“Once you have mastered a technique, you barely have to look at a recipe again.”
― Julia Child, Julia’s Kitchen Wisdom: Essential Techniques and Recipes from a Lifetime of Cooking
Everybody says it happens, yes. Love at first sight. Real or not?
I must concur – it is true, at least for me, when it comes to cookbooks.
The summer I turned fourteen, I fell hopelessly in love with the magic of cookbooks and cooking. And so I bought my first cookbook, from a jumble of books on sale at a university bookstore, of all places. It weighed no more than a hamburger. One of those small Peter Pauper Press books, Simple French Cookery, it appealed to my growing sense of what cooking could be, indeed, what an adventure life could be. Cheap, it was, just classic recipes, one marching right after another like soldiers on parade, with no explanations of the history behind the recipes, nothing about the geographical regions of France, terse and to the point. I paid for it with my hard-earned babysitting money, a reward for hours spent with querulous and unruly children. Hugging the book, its cover the colors of the French flag, I walked out of the bookstore and into the summer sun, hot enough to fry an egg on the sidewalk that day.
And after that, my love for cookbooks never dimmed. Years later, I still cannot pass by a cookbook display without caressing the covers, my fingers lingering on the pages, breathing in the aroma of fresh paper, dreaming of what might be if I took the book home.
Chances are you own at least a few cookbooks like my Peter Pauper book, too, certain pages stained with tomato sauce or smeared with the makings of chocolate cake, stuck together so that you had to scrawl the words that dissolved in ingredients list with a pencil.
Like Julia Child, you probably don’t follow recipes exactly every time either. Nor do you rely on cookbooks alone for your recipes. And like people from times past, when you stand at the stove, you no doubt rely on your memory, trial and error, and tips from relatives, usually your mother or grandmothers.
And unlike Julia Child and your relatives, you probably enjoy a greater access to recipes across time and space that no one else did until fairly recently in human history, through the power of the Internet. Not only can you conjure up long lists of possible ways to fry fish with a click of a mouse, you can watch celebrity chefs like Gordon Ramsay and Bobby Flay flipping burgers or whisking batter for crêpes. All this from the sanctuary of your couch in your own living room.
Go into any bookstore, look at any list of bestsellers, or spend time with Google, and it soon becomes clear: in spite of many naysayers, cookbooks are still a hot item, “objects of desire,” you might say. But in spite of vast recipe databases such as epicurious.com, allrecipes.com, foodnetwork.com, or iPhone apps, people still buy cookbooks. And lots of them. Thousands of cookbooks are sold every year; some sources suggest that publishers in China sell over 30 million cookbooks each year.
It’s puzzling just why this is so.
It seems to me that it’s because there’s something mysterious and magical about cookbooks. Cookbooks provide a lens through which you can guess what other people eat, or what they might eat. You can travel great distances without even leaving home. This holds true for all cookbooks, even those dating back for centuries. The history of cookbooks isn’t confined to the dim past, the world of incunabula and rare books and medieval Europe, although it could be said that the genre that we now call cookbooks began that way. After all, recipes first appeared on the clay cuneiform tablets of Sumer from around 1750 BC. Later, scribes and writers used papyrus, vellum, and paper to record recipes, cooking tips, and medicinal concoctions. After Johannes Gutenberg’s invention of moveable type – around 1439 – the trickle of cookbook manuscripts soon turned into a deluge that hasn’t stopped to this day.
I think the question really is, “What good are cookbooks?” Why, indeed, when today all you need to do is search the Internet for a recipe, as we’ve seen? I confess: I do this, all the time. And yet, I own thousands of cookbooks. My bookcases sag from their weight and I’m running out of space for them all. Maybe you face the same issues.
There’s a word that many experts toss about when talking of cookbooks and their readers. “Aspirational.” Meaning, of course, that through cooking the food depicted on the pages of cookbooks, you edge closer to the social status of those who dine daily on such fare, or least come close to it. You read cookbooks in order to experience tastes and places and times you can only dream of while lying in bed late at night, with the wind screaming like a banshee on the other side of the glass or the baby crying down the hall or the looming waking hour of 5 a.m. and another day of drudgery at a dead-end job.
Like some literary genres, the novel in particular, cookbooks offer escape from the day-to-day sameness of life. And monotonous food. But there’s more to it than social status or escape these days. Health, economy, environmental concerns, food faddism, and curiosity, all these urges percolate in you when you buy — and read — cookbooks. As to whether or not you actually cook from these books is another question best left for later! And that is the question that mystifies everyone who looks at cookbooks as more than just records of recipes.
I wasn’t thinking about the history of cookbooks the day I bought Simple French Cookery. I bought the book because I could afford it. French cooking seemed exotic to me, coming as I did from a family where canned soups and casseroles propped up most of the meals my mother cooked, recipes that she taught me. Since I started doing most of the cooking for my family when I turned fourteen, I wanted more than a can-opener to work with. But, at the same time, I think my mind was setting the stage for something that came later.
From the beginning, I thought of food and cooking in universal terms, with hints of the magical. That Peter Pauper cookbook, I realize now, confirms that.
But it took a trip to Mexico for the magic to really kick in.
As a twenty-year-old student, I once stood on a street corner outside Mexico City’s colossal La Merced Market, watching women swathed in rebozos and wearing ragged huaraches or clad in spiffy Chanel suits and spiked heels, carrying string shopping bags bulging with ripe fruit, misshapen vegetables, colorful chiles, and blood-red beef, sometimes a live chicken or squawking duck, struggling and strangling in the stringy bags. Smoke from the countless little braziers, on which street vendors cooked plump tortillas or grilled lime-slathered corn, created a scene not unlike the aftermath of High Mass, when incense permeates the air and makes everything seem a slight bit otherworldly. A hint of magical realism, truly a setting to inspire, similar in spirit to Chocolat or Like Water for Chocolate.
The Greeks coined a word for all this: mageiros. Butcher. Priest. Cook. All stem from the same root.
Cookbooks tell a rather magical tale, about history, about life, about us. And that’s why I love cookbooks.
Do you love cookbooks? If so, why?
Note: Esteemed food writer Laurie Colwin also wrote on this topic. Check out “Why I Love Cookbooks,” based on a talk she gave to the Radcliffe Culinary Friends, May 17, 1992. You’ll find the short essay in her More Home Cooking: A Writer Returns to the Kitchen (1993).
© 2014 C. Bertelsen