Cook Books Take You South and Southwest

I like a cookbook that reads like a book–not an instruction manual.  For a cookbook with personality, read  The Sweet Life in Paris. When good writing accompanies recipes that make you want to start cooking NOW, you’ve got a winner. If you want to read a food blog with real personality, I recommend Peggy Bourjaily’s Almost Slow Food.

And if a cookbook explores a region in depth like the Dordogne, then you have the best of all worlds, a travel cookbook.

Destination: Louisiana

Book: The River Road Plantation Country Cookbook by Anne Butler (NEW 2010)

In the introduction to River Road Plantation Country Cookbook, the reader gets a bit of history — the Mississippi’s impact on the development of Louisiana and the business, culture, and cuisine of the row of plantations built between New Orleans and Baton Rouge, Louisiana along River Road. Butler says, in her introduction:

The refined culinary customs transported from France soon mingled with hot seasonings and cooking techniques from other countries and incorporated native game, seafood and fresh local produce unknown in European kitchens. The resultant dishes were and are superlative…

Although the sepia tone photographs used throughout the book give it a historic feel, the author swerves back and forth from historic recipes in plantations to much more modern developments and modern recipes. You soon figure out the book is not all about plantations.

The recipes come from a variety of sources and many are skimmed from other cookbooks (with attribution). I think I might have been more charmed by one of the plantation cookbooks quoted that gives both the old “receipt” and the modernized version.

The travel part of the book held my interest more than the hodgepodge of recipes. The author introduced me to the LSU Rural Life Museum, which sounds particularly fascinating, and she  also clarified which plantations are open to the public, their hours, their restaurants and gardens. She tempted me to show up for the Jambalaya Festival some late May in Gonzales, when a cookoff is held. Possibly the best ever recipe for Jambalaya (a former champion contributed it) is included in the book. Another place I’d like to visit, the Cabin (restaurant, cottages, a whole Cajun Village of historic structures) will lure me to Burnside, Louisiana some day to try the Buttermilk Pie.

But overall, this book was disappointing. The layout and graphics did not inspire me. A prime factor in a good cookbook , the index, also left me searching. Despite the fact that the book is more travel book than recipe book, the index lists only recipes and not destinations.

Destination: Texas

Book: The Tex-Mex Grill and Backyard Barbacoa Cookbook by Robb Walsh (NEW 2010)

Texas and Louisiana, neighboring states, are about as alike as Hawaii and Alaska. As Robb Walsh talks about food as culture, it becomes clear why they are so different. In this book he is writing particularly about the Mexican influence on Texas cooking, and some of that sounds very familiar to an Arizonan like me.

I laughed out loud when I saw that he included a chapter on Taco Trucks. We have those portable restaurants in profusion in Tucson. The nickname here is Roach Coach, but in fact the cooking is good and inspected by the health czars just like restaurants.

It should not come as a surprise that Walsh includes those humble Taco Trucks–he does not leave anything out.  I’m still flipping through the pages and learning new things about cuts of meet, types of charcoal, varieties of chiles, and much more.

This is a lively, colorful cookbook with terrific black and white photos–many historical. How can black and white be colorful? You will have to see the great design work to understand.  Full page and double page spreads of closeups of food and/or people include a priceless picture of Fidel Castro in a ten-gallon hat tucking into some barbeque on a visit to Houston in 1959.

Walsh says,

I hope this book encourages you to get out your grill.  I also hope it puts you in closer touch with the foodways of Texas and Northern Mexico and brings some exciting new flavors to your table.  Most of all, I hope it makes your next fiesta a lot of fun.”

You see, he assumes that you are going to have a fiesta–and the whole book assumes you are going to have fun cooking. Now there’s a book with personality.

I want to thank Pelican Publishing Company for sending me a review copy of River Road Plantation Country Cookbook and Broadway Books for a review copy of the Tex-Mex Grill.

