Cookbook watch: 'The Cookbook Library'
Anne Willan has written a lot of cookbooks in her career. OK, well, maybe not a lot by Martha standards, but for a non-industrial cookbook writer, she’s quite prolific. And her books have been good ones, too. I practically taught myself to cook out of "La Varenne Pratique." But I don’t think I’ve loved one of her books as much as I do her new "The Cookbook Library."
Written with her husband, Mark Cherniavsky, this is an absolute labor of love, the book her whole career has led up to. On the surface, it might sound a bit dry. Well, maybe a lot dry. A history of the cookbook? And, while it is true that “The Cookbook Library” probably won’t set many Food Network fans’ hearts aflutter (it ends in the early 19th century and, well, there are footnotes), if you really love cookbooks (or books in general) and you love history, this is a book you have to read.
Willan and Cherniavsky are longtime collectors with a cookbook library so extensive that they had to shore up the floor of their house in Santa Monica to hold the weight. But “The Cookbook Library” is more than just a bibliography. Willan’s careful tracing of the history of how cookbooks have evolved, and her witty take on those involved, bring the subject to vivid life.
There are so many examples I could cite, but just for one, the essay on religious feasting and fast days is impeccable, tying in the evolution of the Roman Catholic Church and the role of fast-day dispensations on bringing about the Reformation. She quotes Voltaire on theology and Martin Luther on olive oil (the French oil was so bad, he wrote, that “people in Rome would not use [it] to grease their shoes”).
OK, one more example: In a brief (maybe 1,000-word) essay on the history of bread, she covers differences in French and English loaves, what types of grains were used and what they signified, why bread baking was considered apart from cooking, and how the rise of the home oven affected baking.
I’m still only about halfway through, not because it’s slow going, but because this is a book to read and savor –- I’m parsing out a small section at a time and already regretting the day I finish it.
“The Cookbook Library” by Anne Willan with Mark Cherniavsky and Kyri Claflin (University of California Press, $50).
-- Russ Parsons