Travel the world from your cookbook shelf
March 22nd, 2013
11:00 AM ET
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T+L contributing editors Matt Lee and Ted Lee’s latest cookbook, "The Lee Bros. Charleston Kitchen" (Clarkson Potter), is in bookstores now. Follow them on Twitter @TheLeeBros.

When we were 11 and 13 years old, our parents dressed us in neckties and blazers and marched us to a French restaurant in our hometown, Charleston, South Carolina. We sulked through dinner until dessert arrived: crème caramel. And in that instant of magical custard, its essence of burnt marshmallow skin made silken-smooth (and grown-up-approved), everything changed. We’d never been to France, but we knew this crème caramel was a journey unto itself, to another place.

Walking home, we conspired to re-create this trip ourselves. We waited until a day when our parents were out of the house, took down Mom’s dusty, stained "Joy of Cooking" from the cabinet above the telephone table in the kitchen, and went to work.

We followed the instructions to the letter: making the amber-colored caramel on the stovetop; dividing it among the ramekins and swirling till it coated the bottoms; pouring in the custard and baking the cups in a pan half-filled with water. When inverted, the little custards came out perfect - caramel syrup flowing over the browned-on-top pucks - just like the ones we’d tasted in the restaurant. We had been to France and back in a kitchen on East Bay Street, and it was irresistibly delicious.

After that first transporting experience, we fell prey to the charms of the cookbook - an obsession, really, that continues to this day. Our shelves now groan with titles such as "Exotic Ethiopian Cooking", "Hawaiian and Pacific Foods", and "Loving Breton Cuisine". Each book is a snapshot of a far-flung voyage we took, providing a direct line to a moment in our travels: scooping up berbere-spiced lentils with spongy injera bread in Addis Ababa, sampling tart pickled mango from a roadside stand on Oahu, tasting beurre aux algues (seaweed butter) for the first time in St. Malo.

Granted, the old tomes rarely give us a precise roadmap to the main dish we’re going to put on the table tonight, simply because the ingredients, the methods, and the “cook till done” sketchiness of the instructions don’t fly in today’s kitchens. But loosened from their instructional component, they offer an evocative window into a time and a place.

An exceptional cookbook should make you yearn for a destination so much, you want not only to step into the kitchen - and, through the sorcery of heat and ingredients, take a trip - but also to set off on that next adventure in search of foreign flavors in their original context.

These days when we travel, we scour used-book stores and oddball junk-tique shops - look for a large earthenware pickle crock being used as a doorstop - that typically have a forgotten shelf of cookbooks somewhere in the back. Old kitchen volumes have become even more than inspiration or armchair-traveler’s amusement. With their period illustrations, graphic design, and photography, these books, to us, are also objets d’art.

The best among the newest breed of cookbooks are bound to have the same timelessness as these classics - yes, even in the iPad age, when any recipe is available with the tap of a screen. These modern culinary guides are putting as much emphasis on experiencing the place as on the recipes themselves.

Take Israeli-born chef Yotam Ottolenghi’s "Jerusalem", with its pastiche of images welcoming you right into the fabric of the city’s street life: men enjoying a hookah in the afternoon shade; savory glazed ka’ach bilmalch biscuits you could almost pluck off the page. Or Naomi Duguid’s "Burma: Rivers of Flavor", peppered with images of rice paddies and early-morning market scenes, and Fabrizia Lanza’s Coming Home to Sicily, which brings to mind the beauty of growing up among the grapevines and gardens of Regaleali.

A journey for the reader is exactly what we aimed to create when we went to research our newest cookbook, "The Lee Bros. Charleston Kitchen." Here was a place we thought we knew well. But as we immersed ourselves more deeply than we ever had before in our collection of Lowcountry cookbooks of the 19th and 20th centuries, we ended up doing a bit of time travel in our own hometown.

There were ingredients we’d never encountered before: roasted tanya, anyone? Our reappraisal of these old volumes yielded recipes that had all but disappeared from Charleston’s tables - the English dessert syllabub, for instance, which every pre-1950 Charleston cookbook worth its salt included - and that we thought were worth bringing back. So many of the recipes we created for this book, we realized, could be tied to specific restaurants and residences. That’s why we decided to include a walking tour that would allow travelers an entrée into Charleston.

