Food & Culture
Finding Comfort in Cookbooks
Two cookbook aficionados dish on their favorite books and recipes
By Stefanie Ellis December 7, 2020
Imagine a career where you got to look at beautiful photos of food all day, and spent your evenings making creative, restaurant-worthy recipes in the name of research. Lara Hamilton has that and more.
Hamilton, the owner of Book Larder in Seattle’s Fremont neighborhood (the city’s only cookbook book-store and one of few stores of its kind in the country) makes a living sharing her passion for cookbooks. Susan Roxborough, executive editor at Sasquatch Books, has had a hand in bringing to life some of our city’s most notable cookbooks, helping local chefs and authors reach national acclaim. We asked these cookbook aficionados about their magical gigs, the importance of supporting local food businesses and how cookbooks can provide some much-needed comfort in these challenging times.
Lara Hamilton: I got really into cookbooks not long after I got married. We got a copy of Deborah Madison’s ‘Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone’ as a gift, and I read it cover to cover, and cooked from it constantly. I’d always enjoyed cooking but hadn’t found my other books very inspiring. I found Deborah’s enthusiasm for seasonal, simple cooking captivating. I realized the books I had been using were really just references and didn’t have a point of view or distinctive voice. Those books are the ones I gravitate to now. When I travel, I visit markets, grocery stores and bookstores, spending most of my time in the cookbook section. I’d heard of cookbook stores in other cities, and always thought Seattle would be a great place for one since it’s such a great food city and a great book city.
Susan Roxborough: I’ve enjoyed a long career in book publishing, and have always been an enthusiastic home cook and cookbook collector. But it was while living in NYC in the early aughts that I fell in love with the idea of working on them when I had the opportunity to shadow the legendary Knopf cookbook editor, Judith Jones. Although I was already an editor, I knew nothing of the intricacies and complexities of creating cookbooks and Judith — who worked with Julia Child on Mastering the Art of French Cooking (and who also discovered Anne Frank’s diary!) — inspired and encouraged me.
What makes a good cookbook?
LH: In some cases, I think a strong sense of place is important. You can find endless recipes on the internet, so a cookbook needs to go beyond just the ingredients and method. I appreciate authors who show you how they think about cooking, with tips on flavor, ingredients, tools, methods — the things they would tell you if they were in the kitchen with you. And beautiful photography certainly helps.
SR: For me, professionally as well as personally, a good cookbook includes recipes that are well-written (and well-tested!) by someone with a distinct point of view. This could mean someone who is a restaurant chef, like Renee Erickson with A Boat, A Whale, & A Walrus or Rachel Yang with My Rice Bowl. Or someone who has a specialty, like Seattle blogger Sapana Chandra and her vegan cookbook, Plant Power Bowls, or someone passionate about a particular cuisine, like Hsiao-Ching Chou with Chinese Soul Food. I also like the storytelling in cookbooks to communicate something about the food, the place from which it originates, or something personal about the author. The very best are also visually enticing and feel good in your hands — the size and shape, the quality of the paper — making them pleasing enough to take to bed to read, which is what I often do!
Why buy local?
SR: These are fraught times for many restaurants, so obviously the most immediate way to ensure they remain open is to give them your business. Eat at their restaurants if you feel comfortable doing so — many also offer takeout options — and tip generously if you’re in a position to do so. If a food establishment also has a cookbook, purchasing it is another tangible way to show support. In addition to royalties they earn on each sale of their book, having a successful cookbook helps bring attention to a chef and restaurant at a time when it’s truly needed.
LH: From a purely transactional perspective, many authors earn royalties from their book sales. But the best thing you can do for chefs and restaurants is to purchase from them directly, dining with them or ordering take out, or buying gift certificates as gifts.
Best cookbooks for the holidays?
LH: I love Renee Erickson’s A Boat, A Whale, & A Wal-rus for entertaining. It’s such a warm collection of recipes that celebrates the Pacific Northwest and the farmers and providers she works with. It offers seasonal menus and includes holiday ideas. Plus, you get lots of gorgeous photography and stories about growing up in the area. Makini Howell’s Plum is great for vegans or anyone who just wants to eat less meat. She grew up in Tacoma, and her family are trailblazers in the natural food/seasonal eating movement. Makini makes vegan food flavorful and comforting in her book, just like she does in her restaurants. Rachel Yang’s My Rice Bowl shares her personal stories of food and cooking, both when she was growing up, and in her family life today. It’s a great mix of the recipes you’ve come to love in her restaurants and gives insight in to how she cooks at home. Finally, Tom Douglas’ book, Tom’s Big Dinners, would be great for a larger family or those entertaining in a “bubble.” These are big, generous menus. On the cover, Tom even looks like he’s leaning in to give you a hug!
SR: Cannelle et Vanille is perfect for the holidays, whether it’s to cook from when celebrating with family and friends, or to give as a gift. It’s filled with author Aran Goyoaga’s stunning photography, but also her recipes are approachable and inventive. On wintry Seattle nights, I especially love to make her buttermilk-brined roasted chicken and her roasted carrot and cashew soup. I’ve also been cooking a lot from I Heart Soul Food. Rosie Mayes is a native Seattleite with deep family roots in the South. She has a popular cooking channel — I Heart Recipes — and also offers recipes on her Facebook page, which led us to creating a cookbook with her. I think of Southern cuisine as the ultimate comfort food! My daughter and I especially love her oven-baked barbecue ribs and her chocolate cake is the best I’ve ever made.
Why does cooking bring comfort?
SR: I think many of us have been “eating our feelings” this year. I know that’s been true in my house — I can’t remember a time when I’ve made so many cakes, pies, cookies and breads. Cooking or baking can also be a good distraction because it requires focus, so it’s like a momentary respite from the world. Cooking in this time has certainly been that for me. I think, too, that when we turn to recipes we’ve made often, it surfaces memories — of easier times, perhaps — and that can be comforting. I tend to scribble notes in my cookbooks (whom I’ve made a recipe for, whether it was for an occasion or why we loved it) so there’s an intimacy to them that I find especially reassuring right now.
LH: Cooking can be a creative outlet, and it also gives us something we can control, at least a little, in these extremely uncertain times. I think that’s why baking books and bread books have sold so well. Baked goods are the ultimate comfort food, and stirring, kneading, and nurturing a starter can be meditative and such fun.
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