where I let my thoughts go this way and that on food-related topics.
Cookbooks as Scrapbooks
Some people leaf through their photo albums for trips down memory lane. For my own flights of nostalgia, I prefer going through my cookbooks. Each one is filled with as memories as recipes. In fact, my collection of cookbooks is a culinary journal of my adult life.
An objective observer might look at my tattered, stained copy of Joy of Cooking and see a candidate for a yard-sale free box. In my eyes it's a reliquary of a long-gone year of firsts: my first apartment, my first "real" job, my first forays into cooking. Joy of Cooking was my first cookbook, and it bears witness to all my early trials and tribulations in the kitchen. Disasters like the rock-hard muffins that my roommates suspected were spiked with arsenic. (The bitter taste was due to my mistake of using baking soda instead of baking powder.) And the successes - eventually outnumbering failures - like the Chicken Marengo which marked the first time anyone ever asked for seconds of something I made.
Diet for a Small Planet was the culinary theme when my husband and I were newlyweds and students. That book caused a coup d'etat in our tiny student-housing kitchen: out with the white rice! in with the brown! death to hot dogs and iceberg lettuce! Between our full-time art history classes and our part-time jobs we fueled ourselves with Frances Moore Lappe's famous Complementary Proteins. Diet for a Small Planet will always be my memento of a time when our lives revolved around Titian and tofu; Surrealism and soyburgers; Bacon and bulghur.
Some cookbooks evoke periods of my life when it seemed that all the beneficent gods were in my corner. I happened to buy the Moosewood Cookbook at the beginning of what turned out to be one of my favorite summers. Bill and I, Manhattanites at that time, were stuck in the city that summer without a car or an air conditioner. To compensate, we claimed the roof of our building, a sagging expanse of cracked tar, as our private plein air supper club. We called it the Tip Top Club. It became the gathering spot for our friends all summer long. Friday nights we'd all make our way up the precarious fire escape, each person responsible for carrying one dinner component - silverware, wine, and, inevitably, something I had made from Moosewood. Today when I come across recipes like White Rabbit Salad or Montana's Mom's Dynamite Cheesecake, I still picture a night at the Tip Top: dinner laid out picnic style on a faded Indian bedspread, our slightly raucous soirees illuminated by candles and the lights on the tower of the Empire State Building.
Some of my cookbooks are reminders of times when the beneficent gods moved on to shine on someone else. One year when I was mired in a dismal job, I discovered the therapeutic effects of souffle making via The Art of Souffles. (Was this an unconscious symbolic effort to lighten my heavy mood?) All thoughts of inscrutable bosses and irascible clients were temporarily drowned out by the whir of the electric mixer as I whipped egg whites into voluminous white clouds. Although I don't use my soufflé book that much anymore, its presence in my kitchen is a reassuring reminder that bad times do pass...and the ability to make a killer souffle endures.
Now that I've been cooking for two decades, I've collected a lot of cookbooks, each filled with as many memories as any photo album. Conventional wisdom claims that one picture is worth a thousand words. My personal corollary would be: one cookbook is worth a thousand pictures.