Historically, I’ve had plenty of good luck when it comes to March Madness. Even without a working knowledge of college basketball stats or players, I manage to fill out a winning bracket time and again. But now I’ve found a madness to which I’m better suited: cookbook madness.
The cooking website Food52.com, home to recipes and tips gathered from home cooks across the country, holds a yearly Piglet Tournament of Cookbooks. Sixteen cookbooks are bracketed up NCAA-style then judged down to a final pair with the victor named grand Piglet champion.
A group of fellow cookbook enthusiasts and I have a tradition of betting on this “sport.” A completed bracket and $5 gets you into the tourney. We then follow the posting of judgments from each matchup, compare them to our own and crown a winner.
Piglet judges have ranged from Olympic athlete Brian Boitano and author Susan Orlean to well-known chefs like Yotam Ottolenghi and Wylie Dufresne. Some of the judgments are not without controversy. During Piglet 2014, a judge based her entire decision on a simple salad from one cookbook and frosting from the other — hardly enough work to make a sound choice between the two. But we are Piglet devotees, and diverse judging is part of the sport.
Once the Piglet champion is chosen, my competitors and I gather for a meal cooked from the contenders. This is a favorite tradition of ours with such delicious food and drink it rivals Thanksgiving, possibly Christmas.
The 2016 Piglet kicks off February 25. This past Saturday, my friends and I spent an evening trying dishes from the cookbook nominees and arguing over our projected wins. I encourage you to find a copy of the books, whether at a library or browsing a bookstore, fill out a bracket and follow along. But I warn you, this is an addictive sport. It will likely cause you to hurry to the kitchen to make a meal of potluck proportions.
Here are the 2016 Piglet Tournament of Cookbook nominees with their first-round matchups and my predicted outcome:
A Girl and Her Greens: Hearty Meals from the Garden by April Bloomfield + J.J. Goode
Ptak’s recipes range from breakfast foods to teatime snacks and indulgent late-night bites. I’m a big fan and hardly a week has gone by without me baking some goodie from her book. My only criticism is the insane amount of sugar in some of her recipes. But this is a book of treats, so excess sugar is completely appropriate. Bloomfield’s A Girl and Her Pig won the 2013 Piglet, and well-deservedly. But this new book lacks the luster of her first, and despite the ingenuity of several of her vegetarian dishes, is not the best vegetarian cookbook to come out of 2015.
Predicted Winner: The Violet Bakery Cookbook
The Food of Oman: Recipes and Stories from the Gateway to Arabia by Felicia Campbell
Andrews McMeel Universal $40
Near & Far is on trend with its styling and Swanson’s plant-centric dishes. The cookbook is sectioned into the cities Swanson has made home during her travels. Recipes are simple, intuitive and embrace the pantry inspired by each culture. The Food of Oman is an ambitious documentation of the area. Campbell, who was introduced to the cuisine during her military tour in Iraq, has made this her life’s study. We are invited into the inner sanctum of each home as families share their beloved recipes and way of life. I’m left feeling like I’ve been a guest alongside Campbell. In the end, The Food of Oman reads a bit like Life magazine with recipes, rather than a cookbook of recipes with side stories. This bumps it to my coffee table and not into the kitchen with Near & Far.
Predicted Winner: Near & Far
Zahav: A World of Israeli Cooking by Michael Solomonov + Steven Cook
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt $35
This is a matchup of instruction vs. culture. López-Alt’s weighty discourse on searing technique, optimal kitchen tools and the correct onion to use in your recipe is almost exhausting. I am in need of an education, though, so his effort is much appreciated. Think hip America’s Test Kitchen cookbook but with less recipes. Zahav is more casual in instruction, more stylish and focused on a particular cuisine, not cooking in general. The recipes don’t sacrifice education, but it happens more organically compared with the reference-book style of The Food Lab. Is Zahav creative enough to trump a college level course on home cooking? I say yes. Zahav for the win, but The Food Lab for the cook’s shelf — it’s just too useful to be ignored.
