I cannot believe that I only just learned that October is National Cookbook Month. Really, a month that celebrates two of my favorite things: cooking and books.
Anyone who knows me well knows that I love to cook. Some look at the big holiday feasts with dread, but those are my favorite meals to cook. Thanksgiving is when I'm particularly in my element (it helps that we usually have the feast on Friday and I have an extra day to prep).
I love cookbooks, not just because of the fine meals that can be the result, but because they're fun to read. I have a White House Cookbook from 1929 (I inherited it from my grandmother) that I'd never use for recipes (they all sound bland beyond belief). But it's fantastic as a curiosity piece and to get a glimpse into the mind-set for cooks at the time. For example, it's just assumed that one knows how to pluck a chicken. It also includes things like food for invalids (translation: gruel), as well as household tips on cleaning lace curtains and making your own perfume. This last item sounds good until you read the list of ingredients and realize you probably can't get ambergris at CostCo.
It's a cruel irony that, in my experience, cookbooks with the best food photography don't always have the best recipes. Probably my favorite cookbooks to use are the ones from Cook's Illustrated - I'm particularly fond of their Best International Recipes book. Pictures are relegated to a middle section of the book, which is a shame because some of these recipes are unfamiliar to Americans and it would be nice to see what the end product should look like (I'm still not sure if the chicken mole turned out the way it should have). But these books are invaluable for anyone who enjoys the process of cooking, for they include the trial-and-error process the cooks went through for each recipe.
Likewise, Julia Child's Mastering the Art of French Cooking books lack illustrations or photos. But her instructions are so detailed and thorough that you don't really need them. I recall making her French onion soup and worrying that the onions were not achieving the proper color when - voila! - right when she said they would be the perfect color, they were. (My only caveat with these books is to be very careful for the stovetop cooking - I think ovens in Julia's day had much less mojo and I've overcooked a few things.)
Cookbooks are like novels - technically the stories and recipes have all been done before, but there's always something new to discover. When I'm stressed or just don't have the mental energy for reading fiction, I often turn to cookbooks for reading. They entertain me, and my friends and family love it because usually I say, "You know, there's this recipe I've been wanting to try..."