Cookbooks for the COVID-19 Era | Reader's Shelf

For readers looking for silver linings in the dark clouds of COVID-19, cookbooks shine brightly. 

Readers looking for silver linings in the dark clouds of COVID-19 can pick from a number of shimmering threads: the way books are being used for solace; the rise of readings and book clubs on social media and Zoom; and the value readers have placed on reading of all kinds, including nonfiction that helps them with their new normal. Cookbooks have shone brightly. 

The idea that one can read a collection of recipes as one would read a novel is not new to those who love cookbooks. All kinds of narrative cookbooks lead the way in this regard, but any cookbook, even the most utilitarian, can offer education and respite as readers sink into the lovely meditation of imagining a meal. Feast of the Seven Fishes: A Brooklyn Italian’s Recipes Celebrating Food and Family by Daniel Paterna (powerHouse. 2019. ISBN 9781576879153) is a blend of memoir, armchair travel, scrapbook, and ode, all dedicated to a particular place and time in Brooklyn. Paterna provides a tour through his family history and neighborhood. He takes readers into shops and through the celebrations of Christmas and Easter, along the way offering a deep dive into special and daily dishes, each more luscious and redolent than the last as the book lovingly preserves a landscape and a terroir. Suggest next: Bill Buford proves that reading books on food is an endless delight. His newest, Dirt: Adventures in Lyon as a Chef in Training, Father, and Sleuth Looking for the Secret of French Cooking, is also rich in locale as Buford travels to France and learns to cook.

Food has brought with it a range of new anxieties; readers might be waiting in line at a food bank or struggling to figure out how to manage family dinner from a hodgepodge pantry. Reading cookbooks can bring some order to the chaos. Chefs’ Fridges: More Than 35 World-Renowned Cooks Reveal What They Eat at Home by Carrie Solomon and Adrian Moore (Harper Design. 2020. ISBN 9780062889317) is another visual feast, this time more schematic than scrapbook. It features wonderfully detailed and annotated photographs of the refrigerators of chefs such as José Andrés, Christine Tosi, Alice Waters, and Carla Hall. Along with the photos are profiles of the cooks, a Q&A, and recipes. Suggest next: Start Simple: Eleven Everyday Ingredients for Countless Weeknight Meals by Lukas Volger also has a calming idea: that one can learn to build an array of dishes from just a dozen or so base ingredients.

Baking has offered great solace to those able to source the ingredients. For anyone longing to learn to bake, or to bake more, Caroline Bretherton’s visual guide offers aid and a range of tasty bakes. Each master recipe in Illustrated Step-by-Step Baking: Classic and Inspiring Variations to Hone Your Techniques (DK. 2020. ISBN 9781465494313) is presented as a grid of photos keyed to easy-to-follow processes. Once a treat is mastered, Bretherton offers variations by altering flavorings, thus lemon cheesecake can morph into cherry or strawberry, and raspberry cream meringues can become pistachio or Mont Blancs. It is an empowering and useful guide. Suggest next: Simple Cake by Odette Williams is a lovely book that offers 10 basic recipes and then suggests 15 toppings to create permutations of deliciousness. 

With food so hard to come by, making it last and using every bit has gained more importance. Lindsay-Jean Hard offers ways to use of every last morsel in Cooking with Scraps: Turn Your Peels, Cores, Rinds, and Stems into Delicious Meals (Workman. 2018. ISBN 9780761193036). She details a number of under-the-radar ideas such as using vegetable peels to flavor salts and fruit peels to flavor sugars. There are also “clean out the crisper” recipes for quick pickles, frittata, strata, tempura, and stocks. Aquafaba, the liquid in chickpea cans, makes brownies and mayo possible while leftover mushrooms enrich compound butter. Suggest next: Secrets of Great Second Meals: Flexible Modern Recipes That Value Time and Limit Waste by Sara Dickerman focuses onleftovers as the basis of next meals. Arranged by type of food, the book offers usable information to rethink how to create meals, and there is a handy guide to help know when it’s time to throw something out.

Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat: Mastering the Elements of Good Cooking by Samin Nosrat (S. & S. 2017. ISBN 9781476753836) is another rewarding read. Nosrat is an excellent teacher and her tone is so inviting it makes her book a joy as well as an education. She offers plenty of expert guidance on how to think about cooking and then provides recipes to make and lessons to practice. Nosrat has another plus in her favor right now: the book was turned into a Netflix show. Reminding viewers of the pre-COVID era when foreign travel and meeting strangers was an adventure, Nosrat crosses the globe as she explores culinary topics. Suggest next: Readers who savor food TV might next turn to Mary Berry who has an endless number of books on offer as well as a fair number of TV shows to watch. Absolute Favourites has a matching BBC show that is pure comfort. 

Neal Wyatt is LJ’s readers’ advisory columnist, contributing The Reader’s Shelf, Book Pulse, and Wyatt’s World columns. She is the coauthor of The Readers’ Advisory Guide to Genre Fiction, 3d ed. (ALA Editions, 2019). Contact her at

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