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Old-school cookbooks combine heritage with practices of cooking

Kate Lebo

Cooks believe in books. I’m speaking for myself here, but there’s evidence to indicate I’m not alone. While Amazon and blogs gut conventional publishing and reinvent the ways people learn to cook, cookbooks remain one of the only dependably profitable genres of the industry.

Don’t get me wrong, cooks believe in the Internet, too – it is marvelous to type the contents of my crisper into a search box at Epicurious, Food52, or and be immediately presented with a Google’s-worth of suitable menus. Still, I want pages and text, spines and covers, paper and ink. I want real cookbooks.

They’ve grown larger, prettier, more bombastically photographed and ingeniously designed than when I cracked my first copy of “Joy of Cooking.” They’re more conceptual, too, and personality-driven than their encyclopedic forebears, though modern versions of Fannie Farmer – Cook’s Illustrated’s Best Recipe series, Mark Bittman’s “How to Cook Everything” – remain top sellers. Today’s popular cookbooks are coffee-table books and coffee-spattered books, tomes of modern art that want to get messy in the kitchen even if they aren’t dressed properly for the occasion. As food writing gets more digital, it gets more physical, too.

I am reminded of this when I leaf through an old favorite, “The Supper of the Lamb” by Robert Farrar Capon, an Episcopal priest who published his digressive and delicious treatise on cooking with spirit in 1967. Capon uses food to delight his audience into looking at the world not for what value they can extract from it, but for what it is. “The world is no disposable ladder to heaven,” he writes, and “the distinction between art and trash, between food and garbage, depends on the presence of the loving eye.”

He’s talking about God, but he’s also talking about cooks – how spending an hour discovering the insides of an onion, rather than merely seeing its savory use, can restore us to wonder. In an age when anyone can learn how to make pie crust and butterfly a chicken on YouTube (or simply watch it being done), ideas like Capon’s remind us that food is physical, that we are in fact what we eat, that though a version of us exists through the filters of Facebook and Instagram, we are as real, as humble, as amazing as onion skins.

Capon also makes useful distinctions between feasting and everyday cooking, what he calls festal and ferial cooking – the turkey at Thanksgiving versus the turkey sandwich the day after Thanksgiving – arguing that a balance of both is needed to delight the palate and the intellect, restore holistic health while saving us from dieting, and feed us like queens who can stick to a food budget.

While I owe my cooking philosophy to Capon’s book, I do not cook from it. His advice is sound and his sentences astounding (if a bit rich), but his recipes are so entwined with anecdote and philosophy that many of them are impossible to read while in the midst of the dinner rush. I turn instead to Cal Peternell’s “Twelve Recipes,” a book that began as cooking lessons for the Chez Panisse chef’s recently college-departed son and became a beautiful, illustrated primer for the rest of us.

Peternell does not dwell directly on the soul, act as a lifestyle coach, or pretend to be a nutritionist. His concern is cooking – mostly European-influenced New American cooking – emphasizing fresh ingredients but giving the home cook equally good advice for how to make canned tomatoes delicious and treat an eggplant the way a restaurant would.

With plenty of pointers for how to turn pantry scraps and leftovers into your next great meal, “Twelve Recipes” teaches the sort of practical kitchen magic we used to learn from parents and grandparents before everyone was emancipated from the stove. His agenda is not overtly political, but it’s at the heart of food politics today: He wants you to be able to feed yourself well. He doesn’t need polemic to get his point across. He convinces with deliciousness.

If Peternell is righteous, it is because he, like Capon, is right: It does delight the intellect and satisfy the body to transform scraps of parsley, the last two eggs, and the polenta you couldn’t finish last night into a restaurant-worthy weekday meal. “Twelve Recipes” approaches food the way a musician’s fakebook approaches music – as forms worthy of improvisation. It is not a memoir so much as an illustration of a distinct sensibility, which, because Peternell gives us the freedom to interpret his advice according to our own cupboards and cravings, invites us to be ingenious with our own cooking.

Jennifer McGruther approaches the same goal from a different angle with “The Nourished Kitchen: Farm-to-Table Recipes for the Traditional Foods Lifestyle.” Here, the word “diet” should be interpreted as “what we eat” (its original definition) not “what we don’t eat.”

The book caught my eye because the jacket copy says this is “a fad-free approach to cooking and eating,” which was hard for me to believe.

According to McGruther, the traditional foods lifestyle views food as “a system of connection, emphasizing support for time-honored ways of farming, cooking, and eating.” There’s room for steak and butter here, plus chicken liver pate, kombucha, einkorn bread, sourdough pie crust and homemade yogurt cheese.