Predicted Winner: Zahav
Made in India: Recipes from and Indian Family Kitchen by Meera Sodha
Flatiron Books $35
Cooking from a restaurant cookbook can often be difficult — lots of steps or layers of recipes to make one dish. Gjelina may follow this trend, but the recipe steps are simple ones and this pretty restaurant cookbook fits easily onto the kitchen shelf. Made in India brings a young voice to Indian cooking and the recipes are just as bright and vivid with flavor as the book’s artwork and photography. I didn’t feel overwhelmed cooking from either book, but I gravitated toward the recipes that had me serving Indian dishes with ease.
Predicted Winner: Made in India
The Hot Bread Kitchen Cookbook: Artisanal Baking from Around the World by Jessamyn Waldman Rodriguez and the bakers of Hot Bread Kitchen
Clarkson Potter $35
Both cookbooks touch on well-traversed cookbook subjects — Mexican cuisine and bread baking. They’ve both been done, and done well. Eat Mexico is full of the sort of food I enjoy eating and sharing with my family. Food with heart from a city full of amazing street food and accessible markets. But Hot Bread Kitchen is not just any bakery. Working to educate and empower immigrant women through an education and practice in professional baking is a beautiful endeavor, and one Waldman Rodriguez seems to be doing well. The recipes are sourced from the women themselves — from their own families, culture and history. These bread recipes are as authentic as it gets. How many other times can you count on the recipe for masa harina or challah in the same book? I’m taken with not only the book, but the principles driving the endeavor.
Predicted Winner: The Hot Bread Kitchen Cookbook
Seven Spoons: My Favorite Recipes for Any and Every Day by Tara O’Brady
Ten Speed Press $27.50
As much as we are Reichl fans, my friends and I easily chose Seven Spoons over My Kitchen Year. Reichl’s memoir with recipes belongs on the bedside table rather than the kitchen shelf. Her recipes are so tied with a specific day and moment that they become an extension of her writing rather than a stand-alone meal to replicate. “Do I really need to know how to make a PBJ?” one friend asked. We think the answer is no. Seven Spoons is the better cookbook, not just because Reichl’s is lacking, but because O’Brady’s personality is infectious and her practical and inventive combination of Irish, English, Indian and Québécois cuisine is done with flare. Based on the cover image, we expected a trendy but unmemorable cookbook. What we found were plenty of recipes to tab and make in our own kitchens.
Predicted Winner: Seven Spoons
A Bird in the Hand: Chicken Recipes for Every Day and Every Mood by Diana Henry
Mitchell Beazley $29.99
I make no secret of my belief that Henry’s A Bird in the Hand belongs in every chicken-eating cook’s kitchen — my copy is already tabbed and stained from use. Her recipes are varied, easy to follow and delicious. The only mark against the book is its unhelpful index. But this is outweighed by the book’s usefulness and I’m content to markup the index with my own guidance. Senegal is a worthy opponent and I admit that I wavered in my judgement. Like The Food of Oman, Senegal pulls you into the landscape of a country and cuisine, and one that doesn’t have reams of cookbooks to represent it — yet. Senegal taps into the familiar in my childhood and I was happy to see green plantain chips combined with tuna tartar in a sophisticated pairing of local flavor. It’s a cookbook to pour over, try out and share with others. But it won’t find the permanent place on my kitchen shelf like A Bird in the Hand has, that’s a coveted spot, and makes Bird not only the winner here, but my choice for grand Piglet winner in 2016.
Modern Jewish Cooking: Recipes & Customs for Today’s Kitchen by Leah Koenig
Chronicle Books $35
One friend at our bracket party comes from a Sephardic family, and watching her battle over a these two was almost humorous. Whereas her upbringing held the flavors of Modern Jewish Cooking, my childhood holds fond memories of breakfasts spent in the kitchen of a Ukrainian family from my mother’s ESL — English as a Second Language — class. We both struggled in our choice. These two do a fine job of informing you of heritage while making the food and experience accessible, but Hercules won me over with her humor and her Moldovan giant cheese twist. Plus we all fell in love with her book’s cover. “If only I could have a necklace that looked like that!” declared my friend.
Predicted Winner: Mamushka