Cookbooks become palimpsests, the original text overlaid with personal meanings and experiences, the spines broken by use and by the mass of extra matter forced between their pages.
Nicola Humble, Culinary pleasures: cookbooks and the transformation of British food
One of my summer projects has been to write up a list of my cookbooks. But I can’t post this list without a reflection on cookbooks. A few comments have stimulated my thoughts lately.
First there was Stephanie’s provocative comment on Elegant Sufficiency that it is just as easy to google a recipe idea as find it in her cookbooks, and that she doesn’t feel the need to purchase new cookbooks much these days. I understand what she is saying. I have my google days. But I also have days when I sit on the couch browsing through a stack of glossy cookbooks for a recipe I am seeking, or just for ideas. The suggestion that cookbooks might be obsolete seems as ludicrous to me as paperbacks being replaced by the online novels. Is there anyone who wants to sit in bed and read a novel off a laptop? Similarly, I prefer to have a cookbook open in front of me when I cook, rather than running back and forward to my laptop which keeps threatening to go to sleep.
Unlike Stephanie, I still see lots of cookbooks I want to purchase. I drool over new tantalising photos and inspiring ideas. But I am having a serious shelf crisis where my cookbooks are concerned and must be judicious in what I buy these days. That is the reason a lot of my cookbooks are vegetarian. While occasionally an omnivorous Nigella or a Nigel comes along who is so eloquent that I cannot resist their fine words, on the whole I cannot justify allocating precious space to meat recipes that I will never use. It isn’t just meat I avoid. A cookbook must be full of the sort of food I am likely to make – lots of different vegies in each dish, not too many eggs, and something a bit different to pique my interest.
So many new cookbooks have the same old recipes that I know I can find in a dozen of my cookbooks at home. When I first was cooking for myself, I needed the basics, but now I have these in all guises. Cookbooks are no longer about making sure I have something to cook. They are about inspiring and challenging me. So now I want something a bit quirky and esoteric. I want a new take on an old favourite. I want depth and personality. So where do I find them? Not necessarily in a glossy display case or on the sale table. My cookbooks have come to me as birthday presents, impulse purchases, gifts from people cleaning out cookbook collections, holiday souvenirs, recommendations by friends, and finds at secondhand bookshops.
The other comment which made me think recently was by Heidi at 101 Cookbooks who said how much she loves Rose Eliot cookbooks but finds them hard to find. It meant that when I saw the Rose Eliot Zodiac Cookbook in a second hand bookshop recently, I came home and googled it. I was surprised to find it is out of print. So I bought it. In fact, I was shocked at how many of her books are out of print. Heidi made me understand that you shouldn’t take some of these cookbooks for granted.
In fact I was looking for a book at Melbourne’s fantastic Books for Cooks the other week. (As an aside, this is an amazing place for the culinary bibliophile – two rooms crammed with every sort of foodie book you could imagine. Now this is a shop where I need to exercise great self-restraint!) I was surprised that the book was out of print, given that it came out in 2000. They go out of print quickly, I was told. While there, I bought a few older cookbooks and found that they really give a sense of a period in history. So I am starting to really appreciate my cookbooks and that they are part of a history, a tradition, a culture.
I have also had some cookbooks long enough now that they indeed are ‘overlaid with personal meanings and experiences’. Ricki at Diet, Dessert and Dogs recently wrote about food being linked with her memories. Browsing through my cookbooks is a trip down memory lane. Certain recipes bring back meals, faces, places, events. The Australian Women’s Weekly Old-Fashioned Favourites is full of sweets (desserts) my mum used to bake in my childhood. Alison Holst, Mollie Katzen and Sarah Brown remind me of share house days. Rose Eliot is the writer I depended on when I lived in Edinburgh. Colin Spencer and Denis Cotter feed my current interest in food writing (and apologies for including a Nigel Slater library book in a photo but I can guarantee it will appear on my list of cookbooks imminently). These books are as full of nostalgia as old photo albums.
But unlike photo albums, my cookbooks also are full of unfulfilled desires, recipes I’ve lusted over many times and yet never cooked. I hope this list will encourage me to use all my cookbooks more fully. I have toyed with the idea of writing the most desirable recipes beside each title to remind me of recipes I must try. Maybe!
I have to make a disclaimer for the list not being quite as I had envisioned. There are times when attention to detail is a curse. I know where the list needs work but so far have lacked the energy. I have split the list into categories but they seem a little arbitrary. I also struggled with what I included and excluded, especially in the Food for Thought section. I tried to limit the list to books that included recipes I might follow, which is why Vic Sussman is in and Jeffrey Steingarten and Barbara Kingsolver are out. But this is all a work in progress and I hope it will develop.
Lastly, I am recognising that blogs are more than just a day by day record of what was cooked last night. I want this blog to be a resource for me, for family and friends, and for all my visitors. A list of cookbooks appeals to the curious curtain twitcher in me. But I hope this list will also be useful both for those who want to source vegetarian cookbooks and for those who want to see where I find recipes and inspiration.
On the stereo:
The Essential Klaus Schulze 72-93: Klaus Schulze