It happens to everyone, sooner or later: Menu burn-out. Fixing dinner can become a chore, not because of the preparation, cooking and clean-up afterwards but because families – even people living alone – can soon run out of ideas for something new and exciting to cook. When the question, “What’s for dinner?” causes a feeling of frustration rather than anticipation, it’s time to look for inspiration.
There are plenty of sources for new meal ideas, of course: two entire television networks are devoted to food and cooking, but actual demonstration, here’s-how-to-fix-a-dish shows have long since been outweighed by contests, restaurant tours and programs in which chefs visit exotic locations where the menus consist entirely of bugs and offal. Every bookstore has a food section, but the books are not only expensive but trendy and all too often tied to diets. Online databases of recipes are so large that the feeling of being in a rut is soon replaced by one of being at the bottom of a food avalanche. Where to go to, then, for some simple, easy inspiration on how to broaden a mealtime experience?
Collecting Cook Books
The market for new cook books is strong, and has been for the better part of the past hundred years. As much as publishers constantly crank out new cook book titles every year – the New York Times even has a special classification on their best seller list, titled “Food and Fitness,” which may be part of the problem – it’s a strange fact that the used copies are usually sold for pennies on the dollar of their original published price. It’s like left-overs, only on paper. But everyone knows – or should – that left-overs can be very nice. In every used book store, juntique shop, garage sale, church basement jumble fund-raiser and resale store, cook books are practically sold by the pound. With some discriminating selection, they can provide just the inspiration anyone needs to break out of the food blahs and find some new favorite recipes. Here’s what to look for.
Cook Book Classics
Everyone, everyone, should have at least one of the classic cook books in their kitchen. The great thing about them is not just that they have proven their value over the generations, but there are so many used copies on the market that they can be picked up for less than the cost of a drive-through order of fries. Don’t be shy of the older copies, either; often, the earlier editions not only have interesting recipes dropped from later printings, but old-fashioned tips and tricks. The Joy of Cooking, first published in 1931, should be in every kitchen, but the New York Times Cook Book (1961) is also important to have. Don’t neglect Julia Child’s classic Mastering the Art of French Cooking (1961) and The Boston Cooking-School Cook Book (also known as “The Fanny Farmer Cook Book”), originally published in 1896, available in numerous editions and reprints. Betty Crocker’s Cookbook (1950) and Better Homes & Gardens New Cook Book (1930) are also classics.
Woks and slow cookers each had their hey days in popularity, but they haven’t disappeared from kitchens. In fact, they’ve become so incorporated into American kitchens that a cookbook on each technique is a must-have. Single-pot cooking, stews (not the same thing), soups, deep frying, barbecue, grilling (again, not the same as barbecue) and even campfire cooking are all integrated into modern American cooking. Perhaps even branch out and get volumes on kebab/skewer cooking, fondue and even sushi preparation.
Almost everyone has wanted to replicate a wonderful Chinese or Indian dish that they enjoyed in a restaurant, in their own kitchen. Unfortunately, both the techniques and ingredients that make those dining experiences so special are usually beyond the reach of people outside those ethnicities. That doesn’t mean that cookbooks on the cuisines of hundreds of nations, regions and cultures can’t be used to help create meals that are wonderful in their own right. Don’t narrow the selection, though, and neglect such cuisines as Finnish, Portuguese, Basque or whatever else strikes your fancy. There are treasures tucked away in every cook book.
It is probably impossible to find a single church, synagogue or other religious congregation that hasn’t published at least one cookbook for fund-raising. Practically every other group, club, neighborhood organization, troop, lobby and even protest group has also collected their members’ favorite recipes as well. Don’t sneer at the mimeograph printing, spiral bindings, misspellings or earnest forewords, either: It’s rare that there isn’t at least one gem in each of them. The Camp Zama NCO Wives’ Club, 1958, for example, has a recipe for the best chocolate chip dessert bars ever created.
Buying these old cookbooks and just shelving them as “kitchen art” isn’t going to do the trick. Take the time to sit down and just flip through them. Be adventurous and try out at least one new recipe a week. After all, all you have to loose is your dietary boredom.