The author of Women on Food shares her go-to cookbook gifts.

By Charlotte Druckman
Updated December 03, 2019
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Book Review Illustration
Credit: Maaike Canne

A cookbook can be a keepsake—a heritage conveyed through recipes, a benchmark treatise on the cuisine of a region or culture—and if you think of those we’ve continued to love well beyond their publication dates, they tend to have been written by women: Madhur Jaffrey, Diana Kennedy, Joyce Chen, Julia Child, Anissa Helou, Julie Sahni, Elizabeth David, Dorie Greenspan, Marcella Hazan, Jessica B. Harris, Claudia Roden. The next generation of matriarchs is now carrying on that tradition in their own right, and their cookbooks, the heirlooms of the future, are ripe for the giving.

There’s journalist Toni Tipton-Martin, who has just published the comprehensive Jubilee: Recipes from Two Centuries of African American Cooking, or Calcutta-born chef Asma Khan of Darjeeling Express in London, whose Asma’s Indian Kitchen is a celebration of home cooking that, thanks to her royal Mughlai ancestry, feels incredibly special. We all have friends who are resolving to cook more often. They would likely benefit from a copy of Diana Henry’s newest book of one-pot wonders. For them, it’s a copy of From the Oven to the Table (along with a Dutch oven) to open a world of possibilities, in a single pot, with a single book. (And what a lovely surprise it would be to pair those with Henry’s debut work, Crazy Water, Pickled Lemons.)

If the idea of collections appeals, a complete set of the Chez Panisse cookbooks from Alice Waters’ polestar in Berkeley would provide any cook with a preliminary and chic foundation. Edna Lewis, the African American teacher, chef, and author who did for Southern cooking what Child did for French, died in 2006. This year, her third cookbook, In Pursuit of Flavor, was reissued, and in 2018, Edna Lewis, an anthology about her, was published. For an essential gift, stack both of those with her second volume, The Taste of Country Cooking. Then there’s Maida Heatter, the patron saint of home baking. We lost her this year, at the age of 102. If you love someone who gets a thrill from making tarts, Happiness Is Baking, a compendium of her greatest recipes, will bring them joy.

Midnight Chicken is really a self-help book masquerading as a cookbook, although you will want to cook from its charmingly illustrated pages. For author Ella Risbridger, who lives with depression, cooking is an act of self-care, and here she spreads both that message and the bonhomie of making dinner.

For the armchair or kitchen traveler, Alissa Timoshkina’s Salt & Time is an invitation “to share my memories of growing up in Siberia and to accompany me on a journey across the vast country.” It will satisfy both those who read to be transported to a new place and those who wish to re-create the food of a faraway destination as a way to better understand its people.

Georgina Hayden’s Taverna accomplishes a similar feat, but she invites us to Cyprus, on the Thames. After immigrating to England, her father’s parents ran a Cypriot taverna in Tufnell Park for nearly three decades; her maternal grandparents were grocers, selling ingredients from the Eastern Mediterranean island of their birth. Like Timoshkina’s, Hayden’s is “a book of memories, appreciation and family,” rife with things you want to eat. Pair Taverna with Oklava to provide an even deeper immersion in the cuisine of Cyprus. The latter, by Selin Kiazim, is the work of the chef at Oklava (the word means “rolling pin”) in London and reflects the cross-pollination of the simpler, “more Mediterranean” cuisine of Cyprus and its more heavily spiced, aromatic Turkish counterpart. Some of Kiazim’s recipes are from her restaurant; some are inherited from her mother and grandmother. “Please,” she writes, “don’t just look at the pictures—I want to see grubby pages because you have been using this book so much!”

That’s the measure of gift-ability, as far as these cookbooks are concerned: grubby hands—and the marks they leave on pages due to frequent use. I would confidently and lovingly bestow any of them on my kindred—just not this year. This year, I’ll be giving everyone a copy of Women on Food, my new unconventional anthology that celebrates the two entities in its title—same as the cookbooks I’ve referenced. Because everyone knows the best gifts are the ones you make yourself.