Eat This List: My 8 most stained and damaged cookbooks
January 10th, 2013
10:30 AM ET
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This is the fourth installment of "Eat This List" - a regularly recurring list of things chefs, farmers, writers and other food experts think you ought to know about.

Nice, neat things make me nervous. I'm almost relieved the first time a pristine pair of shoes gets a scuff or there's a ding on the bumper of a new car. I'm no longer responsible for maintaining this object in a perfect state, and somehow through the rupture of it, it's finally marked as mine.

Cookbooks definitely fall into that category for me. The more one speaks to me, the more I'll crack it open, weight it down to splay the relevant pages, and muck up the pages in the frenzy of cooking from it. My most beloved are my most battle-scarred.

That's why it was almost physically painful to come home from a brief trip to New Orleans and find the core of my collection soaking and stinking in the corner of my living room. A pipe had burst and belched filthy water onto the majority of my electronics, my extensive collection of Edward Gorey books and the core of my cookbook collection.

I fanned the least sodden ones over radiators and oven racks, allowed myself a few shuddering sobs upon seeing the extent of the damage, and then remembered to feel very, very grateful that the rest of my house was still intact. Blessedly, renters insurance will cover restocking of some of the essentials and I'll just have to endeavor to mess them up again, one recipe at a time.

These are the most stained, shredded, dough-crusted, oil-soaked cookbooks in my collection (before the flood), and a little bit about how they got that way.

1. The Lee Bros. Southern Cookbook: Stories And Recipes For Southerners And Would-Be Southerners - Matt Lee and Ted Lee
– Damage: pickle brine, ham fat and corncob wine stains

There is no abuse I haven't heaped upon this compendium of Southern recipes, mostly because there aren't any that I haven't tried. With the Lee Bros.' guidance (I'm one of those "would-bes," but a very enthusiastic pupil) I've pickled peaches, watermelon rind and corn, rolled endless biscuits, braised acres of collard greens, soaked and baked half a dozen hams and fermented the smelly hell out of corncobs to make a wine that tastes like a honky-tonk Riesling. There's not a bad recipe in the bunch.

The book (pictured atop the pile above) was one of the first gifts my husband ever gave me, and one of the most extensively damaged in the flooding. The authors, who are now friends of mine, saw a picture I tweeted and surprised me with a brand new copy to mess up again. Now that's Southern hospitality.

2. Molto Italiano: 327 Simple Italian Recipes to Cook at Home - Mario Batali
– Damage: tomato sauce stains, including dried-on seeds

I'm half-Italian by heritage, but grew up eating boxed pasta, bottled sauce and cheese from a cardboard shaker. Mario Batali's restaurants - Babbo, Otto, Lupa and Esca - were a revelation to me when I made the move to New York City in the '90s. This cookbook - a gift from my niece and nephew - empowered me to attempt to embrace my culinary heritage at home by making fresh pasta, antipasti, meats, fish and sauces. I got my hands dirty making gnocchi, bruschetta and sauce, and the pages got caught in the crossfire. (It's at the top of the replacement list.)

3. Cocktail: The Drinks Bible for the 21st Century - Paul Harrington and Laura Moorhead
– Damage: binding destroyed, pages free-floating

I wrote about this a while back in a post sharing the five cookbooks that changed the way I think about food and drinks. It's only gotten more decrepit on the outside, since then, but its contents remain essential.

As I said then, I didn't drink much in college and grad school. It wasn't a matter of morality or self-restraint - just that I was intensely focused on other things, and if I was going to dive into the world of drink, I wanted to do it right. In the late '90s, Wired Magazine's now-defunct drink-centric website became a semi-obsession for me, because they CARED. Oh, did they give a hang about the geeky details - ice cube size, glass shapes, shaking strategies and historical accuracy. I'll drink to that. Frequently, in fact.

Way back when, the notion of wi-fi and web-enabled smart phones seemed like the stuff of science fiction, so I bought the associated book. I make, if I may say so, a thoroughly splendid Sidecar, Jack Rose, Do Be Careful, Pegu Club or whatever classic cocktails might wet my guests' whistles. It's all because of this book, and that's evidenced in the fact that I've had to tape and re-tape the pages in the proper order and crack apart pages glued together by spilled simple syrup. I'd go ahead and replace the darn thing if used copies didn't start at around $75 - or $150 if you'd like one untouched by any other mixologist's paws.

4. Salt to Taste: The Keys to Confident, Delicious Cooking - Marco Canora
– Damage: olive oil so seeped in, the pages are translucent

Chef Canora is at the helm of Hearth restaurant (my favorite in all of New York City) and his soulful, seasonally-attuned, "cucina povera" style of cooking draws the most possible flavor out of humble ingredients. His easy-to-follow techniques have become part of my everyday arsenal, and if there's one thing this book has taught me, it's that patience, salt, herbs and olive oil can transform just about any ingredient in your refrigerator into a satisfying meal. And did I mention the olive oil? If you buy this book, invest in a gallon jug. You'll need it.

