Two Great Cookbooks from My Two Great Guys.

Deep Run Roots by Vivian Howard cookbook book cover

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​We had a great Christmas at our house. How about you? I wanted to make my book(s) of the week the two cookbooks I received as gifts, one from my husband Jim and the other from my son Gideon. I love both, but they’re very different from each other. I thought it would be fun to do a comparison review for my weekly book post.

Deep Run Roots: Stories and Recipes from My Corner of the South by Vivian Howard, available from many outlets including Amazon, in both hardcover and digital formats–although, as I say below, this one is worth getting in hardcover.

I’ll be honest—I made it very clear to my husband that I wanted this book. You may remember that I’ve used Vivian Howard, the main character in the PBS show A Chef’s Life, as blog fodder in discussing burnoutrelationships, and the whole be-careful-what-you-wish-for principle. During the third season we saw Vivian setting up an office away from the restaurant and working on her massive cookbook, Deep Run Roots. She talked about her deadlines. She agonized over how long the photography process took. She met with the publishers, who tried (unsuccessfully) to rein her in. And now here it is, all 547 pages of it, sitting on my kitchen table. I’ve been reading it like a novel or a memoir, having now gotten to page 193. Will I actually make any of these recipes? Probably very few of them. “Tempera-Fried Okra with Ranch Ice Cream,” anyone? Or stuffed pig’s appendices? Really, I kid you not. It’s called “Tom Thumb,” and you can make a dish called “Tom Thumb with Dirty Faro and Rutabaga Relish.” (The faro, a kind of grain, is “dirty” because it’s mixed with chicken livers.) Oh my! Don’t think that this will be appearing on the Simons dinner table any time soon. Here’s what Vivian has to say about preparing the pig appendix casings:

The appendix will likely be packed in a salt cure and will smell awful. Rinse it several times in cool water inside and out, changing the water around it as you go. If you just can’t get past the smell, turn the casing inside out, cover it with water, and stir in 1 tablespoon of the baking soda to dissolve. Refrigerate overnight in the water. Drain the next day and do it again with the remaining baking soda. I’ve done this both ways and have decided I enjoy the funk the casing imparts to the sausage. You’re gonna get some of that no matter what, but a double-day soak in baking-soda water should cut it a bit.

The pig’s appendix is, of course, part of its intestines, so it’s really just a variety of chitterlings, or chitlins. As Vivian says, her forebears were frugal. They had to be. And now the dishes that they made simply to use up every part of the animal are considered cool.

I’m really enjoying the stories Vivian tells. (You’ll notice that the subtitle lists “stories” before “recipes.”) She is a wonderful writer, and the book gives her a chance to flesh out much more of the backstory of the events portrayed on the TV show, as well as a fuller accounting of her life growing up in the South. I’m also enjoying the book as a physical object. The experience of reading it wouldn’t be at all the same if I were scrolling through on my computer screen or listening to it—although hearing Vivian’s voice telling her own stories would be great. Maybe she could do just the memoir parts without the recipes. But having the book itself, with its heft and beautifully laid-out pages, is a joy. I’ve drifted away from reading “real” books, but this one is a pull back into doing that. It’s the distinctive product of one distinctive voice.

The Complete Cook’s Country TV Show Cookbook by the Editors at America’s Test Kitchen, 2016 edition, available from Amazon and other outlets.

The second cookbook I received couldn’t be more different. It’s the result of a collaborative effort from a whole group of people, also involved in a cooking show but a very different one from A Chef’s Life. This one is Cook’s Country, part of the cooking empire that includes Cook’s Illustrated, the magazine that started it all, and the TV shows America’s Test Kitchen and Cook’s Country. Last Christmas my son got me a subscription to the magazine, which I thoroughly enjoyed. This year he got me the companion cookbook for Cook’s Country. I already have the ATK cookbook, so I’m now set—I have every recipe for every season of the two shows. Sadly, Christopher Kimball will no longer be the host of the shows or the editor of the magazine, as he resigned because of a contract dispute last year. So we’re enjoying his very last appearances as we watch this season. I don’t know that I’ll bother watching it any more once Chris is gone. A grown man who will dress up as a strawberry or Carmen Miranda—well, it’s a rare gift.

Anyway, you won’t find much in the way of personal stories in this cookbook. Over in Vivian’s book the blueberry chapter starts out with an account of how her father got her a deal on the fruit for a dollar a pound—but she had to buy 500 pounds. So in sheer self-defense she made vinegar out of it, which led to her blueberry barbecue sauce, which led to her selling it on its own. But the CC book has no such stuff. We have learned a few things here and there on the TV show about the personalities involved, such as that Julia’s husband is a fishmonger and that Christopher’s family likes to travel, but it’s not as if each recipe has a backstory. There are, for instance, several blueberry recipes, but there are no epic sagas involving crates of blueberries sitting out behind the restaurant, spoiling in the sun. It’s all about “why this recipe works.”

And that’s just fine. I love both cookbooks, for very different reasons. So I’ve already made one dish from CC, sort of: the roast beef with red wine-orange gravy, which I made for my sister-in-law’s birthday dinner. I couldn’t find the exact type of roast they asked for, and I fiddled quite a bit with the gravy. But I liked the end result. And if I’d realized they had a popover recipe we might not have had the rather leaden ones I produced to go along with the beef. Oh well. This week I’m planning to make their Cuban roast pork.

So one cookbook is personal, eccentric, and pretty impractical for most home cooks. The other is intensely tested and re-tested by a whole group. The recipes are meant to be the best of their kind, not the personal vision of an individual. I’m happy to have both.

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