Happy Birthday, Harry Potter (and J. K. Rowling and me)

Whether or not you’ve read the Harry Potter books yourself (but, really, how could you have not?), you have certainly have heard of the Boy Who Lived, You-Know-Who, and Professor Dumbledore. Most Millennials have a story about how Harry has been a part of their life and to celebrate Harry’s birthday – and J. K. Rowling’s and my own – I’m going to share mine with you.

I was a little late to the Harry Potter party – though I have more than made up for it since then, both literally and figuratively. My first introduction to Harry was at a used bookshop. I was ten, about to turn eleven and somehow my cunning fifth grade mind convinced my mom to add the tattered paperback to the pile of summer reading books she was getting for me and my little brother.

The spine was broken and the cover was creased as if someone had sat on it repeatedly. The pages were dog-eared and soft from being turned and held and well-read. Even before I found this book it had been loved.

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My 19th birthday cake was a replica of the cake Hagrid gave Harry in book one.

I worked my way through that pile of books over the summer. Harry had slipped down to the bottom of the pile in our living room and it wasn’t until July 30 that I curled up on my bed at discovered shaggy haired Harry Potter in his cupboard under the stairs. I read “The Letters from No One” – the chapter where the Dursleys go on the run to shake the mysterious letters that Harry has been receiving – that night and as Harry counted down the last seconds until his eleventh birthday my mom came in to announce that it bedtime.

The next day was my eleventh birthday.

I waited all day for my letter to arrive – and lots did. They came in the mail and had “Happy Birthday Faithy-Poo!” and “Happy Eleventh Birthday, Chickadee!” written in pretty grandma cursive. But no emerald green ink addressed to Ms. F. Lewis, The Bedroom by the Stairs…

That was the last day of summer. School started the next day and there were no owls or moving staircases or feather quills and parchment.

For my thirteenth birthday I was given the full Harry Potter series. I had already read most of the strawberry jam fingerprinted copies at my local library, but nothing compared to turning those crisp pages for the first time. I experienced Harry’s journey all over again.

Celebrating with Harry, Ron, and Hermione became a sort of unofficial birthday tradition for me. For my sixteenth birthday my family and I had a twenty hour movie marathon (no breaks – breaks are for the weak), culminating at the movie theater to finally see the final instalment of the movie adaptations. For my nineteenth birthday my friends threw me a Harry Potter themed party, complete with pumpkin juice and a replica of the cake Hagrid made for Harry all those years ago. And last summer I once again celebrated my birthday with Harry Potter trivia and tabletop Quidditch.

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Christ Church College was one of the many filming locations in Oxford and inspired the Great Hall.

That party was also my send off to England, where I was spending a semester studying in Oxford – the real life world of Harry Potter.

I made it my goal – one of my many goals for my time abroad – to see as many notable Harry Potter attractions as possible. I spent a day at the Warner Brothers Wizarding World of Harry Potter just outside of London, losing track of time as I made my way through the Great Hall, Gryffindor boys’ dormitory, Dumbledore’s office, and the Hogwarts Express. I explored Oxford, home to many filming locations and Emma Watson’s hometown – she was even rumored to have been at the bonfire on Guy Fawkes Day, though I can’t personally attest to this. I had breakfast at The Elephant House in Edinburgh, where J. K. Rowling is said to have written much of the first Harry Potter book while her daughter was at school.

As much as the term “Harry Potter Generation” has become cliché, I can’t help but admit the truth in it. J. K. Rowling created a world where children made a difference and where they could grow up alongside her characters. The Harry Potter series solidified a lifelong love of reading not only in me, but in thousands around the world.

So I want wish Mr. Harry Potter a very happy birthday. I’m looking forward to celebrating another year with you.


Originally published on San Francisco Book Review.

Coming Back from Studying Abroad doesn’t Mean Coming Back to Normal

You know that feeling of the day after Christmas? You’re surrounded by all these great things you’ve been looking forward to for months, but all the excitement is gone. You’re tired. You’re numb. You’ve had a lot to take in. And to top it off, everyone is too busy with their own day-after-Christmas-funk that they don’t want to hear all about yours. That’s what it feels like to come home from studying abroad.

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Enjoying a rare sunshiny day overlooking River Cherwell in Oxford, England. 

