Bookeater: How to read about cooking everything
Literary columnist Jennifer Bennett on the joy of cookbooking
It’s Monday night, and I have 30 minutes to kill before my meeting. It’s me, so I’m obviously reading something. Not one of my trusty Pratchetts; nothing from the List, either. Rather, I’m sitting in the Arts & Science hallway lovingly cradling my new favorite book, “Pasta Revolution,” from America’s Test Kitchen.
I’m probably an anomaly, but I come from a family of cookbook enthusiasts. My paternal grandmother has an entire bookshelf full of them in her kitchen — and that’s her edited collection. My maternal grandmother, who rarely (correction: NEVER) cooks, has a shelf full as well. My mom has at least five different slow-cooker cookbooks, since she prefers her cooking to be as hands-off as possible. I bought my first cookbook of my very own three years ago and now have over 50 new ones, not including the various well-loved books that have been handed down to me by family members.
There’s just something special about paging through a cookbook. I’ve read some — okay, most — of mine cover-to-cover, and I love seeing them all lined up on the various shelves in my kitchen, full of dog-eared recipes that I can’t wait to try. I love writing in my own notes about ingredient substitutions and which recipes to make (or never make) again. More than anything, I love flipping through my hand-me-downs and seeing what my mother and grandmothers had to say about the foods I grew up eating. It makes me feel connected to them — my world is as different as can be from the world they were raised in, but I can still eat the same foods that they did, using the same recipes that they used.
I can also use my cookbooks to travel to parts of the world I’ll probably never get a chance to visit. I’m obsessed with Saudi Arabian, Persian and Indian cooking. Making those recipes gives me a chance to experience a tiny part of a world I’ve always longed to explore.
Do I get weird looks when I’m chilling on campus with a beat-up copy of something by Mark Bittman? Of course. Do I feel like a sorority-girl stereotype when I obsess over Southern Living’s “Big Book of Cupcakes?” Sure. I don’t care. I’m infatuated with both cooking and books, so being a cookbook addict is as natural to me as breathing. I’m addicted to messing with recipes, too. I’m so proud of myself for finally realizing that just because it calls for fish sauce does not mean I have to throw some in. Some year — when I finally stop procrastinating — I’m going to collect all of my family’s recipes (and my little additions and cross-outs) and have them turned into books for a family Christmas present.
I love my old cookbooks because I can always tell which recipes are worth trying — they’re usually covered with spills and stains from years of use. For instance, there’s the tortilla soup recipe my mom essentially rewrote. The page is covered with her additions scribbled in and the book’s weirder ingredients crossed out, as well as a few oddly colored splotches from where the broth ended up on the page instead of in the pot. Or take any one of the many cake recipes my paternal grandmother handed down to me, most of which still have little bits of flour and sugar clinging to their pages.
I’ll always stick with my old-school, spiral-bound cookbooks. Online recipes from sites like The Kitchn and Serious Eats are awesome, but I have so many great memories associated with my paper collection. I can open any one of them and find one of the recipes that I made with my grandmother when I was so little I couldn’t even reach the kitchen counter. Or one of the recipes I made on my first night in my own house, trying to work with the few pots and pans I had unpacked. To me, these books don’t just contain instructions for creating the best foods I’ve ever tasted; they contain parts of my life that can’t be replicated anywhere else.