Paging through these regional period pieces, we’re amazed at how readily the rhythms of the food culture, and the argot, become apparent. You can bet that when we do, finally, book our first trip to Israel, Burma, or southern Italy, we’ll be traveling with one of these cookbooks tucked in our carry-on.

Top three cookbooks of all time? Go! We'd love to hear about them in the comments below.

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Eat This List: My 8 most stained and damaged cookbooks
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Regional flavors may be a click away

soundoff (57 Responses)
  1. Amy Reeder

    Time-Life "Foods of the World" series. I have read all of them from beginning to end back when I started receiving them in 1968. They provided guides to each country and American sector and fabulous recipes.

    March 26, 2013 at 9:13 am |
  2. Pat

    Betty Crocker's Food Men Like Best

    March 25, 2013 at 5:57 pm |
  3. Leila

    Sinfully Delicious Snacks, Nibbles, Noshes and Other Delights by Rose Naftalin

    March 25, 2013 at 4:36 pm |
  4. AmyM

    My grandmother's Meta Givens cookbook, in 2 volumes. I rely on other cookbooks more, but this post WWII book is where I go for forgotten pies and the best scalloped potato recipe ever. I also have newer edition (1950's), and the differences between the two really show how much American kitchens changed in less than 10 years.

    March 25, 2013 at 4:05 pm |
  5. MsMinKC

    Jeff Smith's The Frugal Gourmet and Mr. Food. Gotta love ol' school cooking.

    March 25, 2013 at 3:54 pm |
  6. Lana M.

    My favorite cookbook is one I put together myself, using our own favorite recipes, and recipes passed down through our families.

    March 25, 2013 at 3:53 pm |
  7. cbleigh

    An old cookbook with everything 1940s: The Culinary Arts Institute Encyclopedic Cookbook (Ruth Berolzheimer). I don't know how Mom came by her copy, but as a child I would sit and read it endlessly. I finally found a less tattered copy in a used bookstore. It is the perfect tome for cooks who like to make everything from scratch.

    March 25, 2013 at 2:35 pm |
  8. taco bender

    The anarchist cookbook is by far the best. It will literally destroy anyone who tries to oppose it.

    March 25, 2013 at 2:02 pm |
  9. Brenda K

    The regional cookbooks from church, women, family

    The regional cookbooks printed by various organizations -churchs, women's clubs, families, chamber of commerce,etc. – are my favorite! They are a fantastic resource for comfort foods for which you can always find the ingredients but often have amazing surprises such as the bride from China who submited four traditional dishes from her region with great explainations for American cooks and the heritage recipes for strudel and lefsa.

    March 25, 2013 at 1:45 pm |
  10. Robert

    "River Road and Talk About Good II" culinary tours of Acadiana, Louisiana.

    March 25, 2013 at 1:05 pm |
  11. Matt

    I'm more of a baker than a chef, so my top two would both be by Rose Levy Beranbaum, her Cake Bible and her Pie and Pastry Bible. Great information on recipes, theory, and ingredient/equipment resources. My third is kind of cheating since it is not a single book, but any of my Cook's Illustrated editions (I have every year from 1993 – 2012). I love the scientific way they dissect and explain the recipes to me so I understand why I am doing what I am doing.

    March 25, 2013 at 12:15 pm |
  12. EJVB

    Any and ALL of the SAVEUR cookbooks go right to the top of my list. The recipes are timeless.

    March 25, 2013 at 12:03 pm |
  13. Linda Luttrell

    While I have cookbooks for many different cultures, my all-time favorite is "Spoonbread & Strawberry Wine" by Norma Jean and Carole Darden. Not only does the book contain delicious down-home recipes, it has family photos and anecdotes as well. Such a wonderful book, it is truly timeless!

    March 25, 2013 at 11:03 am |
  14. russm

    the first cookbook i ever bought was by jac pepin

    March 25, 2013 at 10:47 am |
  15. elbob248

    La Bouche Creole, hands down.

