People who read porn are probably not ever going to do the things they read about. I read cookbooks in that same fashion. It’s certainly enjoyable to read a recipe for Riz à la L’Impératrice or Veau Prince Orloff, but I am never going to attempt either dish. Still, it’s entertaining to read how someone else did it. Especially if there are pictures—engaging pictures are essential to cookbook-porn.
When I first moved into this big house, I was delighted to have shelves in the kitchen just for cookbooks where I proudly placed my much-used volumes, perhaps eight of them. But over time—that is to say, the decades I have lived here—those shelves began to sag as I heedlessly stuffed volumes on top of other volumes, perhaps seventy-five in all, along with assorted caches of the now-vanished Gourmet mag and the still-extant Bon Appetit.
Recently, an amigo of mine noted that the whole apparatus was not merely overladen, but groaning, maybe even dangerous. He offered to make me new shelves that could better support the weight. I gulped at the task of actually dealing with so many books, with shelves that had never been dusted, but this was an opportunity to cull through, to peel off what I didn’t need or read or want. But what to do with them? Happily, a friend of Brendan’s, Anna Mortimer, who is herself a fine cook, shares my passion for cookbooks. Knowing that these books were going to someone I admired, who shared my enthusiasms gave me new incentive.
I tried to be guided by circumstance.
As the books came down, weird stuff emerged, packets of seeds from springs long past, one of Bear’s 7th grade assignments, a box of golf balls (!) a strange apparatus for tracing patterns on fabric (?). A cardboard “log cabin” Brendan made in the 5th grade collapsed upon the touch. Dust flew everywhere.
As for the actual books, I tried to be guided by circumstance. That is to say, I once was an adventurous cook, eager to try out new techniques and recipes. Now, occasionally, I bestir myself creating an inventive meal for friends, but for the most part, I noodle along (pun intended) on my own. When the lads and their families visit, I go into a great flurry of cooking, but it’s revisiting memory, not an adventure requiring recipes.
Some choices were difficult. Some not.
In culling cookbooks I returned to eras in my writing life. My novel Cosette (HarperCollins, 1996) which followed the fortunes of Jean Valjean’s daughter from Les Misérables required extensive reading. After all, characters have to eat. Being a Francophile in general, I bought and read well into the 19th century and beyond, into the 20th century, cookbooks about French chefs, French cafés, their cuisine and ambience. I could almost believe myself to be in a Parisian café sipping an aperitif amid scintillating company, even if I read alone with a Diet Coke.
A prominent theme in American Cookery (2006, St. Martin’s Press) was the way that uprooted people carry their old recipes in their heads and hearts and adapt them to new, sometimes hostile circumstances. In the years I worked on that novel, I went wonky-bonky buying cookbooks, delighted to be able to do so and write them off as a legitimate expense. Some of these I kept, especially hard-to-find gems, like The Cowboy Cookbook (gift of my sister) and the richly historical reprint (and translation) of Encarnacion’s Kitchen documenting early California cuisine.
Some choices were difficult. Some not. I was astonished at the number of cookbooks I have dedicated to Elvis’s culinary tastes and heritage, recipes I used for Elvis parties. (See blogpost “Now You Know What I Do for an Encore.”) There were many books, gorgeous works of art all on their own, quite apart from any recipes, Monet’s Table and Dining With the Impressionists, Tuscany: the Beautiful Cookbook, really too beautiful ever to be actually used in a messy kitchen. I parted with easily with these, knowing that Anna will love them.
Unlike writing, cooking is immediate and ephemeral.
One of the very first cookbooks I owned was Julia Child’s, Mastering the Art of French Cooking Volume I, a gift from my parents when I first returned to California from the East Coast. That was the year I was determined to learn how to write well and cook well. This was not accidental timing. Writing and cooking might both be performance arts in the sense that the writer needs readers (and an editor, a copyeditor, a proofer, and a publisher) but the cook only needs someone hungry. To write well, that’s a path filled with brutal doubt; any rewards might be years, sometimes decades in coming. In cooking, everything is immediate! Ephemeral, true, but immediate! And even if the dish is Not So Great, if you keep on hand a lot of dry pasta, good olive oil, herbs and a bunch of green onions, you can always feed people something decent. Wine helps too.
Volume I stays with me; Volume II goes to Anna.
Julia Child’s Volume I is dog-eared, much splattered, lots of scribbled notes on the pages, and the sturdy binding slowly giving up its threads. Volume II (which I bought a few years later) begins with a daunting chapter on breads. I opened to that chapter and read on, but I never once cooked from it. (It did, however, give me a phrase which I constantly invoke as a teacher : Il faut mettez la main ala la pâté or, translated into writerly terms, You Must Put Your Hand to the Dough and Work it Fearlessly If You Want to Achieve Anything Worthwhile.) Volume I stays with me; Volume II goes to Anna.
I read cookbooks imaginatively, as a way to travel without passport or jet lag. No surprise then that numerically my shelves swarmed with titles dedicated to Italian cooking, Mexican cooking, French and Middle Eastern which pretty much sums up my tastes and enthusiasms. Knowing I may never again travel to Italy or Mexico or France, or even once go to the Eastern Mediterranean/ Middle East where my Armenian ancestors had their roots, I still gave most of those books to Anna. I even parted with a battered old paperback Mexican cookbook, a gift from decades ago inscribed to me “with love and lust.” I tore out that page.
The new shelves reflect new priorities, books and games for grandkids on the first shelf. Among the few cookbooks I kept are volumes I’m never likely to find again. An enormous 1961 English edition of the famous Larousse Gastronomique (1099 pages). No one actually reads Larousse Gastronomique, though you certainly could open it anywhere and prepare to be fascinated. The legendary Escoffier first began this work, but died before it was published in 1938.
I kept the equally hefty, immersive reprint of the 1859 Mrs. Beeton’s Book of Household Management (1112 pages) Somewhere I even have a biography of the sad, short life and posthumous afterlife of Isabella Beeton, the most famous name in 19th century cookery.
I kept the ponderous 1971 edition of Gourmet Menu Cookbook (652 pages) with its stiff color photos of food that looks petrified. I once created an exquisite, difficult clarified beet soup from this volume for the man who would one day become my husband. He ate it without complaint only later telling me he loathed beets. Still does.
The beautiful new shelves reflect new priorities.
I kept the books where the prose delighted me as much as any of the recipes—some even more than the recipes—books by the tart, snappish British writer, Elizabeth David, by Alice B. Toklas, and an Anthony Bourdain I didn’t even know I owned. (There were a lot of books I didn’t know I owned.) I kept most of the historical cookbooks, works I may need in future. I kept some sentimental battered books, just because I remembered the fun of first using them. I kept an Armenian cookbook, gift of my Parisian cousin, written in French which I can read, sort of. A rare copy of Toscana in Bocca, written in Italian, which I cannot read at all.
More cookbooks still lurk around this house, tucked into obscure corners probably upstairs somewhere. If I were truly ambitious, truly serious about shedding all this print-and-page, I’d seek them out as well. But I won’t. In fact, I’m hoping Anna comes soon. I don’t want to rethink my choices.