It is a happy day when I am asked to publicly recommend a book. It is also a dilemma. When I consider all the books I have loved and depended upon and profited from, how can I pick just one?
It is tempting, in a situation like this, to narrow one's choice to a classic or some political tome, so that one's audience might be suitably impressed. It is also tempting to place under the spotlight an underappreciated lyrical novel.
In the end, I have decided to come clean about the book I have probably recommended more often than any other. It is a cookbook. Now, wait. It is far more than a cookbook. It is a humor book and a self-help book and a security blanket and a kind of bible. It's called Beat This! and it's written by a woman named Ann Hodgman, under whose kitchen table I would like to live. Hers is the standard by which I measure (so to speak) all other cookbooks. So far, nothing comes close except her companion cookbook, Beat That!
The bulk of the recipes in Beat This! are for things that are familiar and beloved, but Hodgman makes them better. She makes them best. When you have that deep kind of hunger that is part longing, what's better to eat than the best apple pie? Or the best potato salad and guacamole? Or the best deviled eggs and crab cakes and white chocolate raspberry pie? You'll find all those recipes in Beat This!
You'll also find entertaining copy, like "Chili is further proof of my rule that every recipe is better if you add sausage or bacon." Or "Premade [graham cracker] crusts taste exactly like sweetened pencil shavings." Or "It violates the whole thing of a strawberry to cook it." About her buttercrunch, Hodgman says, "Master this recipe, and you control the world."
Some of the recipes in this cookbook are labor-intensive; some are amazingly easy. One of my favorite supereasy ones, for cinnamon rolls, has in its short list of ingredients "tubes of refrigerated dinner rolls." About this, Hodgman says: "Well, if this isn't an embarrassment to include here! But these are shockingly good." And boy oh boy, they really are. They should come with a warning not to make when you are alone in the house. (Or if you are alone in the house, to put on your jumbo elasto-stretcho pants, and make ready the guilt thrower-outer.)
As an added bonus, Beat This! has recipes for dog biscuits and play dough and the liquid you use to blow bubbles. And there's an entertaining index with information about things like where to get the Maid of Scandinavia baking catalogue, how to soften butter faster, and why the author never uses olive oil.
Here's my recipe for a delicious thing to do today: 1. Buy Beat This! 2. Go to page 64, and make that roast chicken. 3. While it's in the oven, lie on the sofa and read Susan Fletcher's exquisite novel Oystercatchers. Or Flaubert's Madame Bovary. Or any short story by Alice Munro. Or Rita Dove's poetry. Or E.B. White's essays.
There. I knew I'd find a way to get in more than one book.
You Must Read This is edited and produced by Ellen Silva.