Not long ago, an editor reminded me, "A cookbook can't be everything to everyone." Has this always been true?
My mind immediately flashed back to 1982's "The Silver Palate Cookbook," by Julee Rosso and Sheila Lukins. It was a comprehensive source for a generation of home cooks in America. More than three decades after it was published, I wondered whether it, and a few other influential cookbooks of that same year, would hold up in a drastically different culinary era.
According to the owner of New York's Bonnie Slotnick Cookbooks, where she sells rare and vintage titles, a lot of people still use "The Silver Palate" as a basic cookbook. "They don't have Fannie Farmer, 'Joy of Cooking' or Betty Crocker," Slotnick says. "Not only do people continue raving about it, but they continue to buy . . . copies to replace the ones they've worn out, and they're buying it for their children." The first printing of "The Silver Palate Cookbook" was 37,000 copies; that tally now stands at 2.7 million and includes the 25th anniversary edition.
Named for the gourmet takeout and catering shop the authors opened in 1977 on Manhattan's Upper West Side, the cookbook combined recipes with Lukins's whimsical drawings; select quotes from notable figures; proposed menus and stand-alone technical notes. Looking at chapter headings such as "The Charcuterie Board," "Chicken Every Which Way," "Soup's On" and "Piping Hot Pasta," which has a pasta glossary to help you choose the best noodle to suit your purposes, one realizes an entire cookbook could be built from any one of those concepts.
"It's a nice range of things — it's not all chicken or Italian," Slotnick says. "Books like that are harder to find; books today are more specialized."
Another one I remember seeing on the kitchen counter as a kid was also published in '82. It featured a smiling blonde on the cover who looked like a cross between a Disney princess and a Stepford wife. She stood at the end of a long, beautifully set table, and near her head, it read "Entertaining: Martha Stewart."
It was Stewart's very first cookbook. In it, the ex-model and chic Connecticut caterer delivered a guide to hosting, and cooking for, parties of all sizes. The gig panned out nicely for her, and it all seems to have come full circle. Last year, her latest television project, "Martha & Snoop's Potluck Dinner Party," debuted on VH1 (Season 2 premieres Oct. 16). "Entertaining" left no stone or place card unturned; an aspiring host could find themed menus and inspiration to make even a dinner for two a little more festive.
"I had been running a successful, large catering business in Westport, Conn., and I realized that unless I recorded my experiences — the recipes I made, the parties I organized, the visuals that I created . . . in some way, the ephemeral nature of catering would just make everything disappear," Stewart says. "So, I decided I would write a book. And entertaining was a subject that I knew I needed to know more about, and I knew all my friends needed to know more about.
"As a result, it was the perfect book at the perfect time," she says. "It is still in print, 35 years later, and it still offers a lot of sound, sage advice, which I'm grateful for." When asked whether she would change anything if she were writing the book today, Stewart says only: "Maybe my hairdo on the cover!"
While Stewart's cookbook was all about creating for special occasions, "The Silver Palate" was informal and more everyday. Big, clean flavors were "very understandable to the American palate," Rosso says, who has run a bed and breakfast in Saugatuck, Mich., since 1991.
"We weren't very sophisticated about food and we liked things that shout," she says. (Lukins died in 2009.) But unlike latter-day gastronomy tomes that fetishized chefs and restaurants, both books offered recipes that home cooks could make — as long as they could locate and afford the watercress ("exotic!" Rosso recalls), raspberry vinegar and Belgian endive (as a serving vessel; we have Martha Stewart to thank for that).
Vegetable cookery and the hundreds of titles it has generated in the past few years would appear to address a uniquely modern interest, but "The Victory Garden Cookbook" of '82 proves otherwise. With it, author Marian Morash made a breakthrough. Her husband, Russell Morash, produced public television programs in Boston and she had worked on Julia Child's show. When "The Victory Garden," one of Russell's projects, aired in 1975, viewers tuned into learn about how and what to plant from host Jim Crockett. And then they phoned into the station because, once he had taught them how to grow leeks, they didn't know what to do with them.
Russell asked Marian whether she could provide such culinary advice. So, in 1979, she became a regular correspondent on the show and was then approached by Knopf editor Judith Jones, who had published Child's books along with those by Madhur Jaffrey, Edna Lewis and Claudia Roden.
Arranged alphabetically from asparagus to zucchini — "See, Squash (Summer)" — and clocking in at more than 800 recipes, the "Victory Garden" book has instructions for growing, harvesting, storing, buying and cooking each vegetable. Multiple preparations are detailed and suggested adaptations provided. This is not a vegetarian tome, however. Salsify is simmered with veal for a hearty ragout or, when left over, pan-fried with turkey for a fast hash. It's not just that Morash dared to go where others didn't by featuring turnips and rutabaga, it's that she put her star material into creative, resourceful situations.
