Before Thanksgiving I had my twenty-three year old Ikea kitchen cabinets professionally painted. That required emptying drawers and cupboards and getting rid of many things that no longer served me, designating them for either Goodwill or the trash. Inspired by the resultant lack of kitchen clutter, I’ve tackled my 1840s Irish hutch, the home of all of my cookbooks, kitchen utensil instruction manuals, food clippings and miscellaneous things once held by random magnets on the refrigerator. This trip down a decades’ long memory lane became a recipe for smiles, a tear or two and a lot of reflection.
The oldest item, aside from the hutch itself, is my favorite cookbook, Joy of Cooking. The mint green cover of this 1963 edition, the last authored by its originator, Irma Rombauer — stained in places and held together with duct tape — gives evidence of not just its longevity in my collection, but of its utility. The red ribbons attached to the binding and provided as page markers are permanently embedded in the turkey roasting and pie baking pages. Which is not to suggest that others are not well thumbed.
Not that I hadn’t been properly trained at home. Whatever else she might have been, my stepmother was, by the standards of the 1950s and 1960s, an excellent home keeper and cook. Yes, meals were meat and potatoes affairs occasionally enhanced by the modern packaged foods newly available at the time, like Shake n Bake or Velveeta. But meals were always a sit down affair, with dinner at 6pm sharp every night, breakfast of eggnog and cinnamon toast ready before school and sandwiches, milk and fruit at lunchtime. My sister and I were schooled on how to cook, set the table and clean up — whether just for our family of eight or an important dinner party with white tablecloths and multiple forks and spoons at each place setting.
But it was Irma and her daughter Marion who first taught me about cuts of meat, measurements for cocktails (who knew what a “jigger was”), drying herbs, the many types of flour and sugar, even how to remove coffee stains by pouring boiling water onto them from a height of two feet! More than a cookbook, Joy was my fictive mother, grandmother and great grandmother, available at an instant to tell me how to do almost anything in the kitchen or dining room, on the porch or patio. The wonderful illustrations, common sense approach and recipes made with readily available ingredients presented in honest and family friendly combinations, made Joy not just one of the New York Public Library’s 150 most influential books of the twentieth century, but an antidote to the over the top foodie extravaganzas that hit bookstores and restaurants in the 1990s and beyond. (Influenced a bit by this, my 1997 edition of Joy rarely is used and will be replaced by the 2006 75th anniversary edition which is more faithful to the original Joy vision.)
Next came my upscaling at the hands of Craig Claiborne. Living in New York City as a young adult and then (as now) a devotee of the New York Times, I devoured his columns and tried many of the recipes in the four Times cookbooks I own: The New York Times Cookbook, The New York Times Menu Cookbook, The New York Times International Cookbook and Craig Claiborne’s Favorites from the New York Times. More gourmet than the down home cuisine in Joy, but still reproducible by the home cook without a trust fund to spend, Claiborne’s recipes ranged from regional specialties cooked simply to more elegant dishes influenced by international cuisine.
Several staples of our Thanksgiving feast — including the southern cornbread stuffing, pumpkin pie and cranberry sauce — originally came from these volumes. When the Times put out The Essential New York Times Cookbook: Classic Recipes for a New Century in 2010, after carefully checking to make sure that the stuffing recipe was included, I bought three copies, one for myself and one for each grown daughter.
And then there was Julia. Like many, I was smitten with her PBS cooking shows, which became must see TV for me. Too young to have watched The French Chef while in boarding school in the 1960s, I found her in the 1970s and immediately started working my way through Mastering the Art of French Cooking. While I never made every recipe as did blogger Julie, I made many, and then most from the cookbooks reprising episodes of her later cooking show seasons.
For me, Julia was not just about technique, she was about being fine with less than perfect results. Watching her laugh off small goofs or even dropped chickens and hearing her signature “Bon appetit” at the conclusion of each show made me eager to try to replicate her creations, like her, with a wine glass in hand. It was she who influenced me to acquire Le Creuset cookware, which forty years later is still my “batterie de cuisine”. Living now in the D.C. outskirts, I have more than once made the pilgrimage to her kitchen at the Smithsonian. Some day I will even have a pegboard wall, perhaps in her signature green!
During the 1980s I discovered the Moosewood cookbooks, five of which I now own, with publication dates spanning from 1977 to the early 1990s. Like many, I was first cutting down on meat, eventually choosing not to eat mammals while still cooking with fowl and fish. Especially during the 1990s, the healthy, relatively inexpensive and easy to prepare dishes featured in the cookbooks and the Ithaca restaurant for which they were named became staples in my household, both out of principle and practicality; raising two daughters on a teacher’s salary required some real budget jujitsu.
An assortment of culinary classics like the Fannie Farmer Cookbook, Maida Heatter’s Book of Great Desserts, Jane Brody’s Good Food Cookbook, Irene Kuo’s The Key to Chinese Cooking, and Marcella Hazan’s Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking have been joined by several Mark Bittman titles. (I’m still coveting How to Cook Everything…. do you hear me Santa?).
Then there are the appliance specific cookbooks/manuals: slow cooker (the best are by Beth Hensberger), blender, food processor (my favorite is the original robot coupe 1973 cookbook which I still have, even though I gave the machine to my daughter), pressure cooker (from days owning a sailboat), ice cream maker, grill, fondue pot. I own too many vegetarian or near vegetarian cookbooks and will keep only one or two, but my two bread cookbooks from Williams Sonoma and Cindi Flahive-Sobel will still have honored shelf space.
Family recipes and those garnered from friends have been painstakingly digitized onto laminated recipe cards residing in a plastic box. Clippings have been weeded out (if I lived to be a hundred I could eat a different saved chicken recipe every day…not likely to happen). My Evernote recipe notebook, Pinterest food folder and New York Times online recipe box hold my virtual clippings.
I began by mentioning smiles and tears, and you might be wondering why. My 1963 Joy has penciled annotations in two different hands drawing me back first to a grand love from my twenties and then a failed marriage in my fifties. The New York Times cookbooks bear the black-penned name and date of my college lover and mate. Julia Child came into my life at the same time that my daughters did, and all of the books were gifts from their father.
I’ve gone through phases, trying new cuisines, new gadgets, new men, new identities. As I leaf through the books, unfold the yellowed newspaper clippings, decide what fits me now and what doesn’t, I experience a rush of joy at remembering the happy times of cooking for men I loved, children I bore, friends I cherished, relatives I wanted to nurture as they had me. Many of those I recall are no longer a part of my life, on to other kitchens, other meals, or other dimensions as in the case of my dear friends Charlie and Antonio.
Cooking is an act of love. My culinary library tells the story of my journey from young adulthood through relationships, marriages, parenting, juggling work and homemaking, empty nesting. After forty-five years, I’ve learned to cook without much use for instruction, working by instinct with whatever is at hand most of the time. But my cookbooks have become totemic, keys to who I have been, what I have aspired to, who I wish to continue to be inspired by. “Bon appetit!”