    March 25, 2013 at 8:07 am |
  16. Daniela

    Anything from the American Heart Association -I know it sounds crazy but any recipe I have tried out of any of their cookbooks is absolutely fabulous.

    March 24, 2013 at 2:13 pm |
  17. buongiorno

    we are our own best cooks So when i need a recipie i just use a little bit of imagination and it all comes together

    March 24, 2013 at 2:06 pm |
  18. Nick

    America's Test Kitchen cookbook. No other one comes close.

    March 24, 2013 at 1:30 pm |
    • Rhonda


      March 24, 2013 at 2:31 pm |
    • Guest

      I believe its called "The Science of Good Cooking". Very good book, not just a cookbook. Will teach you enough that you can invent your own recipes and figure out how to fix some others.

      March 25, 2013 at 11:06 am |
    • Heather G

      Love the ATK cookbooks/show. I just bought Comfort Food Makeovers and I want to try every single recipe in it. That is saying a lot...I have been reading and collecting cookbooks since I was a child and rarely find one that I want to cook more than a handful of recipes from. The cooks at ATK give good straightforward and practical advice for any home cook, from novice to experienced.

      March 25, 2013 at 2:26 pm |
  19. ninelivesisa

    I have hundreds of cookbooks, but I have to put the Fannie Farmer Cookbook near the top. It's the one I use when I want good basic cooking instruction. Though I must admit I now go to my computer most of the time for instruction and recipes these days.

    March 24, 2013 at 1:27 pm |
  20. Nick Chicago

    The Epicurean by Charles Ranhofer a complete treatise of the culinary art,including a selection of interesting Bills of Fare of Delmonico`s 1862 to 1894,at which Mr Ranhofer was the Chef for that time period.This ten pound book is amazing.

    March 24, 2013 at 10:10 am |
    • T K

      LaRousse Gastronomique, English edition, 1988

      March 24, 2013 at 1:24 pm |
  21. runymede

    ' The Art of Preparing Reptiles for Dinner ' is my favorite, I live in the southwest.

    March 24, 2013 at 10:01 am |
  22. molly mac

    The best cookbook ever written for the novice (or not so novice) cook is The Good Housekeeping Cookbook. It has info on cuts of meat, how to buy fresh vegetables, measures, what pans and utensils you need for yout kithen.

    And did I mention the recipes?

    They have all of your basics from meatloaf to quick breads to salad dressings to chocolate cake. It gives you step by step direction and color pictures of what the finished dish should look like. It also gives you the basics and even gives you variations so you can use the same recipe to make blueberry and peach muffins.

    March 24, 2013 at 3:19 am |
  23. The_Mick

    For as complete as you can get from most types of cooking to how to correctly place knives, forks, and spoons on the table, I don't think you can beat "The Joy of Cooking." But out of the 20 cookbooks I have from Chinese to Mediterranean Diet to Italian, etc., the book I skim through most often to find interesting recipes is my fellow Baltimorean Johns Shields' "Coastal Cooking" from the PBS show of the same name. He owns "Gertrude's Restaurant" in Baltimore. His "Chesapeake Bay Cooking" is also worthwhile, though with much less variety, and only Coastal Cooking contains Shirley Phillips' REAL recipe for crabcakes. If you've ever eaten in a Phillips' Restaurant in Maryland you know what crabcakes are supposed to taste like. If you've ever bought Phillips brand frozen crabcakes at Costco, etc. you've had awful crabcakes that in no way resemble what's served in their restaurants nor the best in Maryland crabcakes (though there are over 100 recipes). The recipe in Coastal Cooking is the EXCELLENT one: one bite and you know the recipe came from Maryland, not from some seafood factory's lab.

    March 24, 2013 at 2:38 am |
  24. C Guest

    More For Less is my favorite cookbook, Simply in Season is my newest and my most treasured is my 1889 Hood's home cookbook written in a narrative style vs the ingredient/step style..

    March 23, 2013 at 7:43 pm |
  25. GiGi Eats Celebrities

    I could travel to EVERY SINGLE country in the world with the amount of cookbooks my father has on his shelves! I love it though... Because in the upcoming generations I feel like people are going to forget what cookbooks are and rely on their ipads. Soon enough, we will no longer need bookshelves.

