Bookshelf.jpg
"This one?"

"Keep it."

"What about this one?"

"Keep it."

"This thing?"

"Put it in the box."

"Seriously, Jay? It weighs a ton."

"Keep it."

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Cook's Shelf: The Things We Carried

Bookshelf.jpg
"This one?"

"Keep it."

"What about this one?"

"Keep it."

"This thing?"

"Put it in the box."

"Seriously, Jay? It weighs a ton."

"Keep it."

This exact conversation was repeated, ad infinitum, for pretty much two straight days while Laura and I tried to pack up our house in Denver and get ready for the move to Seattle. She would pick up a book -- some unwieldy, sauce-stained tome about fish or India or French pastry -- and ask if I really really needed to bring it with me. And I, almost without fail, would say yes, desperately.

Did I need a tattered book on kid's cookery from the 1950's, missing both its front and back covers and first 10 pages? Yes, I did. Mostly because it was filled with line drawings of smiling cartoon children in chef's hats and aprons making things like drop biscuits and lobster thermidor, with little modern concern for safety and no parental supervision whatsoever. Did I need Henry Hill's Wise Guy Cookbook (of course) or some small-press tome on the art of cooking with weed (duh) or James Beard's 1971 book on navigating French and Italian menus (called How to Eat (and Drink) Your Way Through a French (or Italian) Menu -- it has been out of print for years and is notable primarily for that terrible title and Beard's exhaustive explanations of almost every dish one might reasonably come across while eating one's way from Rome to gay Pa-ree)? Absolutely, I did.

I brought almost everything with me, drawing the line only at diet cookbooks, single-ingredient pamphlets (101 Uses for Creamed Eels and the like) and freebie cookbooks given away with the purchase of slow cookers and upright mixers. And before I was done, I would make exceptions for most of the latter -- never knowing when I might need to know how to cook an entire Thanksgiving dinner in one crock pot.

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Still, even in my desperate pack-rat-itude, there was a hierarchy. There were boxes of books that I knew I was unlikely ever to open (labeled just "COOKBOOKS"), others that I could conceive of needing sometime in the next decade (labeled "IMPORTANT COOKBOOKS"), and then a few -- a precious few -- which, should the car have broken down, caught fire and been threatening to explode by the side of the road, I would've gladly gone back into the inferno for. These, oddly, were only labeled "HEAVY," but that didn't matter. I knew exactly which boxes they were, and understood in my deepest heart of hearts that, had I been ambushed by Road Warrior-style bandits while crossing Utah (because you know that's where that kind of thing would happen), these would've been the first boxes I grabbed when I had to make a run for it. Laptop bag, then the cookbooks, then, if there was time, the cat. I had it all worked out.

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Anyway, I had to think long and hard about the books that would make it into the "HEAVY" box. Because I assume that every road trip is going to devolve into some kind of crazy, high-speed, mohawks-in-the-desert psychodrama, I packed it like my life (or at least my livelihood) depended on it. And because I think that the kind of cookbooks a gastronaut keeps close to his heart says something about the heart in question, here's some of what made the cut:

El Bulli 2003-2004: Yes, I have my own copy. Yes, it's the boxed set with the CDs intact. And yeah, mine is signed by Ferran Adria. This was a real "cold, dead hands" sort of inclusion.

Lobscouse and Spotted Dog: I am a huge geek for Patrick O'Brian's Lucky Jack Aubrey books, not just because I have a weird fetish for sailing ships and the literature they've spawned, but because Jack and Maturin? Those boys knew how to eat. Also, who knows when I might need to lay hands fast on a recipe for soused pig's face or a hundred different kinds of suet puddings.

Simply Sensational Desserts: Francois Payard's brilliant pastry book might seem an unusual inclusion, but I have a strange affection for this particular tome. It was the one I bought years back when I was accidentally given a job as a patissier at a restaurant in New Mexico despite the fact that I knew precisely fuck-all about the gentler side of galley ops. I lasted only a couple days and did a terrible job, but without this book I wouldn't have even been able to sift flour without messing it up. The fact that I produced anything at all is all thanks to Payard's (almost) idiot-proof instructions and lovely pictures of what the finished product is supposed to look like.

My collection of Gourmet Magazine recipe annuals from the late '80s and early '90s: Because without them, how would I be able to accurately make fun of those chefs still doggedly stealing from them 20 years later?

Larousse Gastronomique: The bible of any chef worth his whites. If there's any white jacket out there who tells you that he's never turned to Prosper Montagne's text in a moment of desperate need, never lifted a special-event menu or Tuesday-night special from its pages, never wept openly onto the cover when faced with another night of frying jalapeno poppers for a bar full of rubes, then you, sir, are in the presence of either a liar or a fool.

This massive, ancient, 30-pound cookbook with no cover that contains the precise recipe for just about every single thing under the sun: I half-inherited this monster, can't recall its proper name, and will likely never need to know how to prepare a platter of wild fowl or make mousse de foie in my home. But even still, just knowing I have this thing handy comforts me and makes me feel smarter than I really am. Also, should I ever find myself competing in some sort of around-the-world balloon race, this book would make excellent ballast.

Okay, so that's my (partial) list. And now my question to you is, what cookbooks would you put in your panic box? Which ones do you know that you simply could not live without, and why? As I said above, the choices you make say a lot about you as a person, so think carefully, search your shelves and your soul. And when you have an answer, add it to the comments list below.

And remember: this is not some kind of "Best Cookbook" kind of thing. None of those I listed above are actually useful in any day-to-day way. They just happen to be the ones I love most dearly. The things we cannot live without are not always the things we touch every day, but almost always are the things that touch us most deeply.

Just something to keep in mind ...

 
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