When we were 11 and 13 years old, our parents dressed us in neckties and blazers and marched us to a French restaurant in our hometown, Charleston, South Carolina. We sulked through dinner until dessert arrived: crème caramel. And in that instant of magical custard, its essence of burnt marshmallow skin made silken-smooth (and grown-up-approved), everything changed. We’d never been to France, but we knew this crème caramel was a journey unto itself, to another place.
Walking home, we conspired to re-create this trip ourselves. We waited until a day when our parents were out of the house, took down Mom’s dusty, stained Joy of Cooking from the cabinet above the telephone table in the kitchen, and went to work. We followed the instructions to the letter: making the amber-colored caramel on the stovetop; dividing it among the ramekins and swirling till it coated the bottoms; pouring in the custard and baking the cups in a pan half-filled with water. When inverted, the little custards came out perfect—caramel syrup flowing over the browned-on-top pucks—just like the ones we’d tasted in the restaurant. We had been to France and back in a kitchen on East Bay Street, and it was irresistibly delicious.
After that first transporting experience, we fell prey to the charms of the cookbook—an obsession, really, that continues to this day. Our shelves now groan with titles such as Exotic Ethiopian Cooking, Hawaiian and Pacific Foods, and Loving Breton Cuisine. Each book is a snapshot of a far-flung voyage we took, providing a direct line to a moment in our travels: scooping up berbere-spiced lentils with spongy injera bread in Addis Ababa, sampling tart pickled mango from a roadside stand on Oahu, tasting beurre aux algues (seaweed butter) for the first time in St.-Malo.
Granted, the old tomes rarely give us a precise roadmap to the main dish we’re going to put on the table tonight, simply because the ingredients, the methods, and the “cook till done” sketchiness of the instructions don’t fly in today’s kitchens. But loosened from their instructional component, they offer an evocative window into a time and a place. An exceptional cookbook should make you yearn for a destination so much, you want not only to step into the kitchen—and, through the sorcery of heat and ingredients, take a trip—but also to set off on that next adventure in search of foreign flavors in their original context.
These days when we travel, we scour used-book stores and oddball junk-tique shops—look for a large earthenware pickle crock being used as a doorstop—that typically have a forgotten shelf of cookbooks somewhere in the back. (For a list of shops that take their cookbook collections as seriously as we do, see the sidebar above.) Old kitchen volumes have become even more than inspiration or armchair-traveler’s amusement. With their period illustrations, graphic design, and photography, these books, to us, are also objets d’art.
The best among the newest breed of cookbooks are bound to have the same timelessness as these classics—yes, even in the iPad age, when any recipe is available with the tap of a screen. These modern culinary guides are putting as much emphasis on experiencing the place as on the recipes themselves. Take Israeli-born chef Yotam Ottolenghi’s Jerusalem, with its pastiche of images welcoming you right into the fabric of the city’s street life: men enjoying a hookah in the afternoon shade; savory glazed ka’ach bilmalch biscuits you could almost pluck off the page. Or Naomi Duguid’s Burma: Rivers of Flavor, peppered with images of rice paddies and early-morning market scenes, and Fabrizia Lanza’s Coming Home to Sicily, which brings to mind the beauty of growing up among the grapevines and gardens of Regaleali.
A journey for the reader is exactly what we aimed to create when we went to research our newest cookbook, The Lee Bros. Charleston Kitchen. Here was a place we thought we knew well. But as we immersed ourselves more deeply than we ever had before in our collection of Lowcountry cookbooks of the 19th and 20th centuries, we ended up doing a bit of time travel in our own hometown. There were ingredients we’d never encountered before: roasted tanya, anyone? Our reappraisal of these old volumes yielded recipes that had all but disappeared from Charleston’s tables—the English dessert syllabub, for instance, which every pre-1950 Charleston cookbook worth its salt included—and that we thought were worth bringing back. So many of the recipes we created for this book, we realized, could be tied to specific restaurants and residences. That’s why we decided to include a walking tour that would allow travelers an entrée into Charleston.
Paging through these regional period pieces, we’re amazed at how readily the rhythms of the food culture, and the argot, become apparent. You can bet that when we do, finally, book our first trip to Israel, Burma, or southern Italy, we’ll be traveling with one of these cookbooks tucked in our carry-on.
T+L contributing editors Matt Lee and Ted Lee’s latest cookbook, The Lee Bros. Charleston Kitchen (Clarkson Potter), is in bookstores now. Follow them on Twitter @TheLeeBros.