Before I spent a semester in Oxford, I had a plan: spend a semester in Oxford. Everything I had been doing for the past two years was all leading to that semester, the coup de gras of my college career. I worked two jobs, housesat, babysat and stashed my money like a squirrel getting ready for winter. Grandparents didn’t bother to ask me what I wanted for my birthday anymore—they just cut me a check and it landed directly in the get-Faith-over-the-pond fund.

Let me assure you, I don’t regret a moment of the time leading up to my semester abroad. My three months in Oxford changed my life. It taught me about the world and about myself. It broadened my horizons. It introduced me to new interests. Suddenly, I knew what I wanted to do with my life. I packed up my dorm room in December completely content with my experience and assuring myself I wouldn’t have any regrets when my plane touched down in the States fifteen hours later.

I was excited to see my family and friends. I couldn’t wait to catch up and share my stories with them. By the time I had been home for two weeks, I had met up with exactly one of my friends for little more than an hour. A week after that my family visited from out of town for our annual Christmas celebration and my collections of photos only yielded a few apathetic audience members who flipped through a handful snapshots before getting distracted by the shrimp cocktail that had just been unearthed from the fridge. My stories fell on deaf ears.

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Ben’s Cookies is a local favorite at the Oxford Covered Market that boasts fresh, American style cookies.

Just as suddenly, it hit me that I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life. I was lucky enough to be starting my job again in January, which would offer a welcome distraction, but the days leading up to that were typically spent in my room flipping through guidebooks that pointed out all the great things I missed while in the UK or trying to keep up a conversation with friends who were now eight time zones away.

It was depressing and I wasn’t prepared for it. Everyone warned me about culture shock when I prepared to leave the States to study abroad, but what they forgot to mention was that I would go through the same thing when I come back—but it was worse. You’ve just had this life altering experience. You’ve seen so many things and met so many people. You’re not the same person anymore. When you get back, everything is just how you left it. It feels like you’ve been running and suddenly you hit a wall.

After that realization, the guilt sets in. Why should you be unhappy to be home? Shouldn’t you be grateful that you experienced so much? Now that you’re back, it’s time to get on with your life. Stop being so irrational. Move on.

But, despite what that little voice in your head whispers to you, it isn’t that simple. As I mentioned before, I had spent two years planning my time in the UK. What I failed to do was plan what I would do when I got back—and that taught me just as much about myself as going abroad in the first place: I’m a wreck without a plan.

It’s been an entire semester since I’ve been back and I’m just now feeling like my life is settling in again. A few friendships didn’t survive the hiatus and I’m having to face the fact that my career aspirations have changed as a result of my traveling. I’ve had to learn to let go of that hazy imagination fueled idea of what my life “should” be and I’ve embraced the idea of not knowing what is coming next.

In January 2017, I will be moving to Ireland. I don’t know what I’ll do there—I don’t even know where in Ireland I’ll go—but I do know I have a visa and a one-way flight. I’m ready to start this whole rigmarole all over again. I have no doubt I’ll be better off for it, just like I was after studying abroad.

Modern Eclairs: and Other Sweet and Savory Puffs

modern_eclairsstars /5

What can you do with seven ingredients? Make pasta? Soup? How about pate a choux? Wait! Don’t go to Google translate — you’ll get something along the lines of “paste of cabbage.” But if we take things a little less literally, we arrive at something closer to “a pastry that puffs”: cream puffs and eclairs.

Let me tell you, this is the best paste of cabbage you’re ever going to taste. After clearly outlining the optimal ingredients and tools, Jenny McCoy goes on to offer an array of beautiful eclair recipes. Basic techniques are outlined with step-by-step pictures for visual learner like myself. The flavors of the book cover the gauntlet from fruity to chocolate (yay!) to savory.

I love the format of this book. Everything from its slightly unorthodox shape to the playful font and bright colors, plays off of the creativity of the eclairs themselves. I have no complaints about this book. McCoy makes eclairs look easy and promises desserts to impress.


Originally published in San Francisco Book Review.

