What Do You Mean You Don’t Need Cookbooks? (Or, What Good are All Those Cookbooks on Your Sagging Shelves?)

I’ll admit it: I collect cookbooks like some people collect plastic pigs or miniature silver tourist-spot spoons or wine corks from bottles they’ve downed.

My cookbook collection, like all collections, began small.*

When I served with the Peace Corps in Paraguay, my landlady — the mechanical dentist’s wife — giggled when I threw my suitcase on the lumpy mattress in my hut and pulled out my old American standbys — Farm Journal’s Country Cookbook and Betty Crocker’s Cookbook, proudly showing her some of the flour-besmirched pages with my favorite recipes, like New Jersey Doughnuts. (See below for these lemon- and nutmeg-rich morsels.)

“Only people who don’t know how to cook need cookbooks,” she said, somewhat dismissively. Assigned to her village as a home- economics extension agent, I could feel my credibility deflating like a mishandled soufflé.

In Haiti, Morocco, and Honduras the same thing happened: The local women laughed when they saw my cookbooks, which by then were beginning to co-opt considerable shelf space in whatever house I lived in. Some even asked me if my mother died when I was a baby. To them that could be the only explanation for my supposed lack of ability to twirl a wooden spoon, the reason I needed a book to cook with.

There’s a reason for thinking this way.

If your pantry consists of only locally grown foods, as is the case in much of Africa and isolated villages in Latin America, then sure, you learn to cook a number of dishes using those foods. After all, if you’re never going to see bottles of green and peppery Tuscan olive oil in your local bodega (much less afford to buy them), why should you need cookbooks full of recipes telling you how to swirl it on top of toasted bread? And if you can’t read, what good is a cookbook or hundreds of them?

But even here in the U.S.A., in spite of the globalization of food surging all around them, yes, some people actually say the exact same words: “If you know how to cook, then you don’t need cookbooks.” Nor recipes. Not a single one.

Well, excuse me, but that’s a baloney-filled statement.

Now, before I get too much further into the hole I know some of you think I’m digging for myself, let me say this: It’s true that if you’re trained in classic French cuisine, for example, you might be able to get by fairly well in the kitchen without a cookbook. But in the end you’d be pretty limited, because chiles and cilantro and cocoyams aren’t exactly on the top of a classic French chef’s shopping list. **

Certainly similarities between some ingredients allow for similar treatments in the sauté pan. But to eschew cookbooks could essentially mean closing your kitchen cupboards to the rest of the world.

Cookbooks today serve as aides-mémoires every bit as much as grease-splotched medieval manuscripts did in the houses of royalty. Guiding lights in the darkness, and all that sort of thing.

Cookbooks also encourage you to invent new tastes, to explore, to experience times and places that may never be seen in the flesh.

The written version of recipes allows you, now living in a formerly incomprehensibly far-away future, to prepare food close to that cooked by the long-dead recorders of recipes. A stab at immortality within a memento mori.***

But another important phenomenon surfaces here.

Cookbooks, and lots of them, gift you, the cook, with the toothsome creativity of other cooks. The wheel stays invented, in other words. That frees you to dream up even more permutations, borrowing a little from there, a pinch over here.

John Donne said, “No Man is an island entire of itself … .” Neither are cooks.

Especially if your shelves sag with TMC  (too many cookbooks).  For then, and only then, your oyster becomes the world.

New Jersey Doughnuts (From Farm Journal’s Country Cookbook)
Makes 2 dozen

1/2 c. butter
1 c. sugar
2 eggs
1 t. grated lemon peel
4 1/2 cups sifted flour
2 t. baking powder
2 t. salt
2 t. freshly ground nutmeg
1 cup whole milk

Cream butter and sugar; add eggs and lemon peel; beat until light and fluffy.

Sift flour with baking powder, salt and nutmeg; add alternately with milk to creamed mixture. Mix well. Roll out on lightly floured, and board, and cut with doughnut cutter. Fry in hot fat (365 degrees F) for 3 minutes. Drain on paper toweling.


*My cookbook collection now numbers in the thousands. Like Erasmus, I buy books first, then food, and, lastly, clothes. You can tell by the grease spots on all my T-shirts.

**The appearance of exotic and obviously non-local ingredients testifies to trade and migration going on outside the kitchen. And perhaps as well to marriages and other cleavings inside.

*** Many of the first cookbooks served as aides-mémoires to the cooks in the great noble and royal households.

© 2010 C. Bertelsen

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