A Cookbook Addiction

As with many types of addictive behavior, it began with just one small episode. In this case “it” was a cookbook of only 64 pages. And the price set me back the sum total of my babysitting money from the previous Saturday.

I trudged all the way from my house on one side of town to the campus bookstore at Washington State College, that money burning a hole in my pocket. Little did I know I was starting down a road of no return, falling into one of the Life’s pleasurable sensations, that of acquiring cookbooks, as well as the perks of doing so. Eating. Armchair travel. Ownership. Cooking.

To cook the first recipe from that Peter Pauper Press edition of Simple French Cookery, I dragged my mother’s fondue set – until then gathering dust in the laundry room – into the kitchen of our old house, a white-frame farmhouse built in 1888. Swiss Fondue, it sounded so stylish to me. The fussiness of the thin tiny forks and the little sterno pot reminded me of playing with my dollhouse when I wasn’t much younger than the kids I babysat. Later, one wintery Sunday morning, my father and I followed the crêpes recipe in Simple French Cookery, filling the delicate pancakes with strawberry jam Dad made with berries from our summer garden. That recipe became a family breakfast tradition for many years, until I left for university.

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But the irony of that first cookbook of mine turned out to be this: Until a few decades later, aside from Julia Child’s red cabbage and her classic boeuf bourguignon in Mastering the Art of French Cooking 1 & 2, I dismissed French cooking, believing it to be too fussy, too boring, and too passé. Instead, I picked up books about vegetarian cooking, such as Laurel’s Kitchen (now worth some serious money in hardcover) or The Vegetarian Epicure. Because of my quite thin wallet, I also copied recipes from a slew of cookbooks, including The Pepperidge Farm Cookbook, and filled a dozen lab notebooks with my increasingly illegible scribblings.

Then I spent some time in France, and all that changed. I even attended short-term classes at the Cordon Bleu cookery school in Paris. Over several years, I stuffed a whole bookcase and more with cookbooks solely about French cuisine. The endless variations on basic ingredients enthralled me.

Lower shelf of one bookcase loaded with French cookbooks. (Photo credit: C. Bertelsen)

Thanks to culinary magazines riding a foodie craze, Italian cuisine edged its way into my heart, and I filled up another bookshelf with over 125 Italian cookbooks. During the course of one year, I cooked only Italian food daily. Like French food, Italian cuisine also demonstrated to me a tremendous variation in the use of basic ingredients.

All these cookbooks – over 3000+ – became a serious problem, given their weight, the space they claimed in my house, and the fact that I tended to forget which ones I owned or never even opened the covers after the initial thrill of buying them. So before my latest move in 2017, I culled almost 2500 books, by donating them to a community college culinary arts program. Cold turkey.

Was it painful? Yes, it hurt a lot to see them boxed up and carted off like so much debris after a severe tropical storm.

Did I cry? Yes, I did.

I still feel sad when I search for a certain cherished title on my shelves and realize that a well-loved friend no longer lives here. And yes, I’ve brought a few of my old friends back, buying cheap used copies, without the stains and tears on the pages I used to turn, marking some with post-it notes and scrawls, for some future kitchen adventure.

And now?

I’m still addicted to cookbooks. Cooking, too.

Recently I bought used copies of Joanne Harris’s cookbooks, with recipes suited to the bonne femme, or housewife, style of cooking. None of that fussy haute cuisine stuff. Books such as these, spilling over with crisp, colorful photographs of La France profonde, remind me of past days, a happy time when I could make an airline reservation – provided I saved my money and avoided extravagant purchases of new cookbooks – and actually fly to France.

While it’s a poor substitute for a leisurely evening meal in a Paris restaurant, for dinner tonight I’m cooking chicken thighs to taste like osso bucco and a salad of greens sparkling with a sharp vinaigrette and seasoned with Roquefort.

As Julia would say, “Bon appétit!”

Full circle, yes.

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