Growing up the daughter of a world-famous cookbook editor, Alex Guarnaschelli knew the importance of a good home-cooked meal. Her mother, Maria Guarnaschelli, insisted on cooking every recipe in the books she edited. That meant one year of nothing but Indian cuisine and another full year of cakes.
While cookbooks, with endless measurements and instructions, can be daunting, the best recipes go beyond the ingredients.
In a recent New Yorker article called "The Pleasures of Reading Recipes," Bee Wilson writes: "Like a good short story, a good recipe can put us in a delightful trance."
On The Daily Circuit Wednesday, Lynne Rossetto Kasper, host of American Public Media's The Splendid Table, said Kevin West's "Saving the Season" shows the ability of a cookbook author to transport readers to another world.
"When you read his recipes, you know that he lives in a clean, well-lit place and his life has a Zen quality to it and you're there," she said. "You can do this with such ease and you can taste it and you can feel it and it's all so simple. It's like meditating."
As a chef, Guarnaschelli values what she calls the "little chef island in your head where you have anywhere from 15 to 30 actual recipes that are random and don't connect or make sense, but they're sort of the motherboard in your computer."
Some of her favorite little chef-island recipes are quick breads, she said, including cheese biscuits.
"This recipe was one of the very first things I ever made in a professional kitchen, but before I was making it, I was eating the results hot every day out of the oven," Guarnaschelli wrote for The Food Network. "While working at Larry Forgione's An American Place, the biscuits would come out of the convection oven in the back of the kitchen just a few minutes before dinner service."
For some, the story of the recipe has more importance than the final product. One caller had family living in Kentucky during and before the Civil War working as abolitionists.
"My great-great grandfather would build barns, and in the barns would be secret passageways and hiding spots for slaves that were on the Underground Railroad," she said. "Part of taking care of people is to take care of their nourishment. A recipe that has been passed along to us was one that was put together and stashed in these locations, so whoever came in could open the jars and have a complete nutritious meal."
The jars typically contained canned corn, beans, potatoes and some kind of canned meat. The caller said she puts it on her menu during trips with her Girl Scout troop, so she can tell the story of how food connects people.
OTHER COOKBOOKS TO READ:
William Sitwell's "A History of Food in 100 Recipes"
"Sitwell has removed one of the sources of pleasure we get from cookbooks, which is the illusion that we are actually going to make every recipe we fancy the look of," Bee Wilson wrote. "But being asked to read recipes for their own sake, rather than with a view to cooking, gives a clearer sense of how they stimulate our imaginations."
Cara DeSilva's "In Memory's Kitchen: A Legacy from the Women of Terezin"
The book is a collection of recipes written by starving women in the Czechoslovakian concentration camp of Terezin during World War II as a way to preserve their favorite meals.
"Things like this were being done all over in prison camps because food was such an identifier for people," Lynne Rossetto Kasper said. "They were the dreams, they were the life that they had lost, but they weren't ever going to lose it. So if you really want to see what a recipe can evoke, and I'm not just talking the sentimentality, but the idea that a recipe is a lifeline for people."