallo cheese hanging at a roadside stand in Campania.
As a reader of mysteries, I await my latest cookbook, Recipes for Murder: 66 Recipes that Celebrate the Mysteries of Agatha Christie. A Jolly Roger Cocktail and Little Castle Pudding appear benign, at least on the surface.
Editor's note: "Tri-Valley Foodist" is a new blog for Embarcadero Media by Pleasanton-based culinary writer Deborah Grossman.