Before online recipe-sharing communities existed, these three cookbooks were social connectors. "We all know people who served Chicken Marbella for every party they ever had," Slotnick says of "The Silver Palate's" best-known dish. My own mother's copy is scrawled with commentary; she noted her own feedback — "yummy," "do not repeat," "too sweet," "I liked," "no good"— as well as that of her peers. Cathy recommended a chunky apple-walnut cake, while Barbara poo-pooed a chilled shrimp soup and endorsed the French Potato Salad With Bacon.
The friend my mother relied on most in this vein was Susan Kessler, the former food and decorating editor of New Woman magazine, who stands by, and continues to cook, the Curried-Squash Apple Soup, which spawned infinite knockoffs, and the Pasta Puttanesca. Equally well versed with recipes in "Entertaining," Kessler still makes Stewart's string bean salad with walnut sauce.
And when I reached Morash at her summer house in Nantucket, she had just put up a batch of tomato freezer sauce from "The Victory Garden Cookbook." She says fans stop her on the street to tell her they still cook from it. There have been 315, 834 copies sold — not as many as those other two books, but it's not small potatoes.
"I always had that cookbook on my desk when I worked in publishing," Slotnick says. "It's very personal." Not one for gardening, she appreciates the pages for their words. "It's the kind of book that you can just read. And I do more reading of cookbooks than cooking and so do a lot of my customers."
When asked whether, in hindsight, Morash would make any changes, she replied, "The only thing I would do if I was going to do it again now is to reduce the amount of butter. We'd go to olive oil instead."
I might disagree.
Skimming the cookbook a few weeks ago, I was compelled to try the recipes that intrigued me. Morash's cheese-crowned Oven Asparagus Puff turned out to be a refined frittata. The Sweet Cabbage Strudel would make as elegant and memorable a holiday side as any I can think of. And I don't understand why we don't saute cucumbers all the time. Each dish employs butter, and, to my mind, is better for it.
As my mother and I pored over her "The Silver Palate Cookbook," she stopped at the Braised Short Ribs of Beef. "I never made this recipe. But as I'm reading it, I would make it," she said. "It's similar to how I cook now." We tried them for dinner and I have been craving them ever since.
I brought over the Applesauce Raisin Cake for dessert, because Mom had written "great" beside the recipe in her book. When I shared my intention to bake it with Rosso, she asked if I would be macerating the raisins — a step that isn't mentioned in the book. "Constant tweaking is a very good thing!" she encouraged.
Some recipes, however, are best left alone. "Our tastes have changed over the years," Rosso wrote via email. "And then there are some things that just seem as fresh as they did 40 years ago, and even though we make salmon mousse at least once a week, it still tastes like I'm experiencing it for the first time. Haven't changed a thing."
That's how I feel about the Tarragon Chicken Salad from "Entertaining" ("Cocktails for Two Hundred: Country Fare" menu). Whether I make it fancy and spoon it atop a sliver of Carrot Bread the way you would for canapés, like Stewart did, or eat it right out of the bowl, it could be any day of any year — 1982 or 2017.
Druckman is a New York food writer and cookbook author.
Adapted from "The Silver Palate Cookbook," by Julee Rosso and Sheila Lukins (Workman, 1982).
4 pounds boneless beef short ribs, cut into 2-inch lengths (can use bone-in)
1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper, plus more as needed
5 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
8 cloves garlic
1½ cups canned Italian plum tomatoes, with their juices, preferably no-salt-added or low-sodium
2 medium-to-large carrots, cut crosswise into very thin coins (2 cups)
2 large yellow onions, thinly sliced (3 cups)
8 whole cloves
½ packed cup chopped flat-leaf parsley
¾ cup red wine vinegar
3 tablespoons tomato paste
2 tablespoons light brown sugar
2 teaspoons kosher salt, or more as needed
¼ teaspoon ground cayenne pepper
3 to 6 cups low-sodium beef broth
Season the short ribs generously with black pepper. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.
Heat the oil in a Dutch oven or heavy pot with a lid over medium heat. Once the oil shimmers, add the short ribs and brown them, 3 or 4 at a time, on all sides. Transfer them to a paper-towel-lined platter to drain as you work.
Return half of the ribs to the pot (off the heat). Scatter with half the garlic cloves, then layer half of each vegetable (the tomatoes and their juices, carrots and onions), in order, over the meat. Add 4 whole cloves and sprinkle with half the parsley. Repeat with remaining meat and other ingredients, ending with a layer of chopped parsley.
Stir together the vinegar, tomato paste, brown sugar, salt, the 1 teaspoon of black pepper and the cayenne pepper in a liquid measuring cup. Pour over the meat and vegetables and then add enough of the broth to cover.
Place over medium heat. Once the liquid starts to bubble, cover with the lid and transfer to the oven. Bake/cook (middle rack) for 1 to 1½ hours, or until meat is very tender.
Taste; add salt and/or pepper, as needed. Serve warm.
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