Cookie Classics Made Easy

Cookie Classics Made Easystars /5

Over the past few years I’ve become quite the cookie connoisseur—that was my go-to destress through college—so quite a few cookie recipes have come through my kitchen. So many recipes require ingredients you’ll never use for anything else or take so long to make that they’re not realistic for that college student schedule. Cookie Classics Made Easy takes care of both these concerns. Recipes are quick and easy—easy to make and easy to follow. They stick to basic or easy-to-find ingredients. And, oh yeah, they’re yummy.

This is a super cute, well executed book. The format is easy to follow and provides great pictures of each of the cookies—an absolute must for a visual learner like me. Instead of digging through my pile of ten or twelve cookbooks, I can just turn to Cookie Classics Made Easy; it has all my favorite recipes. The binding was a little odd and I found that I needed to put the bag of sugar on the spine to keep it open to the correct page when I had dough all over my hands. Other than that, I have no complaints about this book—and this certainly isn’t enough of a complaint to stop me from purchasing this all-inclusive cookie cookbook for eleven dollars. Two cookie dough covered thumbs up!


Originally published in San Francisco Book Review.

Sara Moulton’s Home Cooking 101: How to Make Everything Taste Better

sara_moultons_home_cooking_101stars /5

Lot of people aren’t natural cooks, but they—we—still need to eat. So what are the options for these tummy-grumbling kitchen armatures? Well, they could boil up a big pot of ramen noodles. Again. Or they could bite the bullet and find a recipe. From personal experience, I’ve been led to believe that this is the reason there are so many cookbooks on the market. So with so many cookbooks weighing down the shelves at the local bookstore, how does one standout? For starters, you make sure you have yummy recipes that are easy to recreate, that you’re using tools that are easy to find, and that your cookbook is laid out and illustrated in the clearest way possible. Sara Moulton’s Home Cooking 101 manages to do all of that and then some.

One of my favorite parts of this cookbook is the four pages that are dedicated to Moulton’s favorite tools. She gives information on what each tool is used for and what makes it necessary for a well-functioning kitchen, allowing you to prioritize which tools you need immediately and what can wait—something this starving college student took full advantage of. Each recipe is complete with a list of ingredients and cooking instructions (as all cookbooks are), but what makes this cookbook stand out is that every recipe also includes helpful tips—often on damage control. There’s a great mix of difficulty levels demonstrated in the recipes, which makes this cookbook a universal kitchen resource for cooks of all levels.


Originally published in San Francisco Book Review.

Veterans Voices: Remarkable Stories of Heroism, Sacrifice, and Honor

veterans_voicesstars /5

Like everything we have come to expect from National Geographic, the quality of Veterans Voice is second to none. I’m a strong proponent of photographs in any nonfiction book that is even remotely historical and I wasn’t disappointed here. Veterans Voices is divided by eight values that contribute to the legacy of the American military—inspiration, courage, resilience, duty, gratitude, wisdom, loyalty, and honor—and each chapter tells the stories of outstanding individuals who dedicated themselves to their country.

In the foreword, Bob Woodruff points out that all Americans should respect the military men and women who have served the country, regardless of their own political leanings. Despite the frequent political bickering that my household is subject to, I couldn’t agree more and this sentiment is one of the things that stood out the most in this book. The photographs offer a window into the lives of soldiers and veterans and remind the reader of what Americans should be proud of. Featuring images ranging from Civil War cannons to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial to boot camp and Arlington National Cemetery, Veterans Voices ensures that the sacrifices these men and women have made for our country from the very beginning aren’t forgotten. A must have coffee table book that would make a great gift for any patriot (happy 18th birthday, little brother).


Originally published in San Francisco Book Review.

Have You Seen Elephant?

have_you_seen_elephantstars /5

It all starts with Elephant’s simple question, “Would you like to play hide and seek?”, and from there this picture book introduces characters with the unlikeliest of skills. Elephant’s choice of hiding spots will entertain children as the boy moves from room to room looking for him. If you need a hint to find Elephant yourself, the dog turns out to be pretty good at hide and seek even when the boy is stumped by Elephant’s clever hiding places. Once the whole house has been searched, the game moves outside, where Elephant and the boy meet a turtle who wants to play a game. “Would you like to play tag?”