McGruther’s writing is most interesting when she’s teaching, though because she makes strong scientific claims about nutrition, I wish she would share the sources of her research. I can trust when a cookbook writer tells me something is good, but I am by now too cynical about fad diets and USDA charts to easily trust when she says something is good for me.

Regardless of its absent sources, “The Nourished Kitchen” handily calls attention to the lie of nutritional facts on natural products. For example, an egg’s nutrients are determined by the health of the hen and what she ate while laying and is not always a standard, packageable combination of vitamins and minerals. Engaging with nonindustrialized food helps us understand what the “real” in “real food” means.

But here’s the problem with lack of standardization: If the reader doesn’t have a garden or access to a farmers market, she can’t make many of the recipes in the way McGruther intends. Even more troubling, I had a devil of a time making the recipes work when I followed them exactly. It is possible that McGruther’s traditional foods cannot be reproduced without the specific, ultra-local ingredients she used to test them.

Her recipes presented me with excellent inspiration, however, as long as I stayed on my toes and ad-libbed as needed. That is how McGruther’s yogurt cheese (also known in Middle Eastern cuisine as labneh) became, as a friend told me, “my favorite thing you’ve ever made.”

This makes me think that, contrary to what Cook’s Illustrated could lead us to believe, foolproof recipes don’t have to be the point. This is cookbook as idea book, as education, not as a list of instructions we must trust. Until the traditional food fad goes mainstream, this narrows McGruther’s audience to handy home cooks with access to fresh local foods. But that is in line with the local, sustainable, cyclical ideals of the book. It has different value than a cookbook like “Joy of Cooking.”

All three of these cookbooks present good cooking as an engagement with heritage. Where McGruther gives us education and access to traditional cooking methods, Peternell’s book puts cooking in a family context. As he shows his children how to nourish themselves, he shows us that everyday cooking is where we go to remember who we are and where we come from. Capon touches on this too when he writes “the plainest things in the world, prepared with care and relished for what they are, are better than all the commercial flummery in the dairy case.”

Cookbooks like these provide what a search engine can’t: deep sensibilities, practices of cooking – not just recipes – that teach us why we cook, while they also teach us how to.

Labneh (Herb-and-Oil Marinated Yogurt Cheese)

Adapted from “The Nourished Kitchen” by Jennifer McGruther

This soft, tangy cheese is easier to make than most sandwiches. I’ve had the best luck using thick, plain, full-fat Greek yogurts. My favorite is Greek Gods Traditional Plain. Rolling the cheese into balls makes it easier to serve, sprinkling it with herbs enhances the flavor, submerging it in good olive oil is delicious and helps the cheese keep longer. McGruther suggests low-wax olive oil that doesn’t solidify in the refrigerator. Waxy or non-waxy, all quality olive oils will make the yogurt even more satisfying when spread on toast, apples, salads, burgers – wherever you’d use chevre or cream cheese.

1 teaspoon kosher salt

24 ounces of plain full-fat Greek yogurt

1 clove of garlic

1 tablespoon freshly squeezed lemon juice

1 teaspoon lemon zest

1 tablespoon of fresh chopped herbs, such as dill, rosemary or tarragon

7 peppercorns

1 small dried chili (optional)

2/3 to 1 cup olive oil

Stir salt into the yogurt. Place a fine-mesh strainer in a medium-sized bowl, line the strainer with cheesecloth, and spoon the yogurt into the cheesecloth. Make sure the bottom of the strainer does not touch the bowl. Cover and let the yogurt sit overnight at room temperature. Whey will separate from the yogurt and drip into the bowl.

In the morning, check the yogurt for firmness. If it’s still too soft, give it more time to separate. Once the yogurt is almost – but not quite – as thick as cold cream cheese, lift the cheesecloth from the strainer and turn the solids out in a container (I use the old yogurt container). Refrigerate until cold and more firm. (Save the whey – you’ll have about 8 ounces – for extra protein in morning smoothies.)

Once the labneh is cold, roll a melon-ball-sized chunk between your palms until it is sphere-shaped. Place it in the bottom of an 8-ounce glass jar. Roll more, placing them one by one in the glass jar until the jar is full.

Nestle a clove of garlic into the jar. Squeeze lemon juice over the cheese and sprinkle remaining ingredients through chili, if using. Fill the container with olive oil until it covers the cheese. Refrigerate and use within 2 months.

Kate Lebo is the author of “A Commonplace Book of Pie” and “Pie School: Lessons in Fruit, Flour and Butter.” Visit her website at