    March 23, 2013 at 7:02 pm |
  26. jcainlas

    My all time favorite is Great Dinners from Life (magazine). Each dinner has an appetizer, a main course, and a dessert. All the recipes are simple and delicious. There are no "add two teaspoons of hunters sauce..." followed by "see page 438" where the recipe for the sauce takes five hours to prepare. Simplicity and ease of preparation make this book a gem for planning a special meal.

    March 23, 2013 at 6:17 pm |
  27. Kevin

    In order, my top three are
    1) "Le grand dictionnaire de cuisine" (1873) by Alexandre Dumas (the same fellow who wrote "The Three Musketeers", "The Man in the Iron Mask" and the "The Count of Monte Cristo")... this is the granddaddy of them all, and includes recipes for everything from Absinthe to Zebra.
    2) "The Gold Cookbook" (1947) by Louis P. DeGouy ... this has the best recipes I've ever found- bar none. Every single recipe in this book is amazing. I cannot possibly praise it enough.
    3) "The Joy of Cooking" (1931) by Irma S. Rombauer.... I personally think that every person should have a copy of this cookbook. It covers practically everything, and while I can't say that any of the recipes are "amazing", there are consistently "good", and written in a simple enough format that even a idiotic thumb-fingered eighteen year old boy learning to cook for himself for the first time can follow them with success (speaking from personal experience!)

    March 23, 2013 at 5:33 pm |
  28. Hoffpauir

    The Joy of Cooking and the even older The Boston Cookbook!

    March 23, 2013 at 4:16 pm |
  29. Sabato

    The Cook's Illustrated Cookbook; Julia Child's "The Way to Cook" ; Michael Chiarello's Bittega.

    March 23, 2013 at 1:22 pm |
    • Sabato

      Sorry Chef Chiarello, it's Bottega !!!

      March 23, 2013 at 1:23 pm |
  30. Patti A

    My mother's old Joy of Cooking that still has the recipe for Chicken Divan in it, unlike newer editions; mom's old Women's Day Encyclopedia of Cookery that I read like a novel, my Time-Life Foods of the World (including USA Regions) and Good Cook series' and my complete collection of Cooks Illustrated Annual editions (WITH the new complete index published every year to make life easy). My two go-to oddball/eyebrow-raiser favorites are Unmentionable Cuisine by CW Schwabe and Herter's Bull Cook and Historical Recipes and Practices, volume 1; both are full of really cool stuff, some of which should probably be taken with a grain of salt, but still great fun to read for inspiration.

    March 23, 2013 at 11:26 am |
    • Katie

      Yes, why is it new editions of a cookbook remove some of the best recipes?? I have an old Betty Crocker that is literally falling apart but the new edition I received as a Christmas present is missing my most used recipes so I have both on the shelf.

      March 23, 2013 at 3:58 pm |
  31. Brenda

    Only three? The Joy of Cooking and Better Homes & Gardens tie for a great basic staple cookbook, but I doubt I would want to be without either. The Time/Life series The Good Cook is amazing on technique, but it vies for a place in my heart with the Women's Day Encyclopedia of Cookery series because of sheer nostalgia. My favorite though has to be Mary and Vincent Price's A Treasury of Great Recipes. A trip around the globe in one volume.

    March 23, 2013 at 10:08 am |
  32. eileen mazvas

    i love my cookbooks! i must have close to 300 – in the beginning i did more cooking than now – but i still buy them and read them – they are 89% regional – alot of jr league and the ones different organizations put out – you learn so much about the area – old ones and new ones, i can't believe how many receipes contained cream of mushroom soup and velveeta. we have lived and visit so many places and have gotten the books from so many sources – my most unique
    book had to be from my mothers house – not exact heading – but 'jewish cooking for the american housewife' it was put out be crisco – half was in enflish, the other half in Hebrew. i love my cookbooks! each one brings to mind a special time/a fun/not so fun trip.

