If you wandered into my kitchen and saw my pantry packed with cookbooks, you might get the impression I am something of a gourmet chef or crackerjack cook, at the very least. Nothing could be further from the truth.
In my own defense, I’m not a bad cook. If I put my mind to it, I’m confident I could don a Betty Crocker crown and whip up steaming bowls of cioppini or decadent pots of crème brûlée. Here’s the crux: I could but don’t despite my complete Giada De Laurentiis collection and many a Julia Child. Understand, I’m a creature of habit and have approximately two dozen recipes I consistently crave and make, adding a dash of this or that for variation. I love a gastronomic adventure, but I’ll go to a restaurant before I try to make green tea foam or fugu sashimi at home. So what’s up with the hidden cookbook library? Is she a culinary poser, you are well within reason to ask.
The truth is, I read cookbooks like novels. Cover to cover, page by page, the dedication, the acknowledgments, the indexes: I devour everything. Like the literary works on my bookshelves, I can give you the plot, characters, themes and favorite scenes; however, ask me a recipe and I’d be hard-pressed to name one I’ve personally prepared.
Examining this through a Jungian lens: I think it began when I was wee thing sitting on the kitchen stool thumbing through my mom’s recipe box. On each dated index card, she’d scribble where she got the recipe, what worked, what didn’t, substitutions and always a final note of “Delicious!” or “Satisfying!” Many of the recipes had butter-stained corners, dustings of flour, the smell of cinnamon stuck to the paper, etc. So while my mom baked and sautéed, I sat reading, dreaming, and treasuring my little box of stories.
This fascination continued into adulthood. When I moved into my first apartment, my mom gave me Where’s Mom Now That I Need Her? by Betty Rae and Kathryn and Kent Fransen, a kind of cooking guidebook for first-time out-of-the-nesters. The tone is casual, inviting, and full of funny anecdotes. Chapter 1 begins, “The nutritional war has been waged for centuries: children, eager to be tumbling on the warm front lawn after a battered baseball, sit instead, lower lip stuck out, stubbornly refusing to eat a plateful of soggy canned peas.” How’s that for the opening of a story? With recipes like “Salad on a Shoestring” and “Hopscotch Candy,” I continue to pull this one out and reread. It makes me happy, like stepping into old Aunt Betty Rae’s kitchen. I have no doubt many a Southern reader has this very book in her/his pantry. It’s down home spirit is hard to beat, even by slick William-Sonoma standards.
Oh, but I have those too. Williams-Sonoma’s Entertaining is gorgeous. Each seasonal chapter, a journey to a sumptuous setting where affluent characters glide past china cups and crystal vases. My feeling is something akin to reading Edith Wharton’s novels. Chapter Spring is my favorite. All mimosa colored and lily of the valley bloomed.
Equally charming is Bride and Groom: First and Forever Cookbook by Mary Corpening Barber and Sara Corpening Whiteford. Two sister protagonists narrate the memorable recipes that marked their newlywed years. Chapter 9, Breakfast & Brunch: “Years ago, Sarah’s in-laws took to our Unbelievable Banana Bread with great affection, and as breakfast progressed, their hearts grew fonder for the meal (and for Sara!).” Chapter 10, Sweets: “We simply adore Strawberry Shortcakes d’Amour. Luscious red berries enveloped in their sweet juices, topped with snow-white clouds of whipped cream, all of it sandwiched between a heart-shaped biscuit and dusted with powdered sugar. Seduced?” Yes, indeed.
Contemporary cookbooks abound, but my reading interest does not lie solely in the present. The Gold Cook Book by French Master Chef Louis P. De Gouy was published in 1947. His chapter on pigeons is particularly engrossing. “Anyone who never saw the large flocks which appear in the forest when the acorns began to drop in the fall might think we in describing those flocks were over-drawing the picture.” So beautifully described, I nearly forget he’s talking about the scrappy winged beasts picking gum off my grocery store parking lot. De Gouy goes on to provide his recipe for “New Orleans Pigeon Pie.” I’ll let your mind wander on the stories behind his “Banana Balls in a Basket” and “Almond Kisses I French Brown Style.”
