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In appreciation of cookbooks

Some of Johnathan McGinty's favorite books are full of more than stories, and he thinks it's time we give these works their due

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My favorite books are scattered about my house.

I’m prone to re-reading, so they’re kept within a not-so-metaphorical arm’s length of my grasp.

When winter rolls around and the wind’s cold breath chills our house in a way that makes our heater work extra hard, I reach for the worn copy of Ethan Frome in my bedside table. I first read it in high school, initially thinking I’d hate this literary assignment from Mr. Barnwell.

I devoured it in less than two days.

The same goes for Stephen King’s Salem’s Lot, minus the aforementioned initial apprehension. It’s spooky and creepy and weird and, yes, distinctly Maine in some places, and I just adore it. If I need a bit of a fright as we near Halloween, I’ll just flip through its pages until we get to Danny Glick hovering outside the second-story window, tapping at the glass, asking to be let in the house.

Jimmy Buffet’s memoir A Pirate Looks At Fifty accompanies me on pretty much every beach trip. Compilation books, such as the Best American Sports Writing Series, warrant regular reads just to make sure I’m not letting my own writing skills slip too much.

There is one, however, that might surprise some folks. 

It’s not a literary tome from Dickens or Wadsworth. It’s not a new modern classic from an up-and-coming author. Instead, it’s a 590-page collection of stories and recipes known as The Lee Brothers Southern Cookbook.

A cookbook.

A cookbook?

A cookbook.

It’s easy to dismiss cookbooks as literary works because, well, a lot of those books are just measurements; fractions spelling out the ingredients needed for a pineapple upside down cake or meatloaf. Still, when I think about the genre that dominates the most space in my personal library, my collection of cookbooks fills up the shelves at my house. 

My love of them – and my love of cooking – traces back to my childhood, recalling the collections of my mother and grandmothers. 

They were all spiral bound, the pages wearing the scars of hurried stirs and hasty pours. They came from a collection of civic organizations more often than not, with a church group here and a service team there. Post-its, torn notebook paper, repurposed envelopes and other scraps spilled out of the pages, each capturing a comment or reminder about a favored recipe.

Photo courtesy of Johnathan McGinty

My mom’s mom was particularly good at that. In examining her cookbooks, several feature her unmistakable handwriting scribbled in the margins documenting her thoughts on that recipe in that moment and time. After her passing, I inherited her collection, including a spiral notebook filled with handwritten recipes she compiled throughout the years that may not yield the tastiest treats, but is full of delightful glimpses into her attitude at the time of review.

For instance, recipes she preferred earned a check mark or a simple accolade like “good” penned at the top of the page. Others, like “Jane’s Casserole” simply have an “x” and “I don’t like” jotted down off the side of the page. Glancing at the ingredients – a can of peas, a can of asparagus, a can of cream of celery soup and a hard-boiled egg – I can’t say I blame her.

Sorry, Jane.

Like so many other women in Augusta, my mother and both my grandmothers possessed copies of Tea Time at The Masters. This iconic, curated assortment of recipes rests on the shelves and counters of kitchens across the South. 

Filled with dishes fashioned by members of the Junior League of Augusta, as well as a few from the families of Masters champions, it was first published in 1977 and has spawned multiple reprintings and a pair of less compelling “sequels” to hit the shelves.

The one that remains most ingrained in my mind, however, is The Marketplace, which was the cookbook of the Junior Women’s League of Augusta (it’s different from the Junior League, somehow, so just trust me on this). My mom was a dutiful member of this particular organization and out of obligation bought herself a copy.

For the past 40 years, there seemingly has not been a holiday gathering that has not featured some recipe from its pages. The breakfast casserole that graces our table each Christmas morning comes from here, and though my mother could whip this savory egg-and-sausage bake up with her eyes closed, she still pulls out that cookbook each Christmas Eve and double-checks everything before assembling it.

That’s likely because, unlike me, many of the cooks in my family are, well, teetotalers for the rules and regulations that come with discolored pages of their cookbooks. My Aunt Carol, for instance, adheres to the recipe instructions with the vigilance of a new Army recruit following the commands of his or her drill sergeant.

There is little room for error. If it calls for a ¼ teaspoon of salt, then by God that’s what you’ll get. No need to experiment by adding a little oregano or anything because everything you need to know is right there in black and white. Why on Earth would you deviate from that?

That’s not my approach. 

Cookbooks are tremendous starting points, offering a choose-your-own culinary adventure as you set about on your journey. My wife doesn’t like too much heat in her sauces, so I’ll dial back the amount of chili or pepper called for in a recipe.

