When you think of classic American cookbooks, there’s a good chance that the ones you consider essential parts of the American cooking canon aren’t American at all. After all, American cuisine gets its flavor, shape, and spirit from other corners of the globe. From the peppered mangoes of the (very) early Austin food scene to the lobster rolls of New England, America’s culinary history is as rich and delicious as they come, all thanks to these classic culinary books.
“Better Homes New Cookbook”: The Red and White Checkered One
Go ahead and Google the “Better Homes New Cook Book.” There’s a good chance you’ll instantly recognize this classic! It features the iconic red and white checked cover and contains all kinds of staples that your mom and grandmother probably once whipped up. Better Homes and Gardens originally published the cookbook in 1930, selling 40 million copies. In 2016, the magazine debuted the 16th edition. Although the dishes inside undoubtedly changed the way Americans cooked at home, this cookbook was revolutionary for another purpose. Home chefs loved its famous ring binding, which allowed them to lay the book flat for easy reference while cooking. It also included blank pages in the back for sharing and recording recipes.
“Larousse Gastronomique”: The Encyclopedia of French Food
Thanks to French food legends like Julia Child and “Larousse Gastronomique” author Prosper Montagné, traditional French cooking certainly shaped new American cuisine. Montagné wrote the staple cookbook in 1938, but it didn’t become a favorite among Americans until Crown Publishers released an English translation in 1961. It took 20 culinary experts over three years to convert the heavy French cooking encyclopedia to English, poring over measurements, descriptions, and ingredients.
“Mastering the Art of French Cooking”: French Cooking for Americans
“Mastering the Art of French Cooking” by Julia Child is one of the most famous cookbooks in history; it has inspired novels, movies, restaurants, and thousands of spinoff cookbooks. Child published the influential mainstay in 1961, effectively introducing an American audience to French staples like beef bourguignon and cassoulet.
But what made Child’s approach to French cooking different than all the rest was her ability to make it practical for the American kitchen of the 1960s. Historians say that the cookbook made American cooks more comfortable with loftier dishes and made French cooking less intimidating. Since its debut, Child has sold over 4 million copies of “Mastering the Art of French Cooking,” and publishers have never let it go out of print.
“Joy of Cooking”: Irma von Starkloff Rombauer’s Best-Seller
Legend has it that in 1931, widow Irma S. Rombauer threw together a collection of her favorite recipes in an anthology, the now-canonized “Joy of Cooking.” Rombauer was a second-generation German immigrant born in St. Louis and populated her cookbook with recipes collected from her mother. Readers loved Rombauer’s approach to casual culinary cuisine and reveled in her support of shortcuts. With eight editions, “Joy of Cooking” offers home chefs the unique opportunity to pursue high-brow classics (steak tartare and lobster canapé) as well as easy, approachable mainstays (hamburgers and meatloaf). Publishers revamped the book in 2006 for a special 75th anniversary edition that reinstated some of the original recipes, cocktails, and stories written by Rombauer in the original 1931 version.
“The Taste of Country Cooking”: The Southern Cooking Bible
When you look at the history of Southern food, you’ll see the name of one African-American chef emerge again and again: Edna Lewis. The granddaughter of an emancipated slave, Lewis penned the foremost reference on classic Southern cooking in 1976, “The Taste of Country Cooking.” Inside, Lewis details how to whip up all-American staples like Virginia fried chicken, blackberry cobbler, and buttered green beans. But what’s so unique about Lewis’s take on Southern food is that it’s not only practical but endlessly entertaining. Each chapter has a theme: “A Busy-Day Summer Dinner,” “Fall Breakfast Before a Day of Hunting,” and “A Dinner Celebrating the Last of the Barnyard Fowl,” just to name a few. It uses seasonal ingredients and happenings to create a year-long journal of hearty meals and special occasions.