The first time I learned that one could read cookbooks for fun, I was at the library with a friend who was taking out a few. I asked her what she wanted to cook -- at the time, a cookbook was nothing more to me than an instruction manual. She said, somewhat sheepishly, "I just like to read them." Now, of course, I know exactly what she was talking about. So does Sam Beall, author of The Blackberry Farm Cookbook (Clarkson Potter, $60).
Blackberry Farm is the Calgon of cookbooks. It's not so much a collection of recipes as a portrait of a place and a timeless way of life in which food plays a central role. And "food" has more of an arc here than in most cookbooks -- the spring lambs and varied types of heirloom beans are all so thoroughly panegyrized that the recipes seem almost like an afterthought.
Blackberry Farm is an inn tucked into 9,000 acres in the Smoky Mountains in Tennessee. It's the kind of genteel place that, if I started up saving now, I could visit in ten or fifteen years. Fortunately, Beall has brought Blackberry Farm's pastoral beauty to a much larger audience with this book. The book is divided into sections by season, each section accompanied by large-scale photographs of the bucolic Tennessee landscape and the different niches of the farm as well as recipes.
The predominant cooking style at Blackberry Farm is haute Southern. The recipes veer mostly toward those that ambitious cooks would attempt. They include Tennessee corn and truffle flan; coffee-rubbed duck breast with wine marmalade; and buttered quail with pan-roasted hominy, giblet, and black trumpet ragout. There are also less intimidating dishes, like "pot likker" collards, skillet corn bread, and peach shortcake.
Whether the recipe is highbrow or low, the book's pictures are beautiful to behold. An heirloom tomato terrine looks like a translucent, colorful glass sculpture; a coconut cake is a towering cumulus cloud. The photos of the landscape are made for fantasy; each of the four seasons is crisp and distinct, shown to its best advantage. You know it's a good book when it makes even a Wisconsinite crave the comforts of December. With winter squash puree, cider-basted venison, and baked butterscotch pudding, who needs spring?
The book spends a great deal of time profiling interesting Blackberry Farm staff and purveyors. We meet John Coykendall, the gardener, who has collected heirloom beans since his youth; Michael Sullivan, the master of charcuterie, who does a joyful dance when he makes lardo; and Ila Hatter, a descendant of Pocahontas who can pinpoint the presence of watercress and pokeweed just by smelling the air. These unique people are as integral to the flavor of Blackberry Farm as the ingredients they supply.
As much as Beall lauds the farm's pantheon of Appalachian suppliers, foragers, and artisans and their place at the heart of its hospitality, there was an irony in knowing that most people couldn't afford to stay one night at the inn. I'll cop to a mild case of sour grapes, and hold on to the hope that heaven is something like Blackberry Farm. And that I get in.