International Cookbooks for the Ages

The inimitable Marcella Hazan died this week at the age of 89. As the New York Times noted in the headline for her obituary, she "changed the way Americans cook Italian food." Her passing got me thinking about enduring cookbooks by strong-minded writers who have guided me in the kitchen and whose prose is a pleasure to read away from the stove. 

Hazan authored a number of cookbooks, notably The Classic Italian Cookbook. Although she never felt comfortable enough in English to compose in that language (she wrote in Italian and her husband translated the text), she had a forceful voice that commanded the reader's attention. She was exacting, opinionated, and sometimes peremptory--a stern teacher whose rigor her students cherish. Nearly 200 people have commented on a Times feature on favorite Marcella Hazan recipes.

Another of my culinary heroines is Paula Wolfert, who has written widely and deeply on the cuisines of the Mediterranean. My copy of Couscous and Other Good Foods from Morocco is stained and tattered from frequent use. She is a scholar as well as a gastronomic adventurer. Her books evoke the sights and smells of Southwestern France, Italy, Greece, Turkey, Lebanon, and North Africa. Like Julia Child's, her instructions are extremely detailed but so logically organized that even an amateur cook can achieve astonishing results. Fortunately for cooks and readers alike, Wolfert is very much alive and continues to publish cookbooks for the ages.

Men seem to outnumber women among celebrity chefs, though not in my personal pantheon. A towering figure in gastronomy before the age of food television, George Lang wrote the definitive guide to The Cuisine of Hungary, his native land. Steeped in history and literature, his book recreates the full range of Magyar food ways, from simple peasant dishes to pastries fit for a Habsburg monarch. His writing is clear and strong. He shared with Hazan and Wolfert an impatience with pretense and an utter devotion to authenticity. 

A giant in the annals of Mexican cooking, Diana Kennedy is perhaps an unlikely authority on the many cuisines of our neighbor to the south. She has lived in Mexico for decades, and has faithfully recorded the recipes of gifted cooks from Sonora to Chiapas. Her instructions leave nothing to the imagination, and her recollections of memorable meals conjure remote corners of the Republic. Kennedy is still actively writing for her many fans. Her Essential Cuisines of Mexico brings together recipes from several earlier works and adds new material as well. It's available in Spanish translation too: Cocina esencial de México.

In this post, I have bypassed the literary pleasures of M. F. K. Fisher and Elizabeth David in favor of writers who have captured the essence of great international cuisines. I have half a dozen other "cookbook immortals" in mind, but in the interest of brevity, I'll save them for another day. Marcella and George, rest in peace. Paula and Diana, keep on writing. Which cookbook authors have earned immortality? Your nominations are welcomed.


Written by Joe Cahn on October 2, 2013


Laurie. on October 2, 2013


James Beard is one of my favorite immortals. His book, Beard on Bread, is one of my favorite cookbooks and contains my favorite bread recipe, Maryetta's Oatmeal Bread. He wasn't lying when he wrote, "This is as good an oatmeal bread as I have ever eaten, and it makes wonderful toast."

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