How do you read cookbooks? Only when you need them? Or curl up with them like a sizzling novel?

And by the way, have you subscribed to A Traveler’s Library? Next week we’ll visit India, Carmel California, Arkansas and Arizona. Now surely you would not want to miss a line up like that.

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About Vera Marie Badertscher

A freelance writer who loves to travel. When she is not traveling she is reading about travel. When she is not reading or traveling, she is sharing with the readers of A Traveler's Library, or recreating her family's past at Ancestors In Aprons . She has written for Reel Life With Jane, Life is a Trip and other websites. Also co-author of a biography, Quincy Tahoma, The Life and Legacy of a Navajo Artist. Contact Vera Marie by e-mail.

19 thoughts on “Cook Books Take You South and Southwest

  1. I don’t read cookbooks like a novel, but food really does have the power to evoke travel memories or transport you to somewhere you’ve never been. Love that about food!

  2. I want to check out Walsh’s book, I’m a huge Mexican cuisine fan, especially Northern cooking. And street food–taco trucks included–has to be one of my favorites. The torta sandwiches packed with fresh fried milensa, lime mayo, shredded lettuce, a thick-cut slice of tomato, and a slathering of homemade salsa–nothing better. I miss taco trucks, so far in our new home in Ohio we haven’t come across one.

  3. Biscuits, corn bread, pecan pie… my former Texas in-laws still haunt me with their food!

  4. The Louisiana cookbook sounds like a must for me. I have family in Louisiana and I remember being fascinated by the way they cooked and ate crawfish, though I was too squeamish to do it. Guess I’ve still got a few things to learn.

    I’m with you on reading cookbooks. I have a few as strictly references, but I love to curl up and read them. Thanks for the inspiration!

  5. I have to admit I read more recipes online than in book form any more. Due, at least in part, to the outrageous price of books in NZ. In any case, I always love seeing Peggy’s new recipes over at Almost SlowFood. She got some doozies!

  6. Vera! Thanks so much for mentioning Almost Slowfood!!

    I read cookbooks like I read novels and then, unlike most novels, I return to cookbooks again and again referencing and re-referencing and getting inspired.


  7. I love cookbooks that are associated with place. I started to read Fragrant Rice yesterday, a memoir about food and family in Indonesia. A Sweet Life in Paris sounds really good – I’m going to check it out – and I love Almost Slow Food!

  8. Sorry to hear that a cookbook on Louisiana cooking was disappointing. But life’s too short to spend time with something that doesn’t showcase regional cuisine at its best, so I appreciate the heads up.

  9. I absolutely love cookbooks that give you a flavor of a region. The food always feels so much more “authentic.” Thanks for these suggestions!

  10. I’ve recommended The Sweet Life in Paris to many as a good book to read prior to a trip to Paris – delightful observations and tips for places to visit that you don’t find in regular guidebooks.

    My all-time favorite “cookbook read” is “Adventures in Greek Cooking – The Olive and The Caper” by Susanna Hoffman, Workman Publishing, $19.95. This 500+ page book is as stuffed as a dolmade with great recipes, history, color photographs, and tales of the author’s first-hand experiences during her 30 years of extended stays in Greece.

    On a page with a recipe for Metaxa Honey Syrup, you’ll also learn about the history of Greek honey-coated fry cakes and read a snippet of history about the ancient game of ‘wine darts’.

    Hoffman, a chef and anthropologist, has seasoned her book with quotes so entertaining that you forget what recipe it is that you were looking for; quotes such as: “Dress your hair with fine extracts of perfume. . .and while you are drinking let these tasty dishes be brought to you.” –Athenaeus, Second Century, B.C.E.

    1. Oh my gosh Jackie–you know how in love with Greece I am, don’t you? The Foods of Greece by Aglaia Kremezi has been my favorite Greek cookbook, but now you’re tempting me to get The Olive and the Caper as well. Love the history and quotes included!

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