Libby O’Connell, the History Channel’s lead historian, might know the history of American cuisine better then anyone else. Her book The American Plate takes readers on a culinary journey from the Native American’s traditional meals to our modern favorites. So when it comes to planning for a Thanksgiving feast, she’s the perfect guide. Here, she recommends six cookbooks to have around when planning this important meal.
Since my college days, I have learned my way around a kitchen through my love of cookbooks. Today I live in a Long Island farmhouse with lots of bookshelves, but honestly, there is never enough room for my books. My husband thinks they spontaneously reproduce. I have collected cookbooks for dozens of years, so narrowing them down is a challenge—like deciding between your children. But with Thanksgiving around the corner, I did come up with a short list of cookbooks I want to have on hand on Sunday morning, November 23, when I will start planning menus and grocery shopping for the upcoming holiday.
My daughter is bringing her fiancé home for Thanksgiving dinner, and Michael is a lifelong vegetarian. He can eat a lot of food, too, so I want to have some welcoming choices for this new family member. Recently, I bought a beautifully illustrated vegetarian cookbook called The Forest Feast at Passages Bookstore in the old Ferry Building in San Francisco. The author, Erin Gleeson, presents a creative approach to meatless main course recipes that are easy to replicate. Her book will definitely come in handy. And the pages look flat-out gorgeous because they combine Gleeson’s talents as a photographer and painter. I’m planning on including her cauliflower steaks with cheese on our buffet table, although perhaps I’ll swap in fontina for the cheddar cheese she recommends. Non-vegetarians will enjoy this recipe too—it’s delish. You can follow Gleeson on Instagram @theforestfeast.
I love the fact that wonderful cooks and food devotees are reviving high-quality regional cooking. The South may still be the home of sweet tea and moon pies, but it has serious bragging rights when you are talking about heritage recipes and fresh local food. Don’t forget the longer growing season south of the Mason Dixon line that extends the calendar for farmers’ markets. I also believe that Southerners love their food so much that they can’t separate it from their other memories. (Actually, I share that feeling too.) The folks at the Southern Foodways Alliance have compiled a classic community cookbook by collecting the best Southern heritage recipes. Kudos to John T. Edge, Sara Roahen, and everyone else who helped to put this wonderful book together, for preserving the authentic voices along with the best how-to advice. It reads like a Southern memoir. I can’t wait to mix up some of that creamy corn pudding.
Fundraising cookbooks have a long, admirable history. Some of the earliest recipe collections of this kind benefited state-wide women’s suffrage groups in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Now, Women for Women International has put together a remarkable fundraising cookbook, raising awareness and cash for their mission to help “women from war-torn countries to move from victims to survivors to active citizens.” The recipes, appropriately enough, stem from all over the world. I have always loved smokey baba ganoush, an eggplant puree often served in Lebanese tavernas, and Share provides a really tasty version. Alice Waters contributed directions for a lentil salad with lots of shrimp that looks easy and delicious, and the Thai-inspired lettuce wraps from Robin Wright will make a nice light supper on the Sunday after Thanksgiving, when the leftovers are gone.
This book is all about fresh, seasonal food, and is lushly illustrated by the author, Liz Neumark. I had the pleasure of hearing Neumark speak at the James Beard Foundation salon last month, and learned that she was a professional photographer in her former life. Her slides were stunning. So you know this will be a gorgeous book. And the uncomplicated recipes live up to standards set by the illustrations. Liz wants to engage young people in the joyful experiences of growing your own vegetables and cooking with freshly harvested ingredients. This mission led to a wonderful family cookbook, filled with tempting recipes. Over Thanksgiving weekend, I’ll have some little kids helping in the kitchen, and we are going to start with Neumark’s fettuccine with zucchini. I can already hear the giggles when they repeat the name of that dish.
This book is a triple threat: a step-by-step historic cookbook, a vivid house tour, and a sumptuously illustrated coffee table book. Because I just published The American Plate, guests expect me to produce a dish or two with the flavours of the past. Dining at Monticello provides a goldmine of information, and the adapted recipes work for today’s table. Given that my research involved some early foods like eel pie and roasted beaver tail, Thomas Jefferson’s epicurean kitchen seems modern by comparison. The stories of daily life at Monticello that surround each recipe add a lovely seasoning worth sharing with your guests, at Thanksgiving or at any occasion.
Irma Rombauer taught me how to cook. I don’t mean that she personally ever made an appearance, but within her old-fashioned cookbook lies the common sense of an expert grandmother who knows how to put a big meal on the table that everyone will enjoy. Since neither of my grandmothers spent a day in the kitchen, and my mother wasn’t really interested in cooking, The Joy of Cooking was like a gift from the Gideons of kitchen bibles.If you look up “dilapidated” in the dictionary you will see a picture of my copy of The Joy of Cooking. Printed in the 1970’s, it still includes directions for skinning rabbits and extensive lessons for canning. I wouldn’t trade it for the world.
When I want the right proportions or timing for an American recipe, I know Rombauer has them all laid out in a reliable, matter-of-fact way. Then I can add toasted, ground cumin or a fig and port wine sauce, and still be confident that whatever I dish I am inventing will turn out just fine (at least most of the time).
You have to bring your own creativity to Joy and it will provide a valuable, predictable canvas. When you are roasting a celebratory turkey, it’s easy to experiment with stuffing, or add a tricked-out cranberry sauce (as long as you also supply that canned jellied kind your brother-in-law loves and expects). But you better get that turkey right. And you can trust Irma Rombauer to be with you all the way.
Libby O’Connell was appointed Chief Historian, Senior Vice President, Corporate Outreach, AETN, in March 2005. Dr. O’Connell serves as historical adviser for HISTORY’s programming department.