I am a collector of cookbooks! My favorites are the ones that combine stories and recipes. Cookbooks that satisfy your soul while you skim the text, ogle the photos, and browse the recipes imagining how the ingredients will taste together. I love cookbooks that help you to know the chef and their story and why they cook the way they do. I collect all kinds but definitely have a preference for southern cookbooks. Here is a list of what I consider to be the essential southern cookbooks!
Essential Southern Cookbooks
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Heritage by Sean Brock
This is a stunning cookbook. It is big and glossy and the photos are breathtaking. This is a cookbook made for browsing. In it you will find recipes that range from comfort food to high-end restaurant food. Brock puts a great deal of emphasis on using extremely local ingredients. For him “local” is the Carolina low country and he suggests that the reader to “find and gather ingredients in your own region and make these recipes your own.” This can prove to be a little tricky. Even so, I think this is a cookbook that belongs in every southern cooks library. I particularly love the way he gives specific brands of items to use in the recipes. He won’t just say mayonnaise as an ingredient, he will say, “mayonnaise, preferably Duke’s, or hot pepper vinegar preferable Texas Pete brand.
The Taste of Country Cooking by Edna Lewis
Part cookbook, part memoir, in this classic book recipes and stories combine to form a delicious celebration of the country cooking that Edna Lewis grew up with in Virginia. Farm to table and organic might be current trends, but back when this book was written it was everyday life. Organic food was just food and farm to table was just harvesting and cooking and serving ones friends and family. This book is presented in four seasons each with their own specialties, feasts, and delights. These are old-timey recipes with old-timey ingredients and old-timey modes of preparation. Some of the recipes will be difficult to replicate exactly, others are still very do-able. However, this is one cookbook where the book itself transcends the recipes. It is not just about recipes. It is an evocative story about nature and home, childhood and family, community and hard work. It is a delight.
Pickles, Pigs, and Whiskey: Recipes from My Three Favorite Food Groups and Then Some by John Currence
James Beard award-winning chef John Currence was born and raised in New Orleans. Being born and raised in New Orleans always seems to be an auspicious beginning for a chef. He now has a thriving restaurant group in Oxford, Mississippi. Pickles, Pigs, and Whiskey is essentially a cookbook, but one with a big spoonful of literature. Tales are told and stories are spun in a way that make you want to try the recipes. Pickles, Pigs, and Whiskey is organized by technique. These include: slathering, squirting & smearing, boiling & simmering, stirring, shaking & muddling…just to include a few! The stories might be outrageous, but the recipes are serious. This is new Southern cooking at its best. I love the advice to “create a joyful working environment” while you cook. To that end each recipe has a song pairing and you can listen to the playlist on Spotify.
This is one of my favorite cookbooks. Martha Foose is a talented storyteller and cook. She comes across as fun and witty and someone you really like chat with on a front porch, bourbon in hand. Martha Foose was born and raised in Mississippi and was the executive chef at the Viking Cooking School in Greenwood, Mississippi. She is used to teaching home chefs and you can tell. Her recipes are creative, but also very accessible to the home cook. Most of all they are delicious! This is traditional southern fare with just enough of a contemporary twist to cause you to want to try Martha’s recipe rather than your grandmother’s. Her recipes all have a history and you’ll meet a charming cast of Mississippi characters as you decide what to make for dinner.
The Commander’s Palace New Orleans Cookbook by Ella and Dick Brennan
The Commander’s Palace Cookbook was written in 1984. At the time of its publishing these recipes represented “new” New Orleans cuisine also known as “Haute Creole.” You can see how certain things have changed as you peruse the recipes. It is also obvious, in a good way in my opinion, that this is a cookbook from a restaurant as it does a great job of giving the actual weight of ingredients rather than leaving it up to you to decide if you have a small or a medium leek. I do wish the book had a few more photographs. As much as I like older cookbooks I do find myself missing the photos of a more modern book. Even though you might feel as if you are holding a bit of history you will find that most of the recipes are still solid. We have made the Commander’s Palace Bread Pudding and the Gumbo Ya Ya for years and those alone are worth the price!
Chef Edward Lee’s story is just so darn American. His parents were Korean immigrants, Chef Lee was raised in Brooklyn, he visited Kentucky for the Kentucky derby and loved it enough to settle in Louisville, Kentucky where he started an acclaimed restaurant. He has been nominated multiple times for the James Beard Award. Chef Lee blends the flavors of his Korean heritage with the culinary traditions and ingredients of the southern United States. This is not your traditional southern cookbook! It is definitely what you might call “new southern.” You will find recipes like Cola Ham Hocks with Miso Glaze or Southern Fried Rice. He also explores the similarities between the Korean and Kentucky cultures which is very interesting. This is another cookbook that combines recipes and stories and chef Lee does both well.
