When I left home, I did not know how to cook. Well, I had basic Girl Guide cooking skills, but those did not amount to much in the grown-up world I was entering. For years, the few cookbooks I had tended to feature recipes based on Hamburger Helper and other such tasty conveniences.
Over time, I began to like cooking and started to experiment. There were many disasters – the night I tried to make crepes suzette and set the nylon curtains in the kitchen on fire comes to mind – and some successes. I cut recipes out of magazines and slowly accumulated some more cookbooks.
It was not until I worked for Harrowsmith magazine beginning in the late 1970s that my affection for cookbooks really blossomed. While working there, I edited a number of cookbooks and found myself picking up cookbooks to help me. First, I had one shelf dedicated to cookbooks, then two, then three; eventually, it was an entire bookcase.
How many is too many?
At last count, I had 82 cookbooks. My partner and I have a difference of opinion about the number of cookbooks one household needs; he thinks less is more and I firmly believe more is more. From time to time, I move a few books into the basement in a show of good faith and an attempt at moderation, but inevitably, they crawl back up onto the shelves in the kitchen.
My cookbooks reflect my travels (Morocco and Mexico are well represented), as well as my flavour passions (Indian, Italian, Middle Eastern). I have some classics. I have cookbooks that I bought because I couldn’t resist the photographs or illustrations. I have bought cookbooks hoping that I would someday learn how to cook something difficult and new from them. I have fundraising cookbooks from various charitable organizations, although I have to admit that I don’t often cook from them.
Some are trusted friends, and I turn to them on a regular basis. Others, I peruse from time to time when I am seeking inspiration, cooking with a new ingredient or planning a special meal. I often start with an idea from a cookbook but wind up making something quite different.
It’s about more than the recipes
My Harrowsmith cookbooks are the ones I gave to my mother-in-law. Every time she prepared something from one of those books, she wrote a little note about it next to the recipe: who she served it to, what she served with it, what wine she served and any adaptations she made to the recipe. She died many years ago, and my father-in-law gave the books back to me. Every time I open one of them and see her handwriting, I feel as though she is in the kitchen beside me.
Many years ago, my son gave me a hardcover book filled with blank pages so I could collect my own recipes. It has handwritten recipes in it, recipes cut out of magazines, recipes from the internet, recipes sent to me by friends and a chicken recipe in my partner’s son’s five-year-old printing, accompanied by a detailed drawing of a wizard, with which he was fascinated at the time. I have stuck in menus from significant dinners and parties we have had. Once, I came upon an old grocery list.
A few years ago, a friend’s home burned to the ground, and she and her family lost everything, including all her cookbooks and recipes. I was able to give her back the recipes she had shared with me, because they were all written out in my book.
Reality or fantasy?
Anthony Lane, movie critic for the New Yorker, has written:
“That’s the trouble with cookbooks. Like sex education and nuclear physics, they are founded on an illusion. They bespeak order, but they end in tears.”
Food writer Bee Wilson describes cookbooks as “stories of pretend meals.”
Political commentator and comedian Samantha Bee recalls a childhood in which “I would eat all my meals reading [cookbooks] about meals I could have been eating.”
A friend refers to big, glossy, coffee table cookbooks as “food porn,” and she has a point. For many, the book is as close to cooking as the reader will get.
New and improved
The Joy of Cooking has been with me since my earliest days of cooking. I have been through three or four copies of it over the past four decades. The version I had until a few weeks ago was definitely well-loved and much-used. It had lost one of its covers, part of the index was missing, and many pages were forever glued together with spilled food.
When my partner presented me with a new version, it took me a few days to warm up to this shiny edition, complete with dust jacket and both a front and back cover and free from stains and sticky spots. However, warm up I did, and I bid a fond farewell to the old edition as I sent it off to the recycling bin.
A couple of nights ago, I brought it out for its first run when I was making baking powder biscuits. I turned to the page on which this recipe had appeared in the old edition, only to discover that changes to the book’s content meant it was no longer there. I turned to the (complete) index, but had to hunt to find the recipe because it has a different name in the new book. Change can be hard and, even though the biscuits using the new recipe were every bit as good as those using the old recipe, I still feel a bit sad at the loss of the familiar, old, tattered book.
I look forward to many more years of cooking for my family and friends, in the good company of the cookbooks that line the bookcase in my kitchen – and maybe a few more that I pick up along the way.