One of the first things I did after moving to Atlanta a few months ago was become a card-carrying member of the Atlanta-Fulton Public Library System.
Before, I had a great gig with the librarians in University City, an inner suburb of St. Louis. “Great gig” means that the librarians would put me first in the queue for new cookbooks, food memoirs and cocktail reads, without me even asking. I would constantly get emails notifying me that books were ready for pickup. It was like Christmas every day.
Cookbooks are near and dear to me because they heavily influenced my path into the food world, much earlier than I entered any sort of dining scene. In fact, there was a time when I put up a stink if my husband and kids wanted to eat out, because I considered my dinners to be pretty darn healthy but also pretty darn tasty. Credit the cookbooks.
My modus operandi was this: Take stock of items in the fridge that needed using up; buy seasonal produce at the farmers market; harvest in the garden if it was still growing season; hit the library in search of books and recipes that offered ideas for turning such ingredients into quality dishes. In the height of that cooking odyssey, my poor kids were forced to walk with me to the library three and four times a week.
Although I haven’t visited Greece, Turkey, North Africa or the Middle East, I got acquainted with “middleterranean” cuisine using cookbooks as my tour guides. Some of my home cook career highlights have been when people who have eaten in other parts of the globe reaffirm that my dishes were reminiscent of something they ate on their travels.
For example, a few years ago, my Polish neighbor Ana came knocking at the door. I was busy in the kitchen, working with eggplant. I don’t recall exactly what the dish was, but it hailed from a Turkish cookbook. She and her family had just returned from a two-month visit to her homeland, and while abroad they made a stop in Turkey. She rapped on the door because she said the smells coming from my house were exactly those that she remembered from their trip. Success!
Another time, my friend Betul was playing host to her 20-something cousin, who was visiting from Turkey. We had them over for a few bites and a hello. What this college kid liked, he said, was that I had put out a mezze. Apparently, he’d been homesick for this classic spread of noshes. My hummus isn’t as good as Michael Solomonov’s, but it made that kid smile.
Few things are as self-satisfying as caring for someone else. And we home cooks are in a unique position to use food to nurture and provide people with a taste of home. Yet, I could never have learned to do that well without my beloved cookbooks.
The go-tos in my cookbook collection include the “More With Less” series and titles by Molly Katzen, Deborah Madison, Lorna Sass and Clifford Wright. My shelves don’t hold the “Joy of Cooking” or Julia Child tomes. That’s OK. We all come to the kitchen from different paths, navigate different kitchens, and cook for different palates.
Cookbooks are on my mind right now because this is a big shopping weekend. The books I’d like to give as presents to food-loving family and friends this holiday season are all cookbooks of the South. In 2015, Atlanta chefs have published some standout books that offer a mouthwatering snapshot of the city’s culinary pulse. The books are well designed, the personalities of the chefs spring to life, and the recipes are ones that even novice cooks are capable of preparing.
Looking for gift ideas? Here are five cookbooks that offer a terrific taste of Atlanta:
“Atlanta Chef’s Table: Extraordinary Recipes from the Big Peach” by Kate Parham Kordsmeier (Globe Pequot, $27)
This cookbook celebrates Atlanta as a top dining destination. Flipping through the more than 200 pages, you’ll get to know stories behind 75 of the city’s most popular restaurants and the faces behind the food and drink here. Hardbound and in full-color, “Atlanta Chef’s Table” can serve as a keepsake, cooking inspiration and a reminder that, while Atlanta boasts international cuisine, it’s got a lot of local flavor.
“The Broad Fork” by Hugh Acheson (Clarkson Potter, $35)
Is it quirky that Canadian-born chef Hugh Acheson is among those defining modern Southern cuisine? Isn’t everything about Acheson quirky? In this entertaining cookbook, he digs deep into vegetables, but dishes out a whole lot more. Learn how he cooks veggies at home and in his restaurants, what yacon is, what he misses about Canada …
“Pure Pork Awesomeness: Totally Cookable Recipes From Around the World” by Kevin Gillespie (Andrews McMeel Publishing, $30)
“Pure Pork Awesomeness” is a celebration of pork that is singularly Gillespie. The Georgia native, “Top Chef” alum and brains behind Gunshow and Revival offers recipes for using every section of the hog, and not just for mains, but also sides, snacks and even dessert. Written in a casual voice and peppered with good-to-know tips, the cookbook makes you feel like Gillespie is standing next to you in the kitchen cheering you on with spare ribs as his pom-poms.
“Root to Leaf: A Southern Chef Cooks Through the Seasons” by Steven Satterfield (HarperCollins, $45)
Miller Union’s Steven Satterfield shares his ways with vegetables so that readers can duplicate these fresh flavors at home. Reminiscent of Nigel Slater’s cookbooks “Tender” and “Ripe,” “Root to Leaf” strives to help you make the most of produce. Recipes are veg-centric, as opposed to vegetarian, which means even carnivores can jump aboard the plant bandwagon. The photos are beautiful and Satterfield’s gentle, thoughtful voice shines. Avid home cooks will read this one in bed and fall asleep dreaming of kohlrabi and cauliflower.
“The Southerner’s Cookbook: Recipes, Wisdom, and Stories” (HarperCollins, $38)
This new release by the editors of Garden & Gun magazine features more than 300 pages of recipes and essays. The full-color book includes recipes developed by G&G as well as others from acclaimed Southern chefs — including local names Hugh Acheson, Steven Satterfield, the Spence pastry chef Andrea Kirshtein and Cakes & Ale pastry chef Eric Wolitzky. If you want a good read on the people, places and ingredients that are defining Southern food culture right now, this is one to check out. And the linen cover gives it a classy touch.