A Real Southern Cook: In Her Savannah Kitchen by Dora Charles
Dora Charles worked side by side with Paula Deen for many years. After a lawsuit was brought against Deen by one of her restaurant managers, Dora Charles decided to go public with the story of her treatment while working with Paula Deen. Dora Charles does share a few tales in this cookbook about her former boss and friend. They are both warm and painful. However, If you are hoping to get the dirt, you might be disappointed. Dora Charles takes the high road. Although there is some shade thrown, it a very polite, southern, ladylike type of shade. Please don’t let the controversy overshadow the fact that this is a great cookbook with wonderful traditional southern recipes. There are also lots of helpful tips and secrets to help you create the dishes that Dora Charles was famous for. You will not be disappointed with the life stories or the recipes.
The south has an interesting relationship with alcohol. Dry counties still exist and churches preach against the evils of drinking and drunkenness and yet…this can be a heavy drinking world down here. It is the land of bourbon, boozy tailgate parties, mint julep soaked horse races, and champagne drenched wedding showers. This guide to cocktails is a historical guide as well as a book of cocktail recipes and it is fascinating! These are cocktails steeped in tradition. You will get tips for each drink recipe and learn about the tools and glassware and garnishes you need along with the history, creation, folklore, and background of each drink. And because it is never a good idea to drink on an empty stomach there are recipes for bar bites as well.
Root to Leaf: A Southern Chef Cooks Through the Seasons by Steven Satterfield
The title of this cookbook is a play on the idea of eating the whole plant from root to leaf the way people used to say that we eat the whole animal from nose to tail. Steven Satterfield the chef and creator of this cookbook is a James Beard Award winner who was dubbed the “Vegetable Shaman” by the New York Times. This is a book about cooking vegetables, but it is not a strictly vegetarian cookbook. Meat is occasionally used in the recipes. The book is organized by season and then further by the ingredients that you find during that season and of course it has a decidedly southern bent. What I really like about this cookbook is its simplicity. There usually aren’t a lot of ingredients in the recipes and I can find them at my local farmer’s market as long as I am cooking in season.
Deep Run Roots: Stories and Recipes from My Corner of the South by Vivian Howard
This is another stories and recipes cookbook. Vivian Howard and her husband opened their restaurant, Chef and the Farmer, in the town of Kinston, North Carolina. She says on her website that she considers this her first baby. The cookbook is organized by ingredient and the emphasis is on farmer grown and raised items in other words farm to table recipes. The stories are Vivian Howard’s childhood food memories as well as a ton of food history. This might be a cookbook that you will find yourself binge reading! You will get to know Vivian, her friends and family, and the true star of the cookbook, the ingredients that she uses. This is one of my favorites!
Fire in my Belly: Real Cooking by Kevin Gillespie
Kevin Gillespie says in the introduction to his cookbook, “Cooking is, at its root, figuring out the great qualities of any food and making those qualities shine. That’s the philosophy behind the recipes in this book.” This cookbook is, in a word, fun. Kevin Gillespie comes across as charming and interesting, someone you’d want to hang out with. His chapters are things like, “Food you thought you hated” and “Some like it hot.” You can also choose between “Junk Food,” or “When I want to eat Healthy.” It all depends on your mood. Although a few of the recipes are from his restaurant they are all accessible to the home cook.
Soul: A Chefs Culinary evolution in 150 Recipes by Todd Richards
I may have saved the best for last! I adore this cookbook. In his introduction Todd Richards says, “Food is a religion of its own. Different regions have produced great preachers of cuisine.” I love that analogy! In SOUL Richards shows us the traditions and diversity of soul food, but he also re-imagines it. He both embraces stereotypes and defies them. The cookbook is organized by types of food, collards, corn, tomatoes, and melons just to name a few. In each section you will find more traditional recipes as well as Richard’s spin on tradition such as the recipe for Collard Green Ramen. In addition he gives beer and wine pairings for the food and a playlist to listen to while you cook. The photos are gorgeous, the stories are lovely, and the food is delicious. What more could one want from a cookbook!
I hope that you have enjoyed this list of what I consider to be some of the essential southern cookbooks!
If you like to read fiction check out this list of some of my favorite novels set in the south.
Thanks for stopping by!