While the French may have au jus and coq au vin, the British hold their own in the culinary field, as in literature. If I’m looking for a saucy read I pick up anything by Nigella Lawson. Giggles are implicit. Feast: Food to Celebrate Life is a personal favorite. Of her “Finger-Lickin’ Ribs” she writes:
Come back to my cave…If you don’t want a proper table-set dinner, and would prefer something oozy and sticky to take up to bed with you, well, that’s fine by me… go all out and tear the flesh from these sticky bones with your bare teeth instead.
Quintessential Nigella. She makes my mouth water.
Sticking with the Brits, I must also mention Jaime Oliver’s The Naked Chef. The title alone heralds a brassy batch of stories, and he absolutely delivers, “stripping down” recipes and sharing his tales. Jamie at Home: Cook Your Way To The Good Life is in my online bookseller purchasing basket. However, Gordon Ramsey is my current obsession. The author’s cheeky humor permeates his writing and recipes, and I can’t get enough. In my mind, his books ring slightly of Saul Bellow. A Chef for All Seasons is broken into four chapters. Here’s the intro to Summer:
For me, summer begins mid-May. In fact, by the third week in May I’m well into the swing, because we are located next to Chelsea Flower Shop in London, and that, as every devotee of the social scene will tell you, is very definitely the start of the summer season here… Let’s start with tomatoes.
Like a good novel, the narrator has set the voice and scene, and I’m itching to dive into the sensory delights of Mr. Ramsey’s Chelsea Flower Shop world.
As in every home library, there are the oddball picks. Books you’re slightly ashamed to own; nonetheless, there they sit. Ma’s Cookin’ Mountain Recipes whose authorship is attributed to Sis and Jake. No last names. In the introduction, Sis and Jake write, “Many of you folks has got sum mistakin ‘pinions ‘bout us hill people… In this here book, we’re tryin’ to bring you sum of th’ more unusual recipes.” This novella-esque manual includes recipes for “Grandma’s Elixirs for Invalids,” “Possum & Chestnuts,” and “Pig’s Tail Taters.” Nice!
Hidden in my pantry nether regions are also The Original Road Kill Cookbook, The Book of Fondues, Pink Princess, Firehouse Food, The I Love Trader Joe’s Cookbook, Skinny Bitch in the Kitch, and countless other quirky titles that at some point peaked my reading curiosity. I haven’t attempted any of their recipes, mind you, but each was a reading feast for the imagination.
My cookbook purchasing habits mirror my fiction, and I often choose by author. The ones I like and trust for a good story: Giada, Nigella, Gordon, Jaime, Julia Child, Jacques Pépin, Ina Garten, Paula Deen. But I do love the debut chefs! Their first books are always bright, cheerful and eager to impress. (Guy Fieri’s Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives: An All-American Road Trip is like Jack Kerouac high on meatloaf—yum.) And just like in fiction, I gravitate away from recipe books of particular genres: fat-free, meat-free, gluten-free, dairy-free, sugar-free, salt-free. Translation: Story-free.
Last and dearest are the cookbooks I won’t find at any bookstore. My Puerto Rican abuelitas’s copy of Doña Irma en Microondas y Algo Más with handwritten paper notes stuck between the pages. My Oklahoma grandma’s Betty Crocker binder. My mom’s copy of With Love From My Kitchen: A Collection of Recipes, Hints, Secrets and Heirloom Treasures of Good Eating with recipes and stories lovingly transcribed from the box I cherished as a child. Personal memoirs. When I miss my family all I need do is open With Love and read. No mixing bowls or baking soda required. The stories rise off the page on their own accord.
Of course, I had to put my recipes on the page too. It’s a similar compulsion I feel after reading an insightful, moving novel. I have to write! Each of my tried and true dishes takes up a full page—the 5X7 note cards are entirely too small for the story—and once in a blue moon I’ll cook something new and deliciously worthy of addition. Then, in my mom’s similar fashion, I write a narrative summary: the date, where I got the recipe, the characters who shared it with me, its successes and failures, plot twists, and ultimately, how it all turned out in the end. Satisfying!