When Sheri Castle was asked to create a list of the 100 Best Cookbooks of All Time for Southern Living, the Chapel Hill food writer paused before saying yes.
“Lists always are a minefield,” says Castle. “I told them there would be no ranked order, that it was an impossible task. And it had to have a strong Southern bent, as that’s how I see the world.”
The list, published in November on the Southern Living website, isn’t definitive, Castle said.
But it’s a great place to start when looking for holiday gifts for your favorite foodie, cook, baker or someone who aspires to be one.
We took a look at Castle’s list for gift ideas – it spotlights works from several North Carolina writers – and asked others to share their favorite cookbooks, including titles they plan to give or hope to receive.
Best of the best
Castle established a series of ground rules when compiling her Southern Living list.
Books about other cuisines, for example, had to be geared for an American audience. This eliminated some of her personal favorites, including those by Israeli-British chef Yotam Ottolenghi. But it also made room for Grace Young’s “Stir-Frying to the Sky’s Edge” – one of the cook-along books featured on Wok Wednesdays, created by Durham freelance writer Matt Lardie in collaboration with Young – and the Marcella Hazan classic, “Essentials of Italian Cooking.”
These are the North Carolina titles that landed on her list.
▪ “A Love Affair with Southern Cooking” and “The American Century Cookbook” by Jean Anderson of Chapel Hill
▪ “Mama Dip’s Kitchen” by Mildred Council of Chapel Hill
▪ “Deep Run Roots,” the award-winning debut by Vivian Howard of Kinston
▪ “Victuals” by Ronni Lundy of Burnsville (which won a James Beard Award this year)
▪ “Southern Cakes” by Nancie McDermott of Chapel Hill
▪ “Bill Neal’s Southern Cooking” by the late Bill Neal of Chapel Hill
▪ “The Bread Baker’s Apprentice” by Peter Reinhart of Charlotte
▪ “Seasoned in the South” by Bill Smith of Chapel Hill
Castle, who has written numerous books for others through confidential contracts, did include one published under her own name: “The New Southern Garden Cookbook,” a story-filled celebration of healthful meals made with fresh fruit and vegetables.
“I debated putting my own book in there,” she says, “but it’s a good book.”
I enjoy passing along fresh copies of books that have earned respectable page splatters in my kitchen, including a pair of titles each from James Peterson and Molly Stevens.
▪ You could get into a heated debate with serious cooks over which of Peterson’s comprehensive, single-topic titles they most admire. “Fish & Shellfish” is ideal for anyone who appreciates the bounty of coastal Carolina catch. “Splendid Soups” is the compendium you want at hand when cold weather makes a bowlful of hot soup an especially comforting meal.
▪ “All About Roasting” and “All About Braising.” Stevens’ simply titled books are essential guides. These award-winning collections will be welcome companions as you take on holiday entertaining challenges, and you’ll refer to them often throughout the year.
▪ “The Joys of Jewish Preserving” by Emily Paster. It’s an ideal Hanukkah gift, but one that would be appreciated by any home canner.
Matt Lardie, freelance food and travel writer based in Durham, is co-founder of School of Home. His recommendations:
▪ “Victuals” by Ronni Lundy. This book racked up numerous awards this year, including the James Beard Cookbook of the Year award. “This is a must-have for anyone with an interest in Southern Appalachian food, or even those who are new to it,” Lardie says. “It’s as informative as it is useful, almost a cultural guide to the food of Appalachia.”
▪ “My Two Souths” by Asha Gomez. “This cookbook combines the cuisine of Gomez’s native India with the flavors of her Atlanta surroundings. The recipes are at once exotic and familiar, and Gomez’s writing is just plain fun to read.”
▪ “The Breakfast Book” by Marion Cunningham. Originally published in 1987, it has become one of his touchstone cookbooks. “With simple, well-tested recipes for everything from muffins and scones to potato bacon pie and corned beef hash, Cunningham covers the gamut of traditional breakfast foods,” Lardie says. “Many of her recipes have become the basis for a lot of what I bake at home, they are so easy and straightforward that it’s fairly simple to tweak and build upon.”
Cakes and Southern fare
Rhonda Jones of the Durham-based Chez Moi Bakery and food truck recommends:
▪ “Southern Cakes” by Nancie McDermott. As a cake entrepreneur, Jones has a deep appreciation for well-crafted baking books. She considers the Chapel Hill author’s book her “encyclopedia,” introducing her to many she’d never heard of. She also adores “Baking: From My Home to Yours,” a mouthwatering collection from Dorie Greenspan. On her wish list is “The Perfect Cake,” a collection from the editors at America’s Test Kitchen scheduled for March 2018 release.
▪ “Well, Shut My Mouth! The Sweet Potatoes Restaurant Cookbook” by Stephanie Tyson. Sadly, one cannot survive on sweets alone, so Jones also suggests this book from the chef of the popular Winston-Salem restaurant, Sweet Potatoes. “It reminds me of the Southern food my mother cooked,” she says, adding it’s a good choice for cooks of all skill levels.
▪ “The President’s Kitchen Cabinet” by Adrian Miller. If you’re looking for something thoughtful to chew on, Miller eloquently tells the stories of African-Americans who have worked in presidential food service, from the administrations of George Washington through Barack Obama. It recently was nominated for an NAACP Image Award for Outstanding Literary Work, Nonfiction.
Stories of our roots
Marcie Cohen Ferris, professor in the UNC Department of American History and author of “The Edible South” recommends:
▪ “King Solomon’s Table,” by Joan Nathan. The book, published earlier this year, is an informative read about the Jewish Diaspora, and how the culinary traditions of exiled people were influenced by wherever they landed. Nathan came to Chapel Hill this spring to speak at UNC’s Jewish Food in the Global South symposium.
▪ “The Cooking Gene” by Michael Twitty. Twitty launched the research for his critically acclaimed book in Chapel Hill with his 2012 Southern Discomfort tour and later found evidence of enslaved forbears in eastern North Carolina.
A mix of old and new
Keebe Fitch, owner of McIntyre’s Books at Fearrington Village, sees a lot of great books not offered at most chain stores.
▪ “Champagne” by Peter Liem. Fitch said Paula de Pano, the beverage director at Fearrington House, calls it “the ultimate book on her favorite topic.” The two-volume edition is packaged as a boxed set that includes vineyard maps.
▪ “The Fearrington House Cookbook” by Jenny Fitch. When it comes to old reliables, Fitch suggests her treasured cookbook by her late mother. Despite its name, the book does not contain restaurant recipes but rather homey ones cooked for the family.
▪ Among new titles, Fitch admires “Sweet,” the new collaboration between Yotam Ottolenghi and Helen Goh, and thinks Deb Perelman has another winner with her second book, “Smitten Kitchen Every Day.”
Authors close to home
Jack Nales, marketing specialist for the N.C. Department of Agriculture and Consumer Service, offers these recommendations:
Nales enjoys giving these books that are by North Carolina authors: “Fred Thompson’s Southern Sides” and “Deep Run Roots” by Vivian Howard. “I’ve found now-favorite recipes and helpful tips in both,” he says, “but I enjoy reading them as well.”
Nales said he hopes to receive “The Farmhouse Chef” by Jamie DeMent of Hillsborough’s Coon Rock Farm. He’s also hoping for a rain check for “Carolina Catch,” the forthcoming cookbook from Raleigh writer Debbie Moose. It will be published by UNC Press in April.
Jill Warren Lucas is a freelance writer from Raleigh. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter at @jwlucasnc.