Jean Anderson, the indefatigable and exacting Southern-born food writer and author of nearly 20 cookbooks, including “The Doubleday Cookbook”— a kitchen bible that rivaled “The Joy of Cooking” — and “The Food of Portugal,” which introduced American cooks to the lore, culture and food ways of her favorite country, died last month at her home in Chapel Hill, N.C. She was 93.
A friend, the editor and author Fran McCullough, confirmed the death, but did not know precisely when she had died. No cause was given.
“In a world filled with here-today-gone-tomorrow cookbooks and cookbook authors, Jean Anderson and her work have the staying power of the Rock of Gibraltar,” Elissa Altman, the food writer and memoirist, wrote on her blog in 2008. “Steeped in an academic tradition, Jean’s books possess the kind of now-rare remarkable accuracy attainable only through a sort of culinary Socratic method.”
She was a rigorous recipe tester, a stickler for accuracy who had studied food science at Cornell, and she made it her mission to lead baffled home cooks firmly by the hand through the basics of baking, as well the esoterica of the world’s cuisines. Her recipes were considered foolproof.
“She loved being that voice in your ear and guiding you through,” said Kim Sunée, a food editor and memoirist. “She was relentless in her testing, and lamented the chefs and celebrity food writers who weren’t. She found it both baffling and disheartening.”
So dedicated was Ms. Anderson that early in her career, when she was working in the test kitchen of Ladies’ Home Journal in the late ’50s and early ’60s, and the magazine published a recipe for a cranberry nut bread that omitted the baking powder, she “personally reimbursed every cranky reader who wrote in to complain about the ‘gunky gray mess,’” she told Ms. Altman.
“You learn fast,” she added, “when you’re on a slim salary and have to shell out to disgruntled readers.”
She was, said Barbara Fairchild, the former editor in chief of Bon Appétit, to which Ms. Anderson contributed for decades, “a meticulous chronicler of the history of American cooking in the latter half of the 20th century.”
It was from Ms. Anderson’s “The American Century Cookbook: The Most Popular Recipes of the 20th Century” (1997), that Jacques Pépin learned the origins of American staples like brownies, lobster rolls and tuna casserole, he said in a phone interview.
Sara Moulton, the chef, cookbook author and television cooking show personality, turned to Ms. Anderson whenever she was stumped by a viewer’s question. When Ms. Moulton was the host of “Cooking Live,” a call-in show that ran for six years on the Food Network, Ms. Anderson was her “red phone,” she said — the expert she had on speed dial.
Ms. Anderson, famously camera shy, declined to be a guest. Her one television appearance decades earlier, she told Ms. Moulton, involved canning cherries, and she was so nervous that she canned the pits instead.
Ms. Anderson also took her own lush photographs for the hundreds of travel and food stories she contributed to magazines like Bon Appétit, Gourmet and Food & Wine.
By all accounts, she was salty and direct. “She had a heart for the home cook,” said Nancie McDermott, a food writer and author based in Chapel Hill, “with not a shred of folksy charm.”
The 1970s was a decade of battling cookbooks. “The Joy of Cooking,” a household staple, and publishing juggernaut, since it first appeared in 1930, had lost its luster until it was revised in 1975. “The Fanny Farmer Cookbook,” first published at the end of the 19th century, was revamped in 1979, when Marion Cunningham took it on.
“The Doubleday Cookbook,” published in 1975, was the new kid on the block, a 1,300-page, four-pound doorstop even more expansive than “Joy,” with more than 4,000 recipes, from abalone stew to zucchini and lamb casserole, with stopovers in sautéed calves’ brains, homemade wontons and butterscotch brownies. It went on to win many awards and sell over a million copies.
“It was a breath of fresh air in the general cookbook category,” said Matt Sartwell, managing partner at Kitchen Arts & Letters, the venerable Manhattan cookbook store. “Jean was a serious, passionate and very deliberate cook, and those qualities made the book reliable and they also made it serious.”
The book was 10 years in the making. In 1965, Ms. Anderson quit her job at the Ladies’ Home Journal to tackle the project (James Beard and Craig Claiborne had already turned it down), roping in a colleague, Elaine Hanna.
The result was an encyclopedia of cooking that covered, in exhaustive detail, everything you might imagine, along with topics you might never think of: a tutorial on the metric system, a guide to kitchen equipment, instructions on how to stock a larder, a dictionary of techniques (like how to frost a grape or calculate the temperature of an oven with a broken thermometer), the dietary taboos of different cultures, table settings and menu plans.
One summer brunch menu is redolent of its era: orange blossoms screwdrivers to start, followed by chicken mayonnaise and cucumber in aspic, among other things. Ms. Anderson and Ms. Hanna revised the book in 1985 and again in 1990.
In her introduction, Ms. Anderson explained the book’s mandate, which echoed her own: “to coax the timid into the kitchen, to motivate the indifferent and to challenge accomplished cooks into realizing their creative potential.”
Helen Jean Anderson was born on Oct. 12, 1929, in Raleigh, N.C. Her parents were academics, and transplants from the Midwest, which meant she was Southern-born, but not of the South, which gave her an outsider’s curiosity, particularly about the region’s foodways. Her father, Donald Anderson, was a professor of botany at North Carolina State University in Raleigh, and later at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill. Her mother, Marian (Johnson) Anderson, had taught physical education.
Jean studied food science at Cornell University, graduating in 1951, and earned a master’s degree from Columbia’s Graduate School of Journalism in 1957. In between, she went to work for the North Carolina Agricultural Extension Service teaching young women how to make nutritious meals, judging cakes and pies at county fairs and overseeing 4-H events. Her next job was as a food editor for The Raleigh Times.
After journalism school, she was hired as an assistant food editor at Ladies’ Home Journal for $125 a week. There, she worked in the test kitchen, wrote celebrity profiles and worked as copy director.
Ms. Anderson left New York in 2007, returned to Chapel Hill and published “A Love Affair with Southern Cooking.” The book included one of her favorite recipes, for brown sugar pie, which she had first tasted at her school cafeteria when she was 5.
Her last book, “From Kiln to Kitchen: Favorite Recipes From Beloved North Carolina Potters,” was published in 2019, when she was 90.
Ms. Anderson leaves no survivors.
Brown Sugar Pie
Preheat the oven to 325 degrees and set the rack in the middle of the oven. Blend the brown sugar, eggs, milk, vanilla, and salt in a medium bowl, then add the butter in a slow stream, beating all the while.
Pour the filling into the pie shell, put it on a baking sheet and bake on the rack 50 to 60 minutes or until puffed and golden brown.
Cool to room temperature on a wire rack before cutting. The filling will fall slightly as all chess pies do. Serve as is or top with whipped cream.