    March 23, 2013 at 9:39 am |
  33. Cherie C

    My favorite is the giant, colorful The Food of Provence ~ It's lovely glossy pictures just transport me and inspire me to make the recipes and decorate the house and garden.

    March 23, 2013 at 8:28 am |
  34. Mary

    My favorite is the very first one I received when I was out on my own.. the Betty Crocker cookbook. This treasured relic has been my go to for so many needs over the years. It is still a go-to for me and had stood the test of time over all the other Fad-type cookbooks that are on the shelf with it.

    March 23, 2013 at 6:39 am |
  35. Donna P. Moses

    My favourite cookbooks and I am a collector are the little cookbooks put out by churches and ladies auxiliaries they are just full of those comfort food recipes you can remember your Grandmother making !!! MMMMmmmm...good !!!...:)

    March 23, 2013 at 4:50 am |
  36. S.X. Ramone

    "Screen Doors and Sweet Tea" and "A Southerly Course" – both by Martha Hall Foose! Good recipes and even better writing!

    March 23, 2013 at 2:10 am |
    • martha foose

      Gee, Thanks!

      March 27, 2013 at 10:08 am |
  37. Denise

    mine are the Gooseberry Patch cookbooks. I love the little stores that go with the recipes too!!!

    March 23, 2013 at 12:21 am |
  38. Corinne

    The New McCall's Cookbook by Mary Eckley, Food Editor for McCall's. Mine was a wedding gift with a 1973 copyright and my pages are falling out.

    March 22, 2013 at 10:32 pm |
  39. Maria Bertolini

    The best ones are the Betty Crockers and food chef John is awesome his videos are very instructional,

    March 22, 2013 at 10:17 pm |
  40. erichinkle

    The top three for me, The Joy of Cooking preferably an early version because you never know when you might need to skin a rabbit. La Rousse Gastronomique any or all editions. Last but certainly not least the Better Homes and Gardens red checkered classic. Armed with these a cook is in good stead.

    March 22, 2013 at 9:13 pm |
  41. WVCrone

    Fannie Farmer for old timey favorites and the "red pie" Betty Crocker stated above.

    March 22, 2013 at 8:13 pm |
  42. abbydelabbey

    My favorite cookbook is one that is as old as I am - my mother got it when I was born many, many decades ago. I learned to cook from that cookbook. Most of the recipes are unhealthy (fat, salt, sugar), but I have learned to modify them. But I must confess at my age I no longer "need" a cookbook. But I've kept the cookbook for sentimental reasons and every now and again I look through it and discover an old favorite..

    March 22, 2013 at 7:33 pm |
  43. Sandra LeVin

    Vegetarian Epicure (books I and II)!

    March 22, 2013 at 7:28 pm |
  44. MissMandy

    New York Times cookbook, everything from more gourmet items to basic veggie sides. Better Homes & Gardens New American Cookbook (a staple and classic) and More from Magnolias... love the cake/cupcake and dessert recipes in there!

    March 22, 2013 at 6:42 pm |
  45. LouiseC

    The Silver Palate Cookbook. I received this as a gift at my wedding shower in 1984. Growing up on meat and potatoes, this was my first exposure to gourmet cooking and I relished every recipe I made from that cookbook, imagining I would one day, starstruck, visit the Silver Palate storefront in NYC. I never made it to the Silver Palate in NYC but to this day, I love this cookbook. It contains some of my very favorite recipes :)

    March 22, 2013 at 5:24 pm |
  46. Martyb

    Cooking Light magazine, Holly Clegg, allrecipes, sometimes Joy of Cooking

    March 22, 2013 at 2:54 pm |
  47. Go Ducks

    allrecipes dot com

    March 22, 2013 at 2:11 pm |
  48. Greg S

    My favorite to this day is my old Betty Crocker "red pie" cookbook from 1969. When it comes to basic everyday cooking for a family it just can't be beat. IMHO.

    March 22, 2013 at 1:58 pm |
    • abbydelabbey

      Some of those older cookbooks are really good ones ...

      March 22, 2013 at 7:33 pm |
  49. Check this out

    For the past 2 years, definitely -

    March 22, 2013 at 1:36 pm |
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