My mother has tried to do this on occasion, substituting some interesting items when she’s run low on necessary ingredients. If you’re curious, olive oil does not neatly translate into a replacement for, say, vegetable oil when you’re making a chocolate cake.

But it did lead to a great story we still tell to this day.

As such, it’s easy to dwell on the obvious storymaking that comes with a treasured cookbook. There’s the ritual of preparing a favorite dish for Thanksgiving or Christmas, the memory of cooking a roast or stew that conjures up the experiences of a long-ago childhood that is lived once again with each ingredient added and each plate shared.

But all too often we overlook the storytelling that exists on the pages of these books.

Consider The Southerner’s Cookbook, compiled by the editors of Garden & Gun. It features an essay from a well-known writer at the beginning of each section, giving context to the next passage of recipes. John T. Edge, the well-known Southern culinary expert and host of SEC Network’s True South, penned the piece that transitions us to “Condiments” and opened with this:

When I read a menu, I look for condiments.

Promise me smoked chicken swabbed with Cheerwine barbecue sauce and you earn my fidelity. Tell me that the coins of fried okra come with a bullet of buttermilk ranch for dunking, and I order two baskets. My perfect pork chop has a pink core and arrives in a puddle of sage pan sauce. Serve me a flute of fries and I’ll stir a dipping sauce from mayo, mustard, and three hits of Tabasco.

Forgive me, but damn, that’s one of the best ledes I’ve ever read, and it’s buried on page 227 of a cookbook just before a rather blase recipe for a tomato-based BBQ sauce. And that leads me to what I truly believe is one of the best written works I have sitting in my personal library.

The Lee Brothers, Matt and Ted, grew up in Charleston, S.C. and made a name for themselves sourcing Southern staples during their time living in New York City in the early 2000s. From making boiled peanuts in their small apartment to finding the most authentic field peas to offer up to curious New Yorkers, they cut their teeth as ambassadors of Southern culinary culture.

Photo courtesy of Johnathan McGinty

The cookbook, which was published in 2006, won two prestigious James Beard Awards and cemented the duo as two of the preeminent voices in the region’s food scene. Other cookbooks followed, as did speaking tours, well-deserved writing assignments and an opportunity to spend some time with the late Anthony Bourdain for his No Reservations program.

But it’s their initial foray into the world of cookbooks that remains, to me, their most intriguing work.

It’s organized as one would expect, broken up into the various sections that spotlight certain types of dishes and drinks, but done with a less-than-subtle style that, admittedly, might be a bit too on the nose given the genre. There’s a chapter on grits and rice, as well as another on pickles and relishes. Poultry, pork, beef and game are jammed into one chapter, though boiled peanuts, grazes and hors d’oeuvres feature 56 pages dedicated solely to themselves.

Still, the book gracefully moves from its opening welcome section, detailing how the brothers first became interested in recipe experimentation, to these various collections of recipes nestled next to stories, suggestions and more. Throughout are recommendations for sourcing, harkening back to how Matt and Ted first found success. A recipe for Scuppernong Preserves is adjacent to information on where to find this Southern grape for those who live outside the region.

Each recipe features a bit of backstory, providing food and drink pairing recommendations in addition to some element of personal history the guys share with it or some broader context around why this particular recipe is what it is. Clemson Blue Cheese Grits, for instance, give us the story of this very specific tangy cheese that initially was cured in a railroad tunnel beneath Stumphouse Mountain.

In learning that, it feels as if the blue cheese you’d grab at Kroger simply wouldn’t be an adequate substitute.

The page for Brunswick Stew is a bit wrinkled and a bit discolored, likely a consequence of a splatter of grease. The book’s bind is a bit broken next to the Summer Squash Casserole entry, given the frequency with which I’ve turned to that particular recipe. 

Since first getting this book several Christmases ago, I’ve flipped through its pages easily hundreds of times. Sometimes it’s at 5:45 p.m. on a Tuesday, much to my wife’s chagrin as I wrestle with what to throw together for dinner that night. Other times, it’s been early one weekend morning, preparing for an upcoming holiday meal. And other times it’s just been while I’m sitting in my chair, a glass of bourbon next to me, pondering what it is I should make one day in the future.

It’s lined with hand-scribbled notes and filled with Post-Its marking page after page. I may not necessarily drop in check-marks like my grandmother did many years ago, but the sentiment is the same.

We found something we liked, so we want to circle back to it and explore it again.

Isn’t that what any good book is supposed to compel us to do?

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Johnathan McGinty has worked in sports journalism and sports public relations for the past 20 years. If there's an opportunity to put together an oral history on something, he'll find a way to do it.