Discovering Cookbooks, a Memory

Once you have mastered a technique, you barely have to look at a recipe again.

 ~ Julia Child

Everybody says it happens, yes. Love at first sight. It happens.

I must concur―it was true, at least for me, when it came to cookbooks.

The summer I turned fourteen, I fell hopelessly in love with the magic of cookbooks. And so, I bought my first cookbook, from a jumble of books on sale at the university bookstore at Washington State College.

It weighed no more than a McDonald’s 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, filled with a handful of classic French 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 cook an omelet on the sidewalk that day.

And ever after, 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 happen on my stove if I took the book home.

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 Mom cooked. I started doing most of the cooking for my family at a relatively early age, the recipes Mom taught me. But I wanted more than a can-opener to work with, more than the same flavors over and over again.

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 confirmed that.

But it took a trip to Mexico for the magic to really kick in.

A twenty-year-old student enjoying a winter-term junket, I 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 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, senses heightened and all seeming otherworldly. A hint of magical realism, truly a setting to inspire, similar in spirit to the film “Chocolat” or Laura Esquivel’s 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’ve loved cookbooks since I first flipped through the pages of Simple French Cookery.

Tomato Omelet

Serves 2

4 eggs, beaten with fine sea salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste

¼ cup heavy cream

2 tablespoons unsalted butter

1 large ripe red tomato, peeled and finely chopped, cooked in butter a small skillet

¼ cup grated Gruyère

Chopped flatleaf parsley for garnish

Beat cream into eggs and season with salt and pepper. Heat 2 tablespoons of butter in a 10-inch nonstick skillet over medium heat. When butter bubbles, add eggs, using a fork or thin spatula to pull cooked part of the eggs to the center of pan, tilting pan to allow raw eggs to swim into the space left vacant by the cooked eggs. Spread tomato over cooked eggs, sprinkle with half of the cheese, roll up, cook for a minute more or so. Cut in half and place on plates. Sprinkle with remaining cheese and garnish with parsley.


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