Author and Illustrator David Barrow has already won several awards for his children’s book illustrations, including the Sebastian Walker Award for the most promising children’s illustrator in 2015. High expectations will not be disappointed with Have You Seen Elephant? I absolutely love the illustrations throughout the book; they are sure to capture the imagination of eager Elephant seekers and turtle racers alike. Barrow has even managed to tuck a little extra fun in the front and back covers, where the family portraits make room for the new friends.


Originally published in San Francisco Book Review.

Hadley Freeman, author of Life Moves Pretty Fast

For Hadley Freeman, movies of the 1980s have simply got it all. In her new book, Life Moves Pretty Fast, Hadley puts her obsessive movie geekery to good use, detailing the decade’s key players, genres, and tropes. She looks back on a cinematic world in which bankers are invariably evil, where children are always wiser than adults, where science is embraced with an intense enthusiasm, and the future viewed with giddy excitement. And, she considers how the changes between movies then and movies today say so much about society’s changing expectations of women, young people, and art—and explains why Pretty in Pink should be put on school syllabuses immediately.

Q. How did you approach researching a subject that has the potential to be so subjective?

A. Back when I was at school my history teacher told me that you should always go to the primary source. Obviously I had plenty of theories about these 80s films going into the book as I’ve been obsessed with them for 30 years. But I really didn’t want it just to be me jawing on, disappearing up my own backside with my arguments about how Ghostbusters is a love letter to adult male friendship, or that Pretty in Pink is a feminist classic. So instead I interviewed the people involved in the making of these movies, such as Molly Ringwald, John Landis, Ivan Reitman and Nancy Meyers, and it turned out, rather reassuringly, that they were as interested in those subjects as me. The first person I interviewed was Eleanor Bernstein, who wrote Dirty Dancing, and I said to her that I always thought the reason she wrote the movie was to celebrate the legality of abortion. She laughed and said, “I’ve been waiting 30 years for someone spot that.” So that gave me the confidence that I wasn’t just going down a spiral of my own manic obsession.

Q. How do you define “eighties movies”?

A. I had to be strict about this and say it was movies that were released between 1980 – 1989. It’s a cliche that a decade doesn’t begin properly until four years in, but I decided to take the straightforward chronological approach.

Q. Why is this something you wanted to write about and why will people want to read about it?

A. First and most obviously, it seemed like a really fun subject. What better way to spend a day than interviewing Matthew Broderick about Ferris Bueller’s Day Off? But on a more serious level, it was increasingly obvious to me that movies made today by studios are astonishingly conservative, and much more so than movies made in the 80s, especially about things like working women and abortion, and it surprised me that people weren’t talking about this. I hope people will want to read it because they love the movies and also because they want to know how and why Hollywood today became so socially conservative.

Q. What makes eighties movies more culturally relevant or important than other eras and forms of entertainment?

A. I don’t think I’d say 80s movies are more culturally relevant than movies from other eras, but I do think they are more culturally relevant than any movies made since. Movies made in, say, the 40s were hugely culturally relevant. But the 80s was the last decade when movies were made with largely American audiences in mind, and that means they depicted very specific sociopolitical issues, such as the 1980s farm crisis, the bloating of Wall Street and the alienation of the suburbs. It also meant they felt free to depict things like abortion in a positive light and have strong female characters. Now that Hollywood makes movies largely for the foreign market it makes what it imagines what Russia and China want without any sense of specificity. It also takes fewer risks because movies cost so much to market around the world. Thus, whereas teenagers in the 80s had movies like the John Hughes films which meant so much to so many people, now they get identikit superhero movies, which mean nothing to anyone. Even Steven Spielberg and George Lucas struggle to get movies made now, and they were the masters of making emotionally affecting blockbusters.

Q. What is the “thirty-year rule”?

A. The 30 year rule is a theory I made up. It refers to the time it takes for pop culture, dismissed as trash in its own time, to be revered as important art 30 years later. It generally takes 30 years because that’s how long it takes for the kids to grow up and get jobs where they have the platform to proclaim that Tiffany was actually – ACTUALLY – a genius pop star. I am the living embodiment of my own theory.

Q. How did you decide which movies you would write about?

A. Quite simply, it was the movies I love most. I honestly could have written a book five times as long, and there are loads of movies I regretfully had to leave out: The Sure Thing, Field of Dreams, The Witches of Eastwick… But my editor was very strict that this book was not allowed to be 1000 pages long, the tyrant.