5. The New Complete Book of Breads - Bernard Clayton
– Damage: lots and lots and lots of caked-on flour and dough, ripped pages

Anything I know about dough, I owe to the late Bernard Clayton. When I bought this book in the late '90s in an attempt to tantalize a new boyfriend with the scent of fresh baguettes and sourdough wafting from my kitchen, it was the best thing since unsliced bread. While the relationship was only ever half-baked, Clayton's foolproof approach to quick, yeast and traditional loaves made this book a keeper. In particular, I've referred to the braided bread recipes - especially the silken, saffron-kissed challah - so many times, and been so enthusiastic with my kneading (it's a tremendous stress reliever), that I somehow managed to tear those pages out completely.

6. Staff Meals from Chanterelle - David Waltuck and Melicia Phillips
– Damage: bacon fat and chocolate stains

The cookbook from the sadly departed Chanterelle restaurant is tucked away neatly with my pristine copies of similar cerebral feasts like the French Laundry, Alinea, Michel Bras and Ferran Adria tomes. They're stunning, inspirational and unfathomably far above my cooking level. They feed my eyes and brain, but rarely my mouth.

Staff Meals is the polar opposite of that. A key point of a restaurant "family meal" is that it feeds and fuels a crowd cheaply, so I grab it from from the shelf knowing I'll likely have a good deal of the ingredients in stock, be able to execute and have enough leftovers to feed an army. The brownies, in particular, are a prime example of an easily accessible recipe, with a little bit of chef magic (in this case, black pepper) thrown in to elevate it. There's also bacon in (and on) just about everything.

7. Charleston Receipts - The Junior League of Charleston
– Damage: Otranto Club Punch stains

Perhaps there are people who can manage to make punch neatly. Bless their hearts. Without even sampling as I'm going, it's impossible for me to craft a high-proof punch like this, in the vast quantities that I tend to (for parties - not just personal consumption) without sloshing a little out on the counter. I consider it a gift to the party gods - if those gods happen to have names like Mrs. C. C. Calhoun and Mrs. Thomas A. Huguenin and possess a fondness for scuppernong grapes, apricot brandy and turtle meat.

8. Pie - Angela Boggiano
– Damage: caked-on lard, butter and flour

You can't craft a proper British meat pie without getting a little bit of lard on everything. I grew up reading British kid lit with endless references to sturdy, soul-warming meat pies bringing joy to orphans and ragamuffins. There was no way I wasn't going to try for myself when Angela Boggiano's book showed up on my desk. I've crafted her pork jelly-laden Melton Mowbray pie and rich, raisin-studded, sugar-crusted Eccles cakes, and spent a shocking quantity of free time and psychic energy on mastering her puff pastry technique (to little avail).

None of it's been pretty. Much of it has been delicious. All of it has been smeared across every surface in my kitchen - including this book.

- Now it's your turn. Talk about and show off your greasiest, grittiest, most sauce-splattered and gravy-flecked cookbooks in the comments below or on iReport and we'll share our favorites in an upcoming feature.

Previously - Eat This List: 7 deadly restaurant sins that keep customers from coming back

Follow Kat Kinsman on Twitter @kittenwithawhip

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    April 24, 2013 at 1:04 pm |
  4. Deborah

    Like some of the other Canadians who have posted their faves, one of mine is the Five Roses Flour cookbook. Everyone's Mom and Grandmother had one! Great recipes that always worked beautifully!
    Of course, being a foodie and working in the culinary industry, I have amassed quite a collection of cookbooks over the years. One of mMy all time faves are any of the "Food That Really Schmecks" books by the famed author Edna Staebler. She was a noted Canadian writer and she loved to write about food and the people who prepared it. Every recipe had a little paragraph about who she got the recipe from, reminiscings from her childhood, notes about the recipe, what she suggested to add or change it. Lovely, folksey, just like you were sitting in her kitchen having a cup of tea with her.
    One out of print cookbook of note is a 1974 Blanche Pownall Garretts' Canadian Country Preserves and Wines. This is an absolutely amazing book for anyone who loves to make jams, jellies and preserves. Hard to find but worth every penny!
    Also love the Moosewood cookbooks, Laurel's Kitchen, Gourmet and Good Housekeeping.

    January 26, 2013 at 2:05 am |
  5. Miriam

    Almost 30 years ago, my mother gave me her mother's copy of the Women's Home Companion cookbook. This edition has an added page about altering recipes to account for rationed ingredients, since it was published during WWII. The spine on my copy is held together with duct tape, I've used it so much. But it has all the basics of cooking how-to's in it. One of the most special cookbooks I have is the cookie cookbook my mom put together before she passed away. She used to bake approx. 15 varieties of cookies each Christmas and we would box them up to use as gifts. The recipes include little stories or comments from Mom, making it all the more special. My other favorite go-to cookbooks are the ones put out by church women's societies – all those recipes are potluck-tested – and a little Bisquick recipe booklet Mom got me over 25 years ago. It's falling apart & I have to keep the pages in a ziploc bag, but it has a lot of my favorite quick & easy recipes that don't appear in any of the more recent Bisquick cookbook editions.

