I love to cook, and I’ve always tried to apply in the kitchen the advice of the composer Charles Ives, who once said to a listener who was booing a piece of modernist music, “Stop being such a God-damned sissy! Why can’t you stand up before fine strong music like this and use your ears like a man?” Well, when it comes to food, I believe in standing up and using my tastebuds like a man.
There are plenty of opportunities to do that here in Belgium. Even our small local grocery and the corner store often have things on display that send me home to research what they are and how to cook them. Since 1990, one of my most useful references has been this book, published by Reader’s Digest, of all companies. Produced by Dorling Kindersley, Cook’s Ingredients is a model of DK’s image-intense approach to information.
Although it comes with the diminutive label of “pocket encyclopedia,” it packs into 230-some pages an invaluable wealth of information. Starting with vegetables, ending with meat, and covering fruit, herbs, spices, grains, dairy products, fish and fowl in between, the book covers just about every ingredient you’re likely to find in any good grocery store and plenty of those you’re not. Over 60 different types are shown in the seven pages on pasta. For each item, there is a pristine studio photo and a sentence or two about its origin, taste, production, or use.
If nothing else, it’s been terrific to have on hand when we have to send one of the kids to the store for scallions or a bag of orzo. Open it up, point to the picture, and say, “This is what you need to get.” We learned this lesson after one of the boys came back with a green cabbage instead of head of iceberg lettuce.
I do keep a couple of other guides: The New Food Lover’s Companion is more comprehensive but lacks illustrations; Waverly Root’s Food: An Authoritative and Visual History and Dictionary of the Foods of the World is more entertaining to read, if not the most efficient reference; and the CIA’s 7.8 pound behemoth, The Professional Chef, looms over them all. But for every one time I look at any of these, there are ten times I’ll thumb through Cook’s Ingredients.
I see that there are used copies available for as little as 35 cents plus postage on Amazon. C’mon now, folks: surely you can fork out that for the sake of a book that can hold its place in the kitchen for a lifetime–something few books beside Joy of Cooking can do.