Q. These movies continue to be popular with younger generations, so why isn’t Hollywood producing anything similar now?

A. Because movies have become so expensive to market, is the short answer. 80s teen movies were made with mid-market budgets, but Hollywood doesn’t really make those sized movies anymore. It makes either small indies or giant blockbusters. So there are some small teen movies, such as The Fault in Our Stars and The Spectacular Now, but in the main there’sTwilight and The Hunger Games.

Q. Is there a way to recreate the ascetics and emotional effect of eighties movies?

A. Absolutely, but the studio has to accept that it’s working on a smaller canvas. The reason 80s teen movies still appeal so much is because they’re all about emotions and relatively unimportant themes, like going to a prom or getting detention. They’re not about saving the world or fighting evil. So you’re not going to get blockbuster audiences, but you will get devoted ones.

Q. What eighties movie best defines your life?

A. It would have to be a tie between Ghostbusters and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. Ghostbusters because it captures in a very funny way what it was like growing up in New York City in the 80s, as I did, when the city felt like an out of control crime-ridden mess. Ferris Bueller’s Day Off because I obsessively watched that movie every day for a year as a whole child and, in my heart, it is still my fantasy teenage life.

Q. What would you say to people who are critical of this era of movies?

A. This is a very cheeky answer but I’d say read my book – not for my amazing words of wisdom (well, not just them) but to hear from the filmmakers behind the movies. They really show that they were doing so much more than just making movies about proms, and how they’re not allowed to make movies like that now.


Originally published in Manhattan Book Review.

Narration: The Foundation of Fiction

Most people think that after their high school reading proficiency test, they’re in the clear, but the truth is that no one ever stops learning how to read. Every book is its own lesson in how to read that particular book. Readers have become accustomed to certain literary techniques and they recognize them quickly, adjusting their reading to the subtle cues the writer leaves for them.

The perspective from which a fictional story is narrated is a prime example of this—it is presented immediately and is constant throughout the piece, it sets the mood of the whole work, and it is all too often an underutilized tool of the writing craft. While there is some disagreement within the literary community as to how many different points of view are available to a writer, alternative forms of narration have received particular attention lately. Books like Caroline Kepnes’s You and Hidden Bodiesare creating waves for innovative approaches to narration.

First person narration is arguably the most widely used form of narration and in recent years the literary world has been flooded with the many egocentric “I” voices of the YA genre. There are a few theories as to why first person is so common:

  • First person narration allows the reader to relate to the character very easily as all events are conveyed through the eyes—and tinted by the emotions of—the main character.
  • The reader is able to understand the motivations and reasoning of the character without the need for lengthy sections of dialogue.
  • First person is typically very straightforward and therefore easy to read.

Third person narration is also extremely common. While fiction was once nearly exclusively narrated by some form of third person voice (whether omniscient or limited), it can now often be found in literary fiction and scattered liberally among the first person narrated novels of most other genre fiction.

Far less common is second person narration, which employs the use of second person pronouns such as “you” and “your.” From time to time these can be found shelved alongside other works of fiction, but the style is off-putting to most readers. It asks much more of the reader’s suspension of disbelief as the reader becomes the main character and is suddenly living a life very different from their own.

Some writers have pioneered a multiple perspective narration by alternating between a first person perspective of the main character and a third person perspective that follows other minor characters—often denoted by chapter breaks—but few authors have tested the waters of a first person and second person narration mash up. Perhaps first seen with Italo Calvino’s 1982 If on a winter’s night a traveler, the style lay dormant until Kepnes’s You published in June of 2015, followed by Hidden Bodies in early 2016.

“You walk into the bookstore and you keep your hand on the door to make sure it doesn’t slam. You smile, embarrassed to be a nice girl, and your nails are bare and your V-neck sweater is beige and it’s impossible to know if you are wearing a bra but I don’t think that you are. You’re so clean that you’re dirty and you murmur your first word to me—hello—when most people would just pass by, but not you, in your loose pink jeans, a pink spun from Charlotte’s Web and where did you come from?”