    January 15, 2013 at 3:41 pm |
  6. Jo-Nathan

    Since college, Putting on the Grits, compiled by the Cola, SC's Junior League, has been a favorite. Check it out!

    January 15, 2013 at 3:12 pm |
  7. Alice Rocks

    This past Christmas my 86 yr. old mother gave each of her five grandsons a cookbook. Each cookbook contained handwritten recipes of hers, that were their favorites. She included little notes with each recipe, such as " this is the corn pudding recipe you love at Thanksgiving" or " this is your great grandmother's potato salad recipe" Im sure they will treasure these cookbooks forever. I wish her mother had done the same for me.

    January 15, 2013 at 2:26 pm |
  8. Spenser Amadeus

    "The New York Times Cookbook" and "Everybody Eats Well in Belgium" because my husband used to live there. There really is "Belgian" cooking–sorta French, with a twist. There's a receipe in there for Tomato Soup that is to die for. It's been a Christmas Dinner tradition in our house for years.

    January 15, 2013 at 12:13 pm |
  9. Tom Weiland

    James Beard's American Cookbook. Everyone should own this one.

    January 15, 2013 at 10:09 am |
  10. Gimcy

    My original Joy of Cooking (1950s) had a stovetop burner burn through the cover when my Mom left it on the stove at the wrong time. I had newer editions but that one had recipes that were not included in the later ones. So I bought the original one Mom had on ebay and now have several editions of my kitchen 'Bible".

    January 15, 2013 at 9:12 am |
  11. Meli

    My Betty Crocker cookbook has been through the ringer. The pancake/French toast page is nearly see-through with oil and has ripped completely out of the rings. The cover is cracked and badly stained. Someone suggested that I replace it with a new copy and I nearly laughed myself sick. Give up one of my kitchen standbys? Never! And my Nigella Express has a few stains on several of the pages from splashed sauces, but otherwise, my cookbooks are in pretty good shape. I tend to keep the books on one side of the kitchen and read off the recipe as the boyfriend cooks :-)

    January 14, 2013 at 7:29 pm |
  12. ™©JbJiNg!eŚ®™

    My new favorite cook book is Fifty Shades of might get some drool on it though. ~_~

    January 14, 2013 at 6:35 pm |
  13. Clown

    I don't have a cook book, I just eat at the Y every other day.

    January 14, 2013 at 6:31 pm |
  14. Yakman2 my favorite!!!!

    January 14, 2013 at 11:31 am |
  15. Writer Eva

    My first was The American Woman's Cook Book. It provided me my happiest cooking memory when my husband said my Ham & Scalloped Potatoes was better than his mother's. The many cookbooks I eventually collected included The Anywhere Anytime Barbeque Cookbook, bought in a batch of 6 for $1.00. Its recipe for Korean Barbequed Beef (Bul-Ko-Gi) is a family favorite.

    I used the computer to compile a cookbook of many favorites and called it My Memories Are Made Like This. It is a memoir as well, telling family and personal stories about each recipe. I printed the book, placing the pages in plastic sheet protectors, and put it into binders to give as gifts to family members. Hint: sheet protectors keep the pages clean – just wipe with a damp cloth!

    January 13, 2013 at 1:11 pm |
  16. zaglossus

    Joy of Cooking and the one put out by Gourmet Magazine. But nowadays, it's mostly recipes from the internet.

    January 13, 2013 at 9:25 am |
  17. cookiemonstersmom

    I have the Joy of Cooking, three Betty Crocker cookbooks from different eras, and Southern Living, among many others, but my all time favorite is the Family Circle Encyclopedia of Cooking, published back in 1991. It's about 3 inches thick, weighs about 5 pounds and its binding is cracked and pages loose and dirty from so much use. Simple, delicious food that my husband loves. His favorite dish from that book is Chicken Ragout with Peas and Mushrooms. Wonderful on a cold winter day.

    January 13, 2013 at 2:06 am |
  18. katief

    1975 Better Homes and Gardens "Heritage Cook Book" "The exciting story of food in America...from favorites" Contains the perfect apple pie recipe ever on page 375. Makes me think about our ancestors, what traditions they brought to America, and how they managed to incorporate the 'new world' ingredients as a matter of downright survival. It also documents the changes in recipes since 1950 and how Americans viewed and used food processing more and more of it. It is very interesting and educational, and very, very dirty.

    January 12, 2013 at 7:48 pm |
  19. TobyK

    My copy of "From Julia Child's Kitchen" is splattered and is being held together at the spine with strapping tape. The other book, "The French Chef Cookbook" was so bad I finally broke down and got a new copy.

    January 12, 2013 at 6:06 pm |
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