The first paragraph of You (above) initially gives the impression that the story is going to be told from a second person perspective, with “you” serving as the main character. However, the first clue that there is actually a first person narrator is the use of “I” and “me.” This immediately presents several obstacles to the reader’s experience of the novel:

  • Unlike traditional first or third person narrations, this is not a form the typical reader will be familiar with. This means that the reader is asked to put much more effort into making sense of the characters and where the reader falls in relation to them.
  • It also makes the reader uncomfortable. Because the first person narrator is directing his inner monologue to another character known only as “you,” the reader will subconsciously associate themselves with the woman being scrutinized so shamelessly.
  • At the same time, the reader will sympathize with the first person narrator, because that is what has been taught by other first person narrations. By filtering the story through a first person narrator, the writer is forcing the reader to understand the story in a way that reflects positively upon that narrator. The idea is that even a villain doesn’t think of themselves as evil, only misunderstood. First person just shows the reader why.

This use of a first person narrator and a second character to whom the narrator’s thoughts are directed introduces a new complication to the topic of narration. David Lodge solves this dilemma by explaining the “you” as filling the role of a narrateeon page 80 of his part instructional, part investigative writing manual The Art of Fiction: “Every novel must have a narrator, however impersonal, but not necessarily a narratee. The narratee is any evocation of, or surrogate for, the reader of the novel within the text itself.” He goes on to explain that this can be as superficial as the “Victorian novelist’s familiar apostrophe, ‘Dear Reader,’” or as involved as “the reader” in Calvino’s If on a winter’s night a traveler. However, whether given a name or merely referred to by “you” or “reader,” the narratee is “always a rhetorical device, a means of controlling and complicating the responses of the real reader who remains outside the text” (Lodge 81). In other words, the narratee is a character, not the person reading the book.

While this style of narration shows the potential for variations of traditional narration styles available to writers, Kepnes insisted in an email interview that “the story has to require it. And most stories just plain don’t require it, they’re not built that way.”

In the case of Kepnes’s You and Hidden Bodies, the use of a narratee serves as another layer of characterization for the main character and narrator, Joe. It adds to the claustrophobic feeling that allows the reader to empathize with both the stalker (Joe) and the young woman he stalks and woos (Beck). It also allows the reader to get to know Beck through Joe’s understanding of her, which alternates from justifying his action to justifying hers at various points in the novel.

“I started out on this with the hope that you would read this book and feel as though you were eavesdropping on [Joe’s] internal monologue, which is all directed at this one woman,” Kepnes said. “Which is why it’s captivating, because he’s fixated on her.”

And while second person narration and the use of a narratee may seem to have nearly the same effect on a reader at first glance, there is no doubt that they influence the reading experience very differently.

“It would be such a different book if you were reading and feeling you, the reader, are walking in Beck’s shoes,” Kepnes said. “I love that as a side effect at certain moments, but it would be boring to go through the whole book that way.”


Originally published in San Francisco Book Review.

Sugar and Spice and Everything Nice: What it Takes to Make a Good Cookbook

If a cookbook is going to stand out in this world of Pinterest recipes and successful food blogs, it really needs to go above and beyond a list of ingredients and dry, clipped instructions on how to prepare them. Whether it is an all-around cookbook or focuses on a specific meal or ingredient, a good cookbook should have great photographs, simple (and delicious) recipes, an intuitive system of organizing those recipes.

Photographs:

This is a pet peeve of mine. I’ve seen far too many cookbooks that have great recipes, but terribly pixilated or unappetizing photos. As a visual learner (and most certainly not a natural born cook), I depend on the photographs to make sure I know the recipe is supposed to turn out.

The photographs in a cookbook serve a purpose, just like the diagrams in a physics textbook. They should help you to reach the end goal (a delicious dish) and should complement the written instructions, rather than demonstrate something that is not included in the recipe itself.

I recently ran across a dim sum cookbook (The Dim Sum Field Guide) that had black and white illustrations. It seems that these overly simplified illustrations were a stylistic choice, but they serve no benefit to the home cook, nor does it add anything to the book itself. I think it goes without saying that there should be no reason to illustrate a cookbook in this day and age, and certainly not a vague generalization that may or may not resemble the end goal.

Heaven forbid a recipe don’t have any photos at all. I’m looking at you James Beard’s All-American Eats: Recipes and Stories from Our Best-Loved Local Restaurants.

Simple (and Delicious) Recipes:

It’s pretty easy to recognize a simple recipe when flipping through a cookbook at the store. It’s a little more difficult to know if a recipe will actually taste good.

A good cookbook should have recipes that use a variety of ingredients, but no one recipe should call for too many ingredients. One of the most common complaints home cooks have about cookbooks is that they call for ingredients that aren’t readily available at the supermarket. If a cookbook does feature a lot of unique ingredients, there should be a section dedicated to where these ingredients can be bought and what can be substituted. Katie Chin’s Everyday Chinese Cookbook does a fantastic job setting aside a section at the front of the book that outlines ingredients that are commonplace in Chinese cooking, but won’t be so familiar to the average home cook. Chin also gives ideas of where to find these staples and why they are important to the recipes.

I was so excited when I got my hands on The Chocolate Lover’s Cookbook and so sorely disappointed when my family and I had to reluctantly nibble our way through mediocre dessert after mediocre dessert (I was too stubborn to give up after the first failed recipe). I spend a lot of time with my oven mitts on and I’ve never had to throw out so many sweets for a lack of eager after dinner audience – no one wants to waste precious calories on a dessert that isn’t satisfying.

Because it’s nearly impossible to tell if recipes are going to be good before you make them, the best proactive step you can take is to read reviews of the book before you fork up some cash. The great thing about cookbooks is that they don’t go out of style, so don’t be afraid to go with the tried and true cookbooks all your friends have been bragging about for years.

If you’ve already bought a cookbook with not-so-great recipes, the best thing to do is ditch it. Don’t waste your time and money hoping the recipes will get better.

System of Organizing Recipes:

This is a rather subjective quality of a good cookbook – which is likely why there are so many different approaches to organizing recipes.

There are the failsafes: breakfast, lunch, dinner, dessert; hors d’oeuvres, soup/salad, main course, dessert; Spring, Summer, Autumn, Winter; etc.

However, these certainly aren’t the only successful ways of organizing recipes. Some – like Dinner Made Simple – have been extremely successful at sorting recipes with common ingredients into sections. Have a handful of apples and not much else? No problem. Page 18. Butternut squash? Corn? Mozzarella? Rotisserie chicken? Pages 66, 98, 154, and 210 have you covered.

And then there are cookbooks that don’t follow any particular system and instead are broken into arbitrary chapters, which I personally find only incrementally more helpful than plain chapter numbers.

Other:

If you though these factors were subjective before, buckle up. This is where opinions just start to become white noise – this is also why publishers can churn out so many different cookbooks without cutting into the sales of any particular cookbook: everyone, ultimately, is looking for something different from a cookbook.

  • What is the format of the book? While it’s not a deal breaker, I usually prefer hardcover cookbooks. It’s way easier to keep them open to the right page, which means that I have to flip through the book with cookie dough covered cookies much less often.
  • Does the cookbook have an index? The index is going to be your best friend if you have a certain ingredient in mind or a particular recipe you’re looking for. Otherwise you might waste valuable cooking time just flipping through your book.
  • Is the text large enough to read? You want to make sure that the text is large enough to reference on the go. Was it half a cup or a whole cup of chicken stock? If you have to stop what you’re doing to squint your way through the whole recipe again, it’s really going to slow the process.
  • Do you have all the equipment you need? I don’t know about you, but I don’t have mandolin (Don’t know what this is? Neither did I), onion googles, or bench scrapers. So Sara Moulton’s Home Cooking 101, while it met all of my other criteria, wasn’t the best fit for my kitchen.
  • Are these recipes something you would actually make? There’s not a more subjective qualification than this. I’m notorious for collecting cookbooks that I’ll never use just because I saw one recipe that I might make for a holiday dinner (but really I forget long before that day comes) or the photos were especially well composed. So honestly ask yourself: Do the recipes sound delicious to you? Or just mediocre? Look at the cook time. Do you have an hour and a half to dedicate to prepping dinner? Or are you going to get all your ingredients set out, realize the monumental amount of work you have in front of you, and then order a pizza?

What else do you look for in a cookbook?


Originally published in San Francisco Book Review.