Oct/Nov 2017 Spotlight

On Cookbooks: Collections and Recollections

by Alice Lowe

Image excerpted from Ganesha's Advice by Roe LiBretto

Image excerpted from Ganesha's Advice by Roe LiBretto

Martha Stewart's Appetizers? I've never opened it, don't know where it came from. Toss it. Recipes for an English Tea? A relic of my Anglophile past—out it goes. I haven't stopped cooking, lost my appetite, or gone on a stringent diet. My small house demands rigid control and dictates my motto: "eliminate clutter and gain space." Today it's cookbooks. I winnow and weigh, separate keepers from those that have outlived their usefulness. Long before Marie Kondo revolutionized households with her de-cluttering system (and instilled terror with her sadistic zeal), I would sift through clothes and jewelry, books and music, kitchenware and tchotchkes with an eye to the expendable, filling boxes and bags for Goodwill and the library.

I start with practicalities. Do I need more than one Chinese, one Thai, one Cajun? Keep the favorites and pitch the rest. A late-onset allergy to mollusks means I don't want The Mussel Cookbook reminding me of now-forbidden feasts. I burrow deeper, quiz myself as I scrutinize each volume: will I ever use it again? Can I find it at the library or online? Would I miss it or am I keeping it out of nostalgia? And Kondo's sole criterion—does it give me joy? In addition to their physical presence on limited shelf space—organized by fit and height rather than title, author or ethnicity—the cookbooks I keep and others I've jettisoned are codified in a Dewey Decimal System-like catalog of my life, decade by decade.


I turned 18 in 1961 and moved from my parents' home to my first apartment.

I had two dishes at my command: tuna-noodle casserole and a hamburger-meat pie. I had grown up watching my mother assemble these faithful family retainers: mix the key ingredients with a can of Campbell's soup (cream of mushroom and tomato, respectively), pile it into a casserole dish, add topping (crushed potato chips on one, mashed potatoes on the other), bake for 20 minutes. My mother never taught me how to cook, just as her mother failed to teach her. Her no-frills cooking was typical of many working-class homes of the '50s and '60s, requiring no particular artistry. Cooking entailed following directions and using common sense—I could do that.

The Italian Cookbook was the first cookbook I bought. The paperback cover depicts an Italian kitchen where a woman rolls out dough on a table next to baskets of bread and vegetables. An iron kettle simmers over a fire, a cat laps cream from a bowl, raffia-covered jugs of wine hang from the ceiling. I loved my mother's meaty spaghetti sauce, but I never asked for her recipe—I would come up with my own. My copy of The Italian Cookbook is held together with tape and staples. The pages for sauces—meat, marinara, garlic and oil—are folded down, and there are checkmarks by other recipes, stars on a few. Dark stains that look like dried blood—tomato sauce? red wine? dried blood?—are spattered among the pages, but what I see clearly are the thumbprints of my early independence. I was never able to duplicate my mother's spaghetti sauce, but it was more important to forge my own identity.

I acquired more cookbooks when I got married in 1965: Betty Crocker's Cooking for Two, Campbell's Cooking with Soups, a Good Housekeeping compendium. They guided me through the basics until their blandness challenged me to venture beyond their pages. My Texas mother-in-law was apprehensive about her son's fish-eating, celery-nibbling California bride. She offered me the keys to her eldest son's stomach, and he'd have been elated if I'd replicated the fried chicken and chicken-fried steak of his youth, but I spurned them all, even her exquisite berry cobbler. Halfway across the country, she was no threat, but the kitchen was where I continued to assert my independence. I became an adequate, then an accomplished cook.


Nothing says the '70s like Diet for a Small Planet.

We eschewed the wastefulness of meat production and consumption, embraced the individual and global goodness of legumes and whole grains. We combined proteins for maximum utilization: beans and tortillas, falafel and hummus, brown rice and tofu—pairings that have withstood the test of time. The book is gone, but it holds a place in my mental database. I check out a library copy and find my favorite dish: Greek cheese and spinach squares, a kind of mock spanakopita. Wheat flour and wheat germ complement cheese and egg for 16 grams of usable protein per serving.

A single mother by then, my goal was wellness for myself and my daughter. Wellness as the antithesis of illness, "wellness" as the jargon du jour to supplant mere health. I would plunge elbow-deep into whole wheat flour to bake loaves of bread weighty as dumbbells. I still see Jennifer's pained expression as she chewed and chewed. I did an obligatory stint as a vegetarian. We weren't big meat eaters and still ate fish, so changes were minimal. The only thing I missed was bacon, predating today's baco-vegetarians and "bacon is a vegetable" t-shirts and bumper stickers. The phase didn't last long—my ethical convictions weren't strong enough to maintain my resolve—but the food fads of the '70s shaped my enduring health-conscious diet.


Fledgling foodies in the '80s relished Nora Ephron's Heartburn.

A roman à clef with revenge in the form of a key lime pie, Ephron interlaced narrative and recipes. When the narrator discovers her husband's infidelity, she describes the bacon hash she fixes when she's feeling blue: "Cut some bacon into small pieces... add cooked diced potatoes... Eat with an egg." I make it with leftover salmon or Brussels sprouts.

Before the Food Network created celebrity chefs, culinary pacesetters gained fame through their restaurants. Before Emeril, Bobby Flay, and Nigella Lawson, Alice Waters founded a movement based on organic and natural foods at Chez Panisse in Berkeley. Wolfgang Puck made gastronomic history at Beverly Hills' Spago with a pizza topped with smoked salmon, crème fraiche, and caviar. Manhattan's Silver Palate introduced Chicken Marbella—made with prunes and olives—to the upscale dinner party set. The Silver Palate Cookbook aided my early attempts at pesto, gravlax, baked garlic, and the classic salade nicoise, which was prefaced with the poetic wisdom of John Keats:

Give me books, fruit, French wine and fine weather, and a
little music out of doors, played by someone I do not know.

I embraced the "live to eat" ethic over its plebian "eat to live" counterpart. I made pilgrimages to Chez Panisse, Wolfgang Puck's Postrio, and other Bay Area haute spots (when San Diego was thought to be in the gastronomic dark ages). Yet these gourmet meals, while excellent, never quite lived up to my expectations of rapture. Ecstasy was overrated and overpriced. Like so many American crazes, the foodie thing didn't know when to stop. A whole industry—think corporate mega-profits—developed around the ravenous pursuit of the next culinary innovation, the newest superstar chef, the trendiest restaurant. Elitism and competitiveness overtook the guileless glee of finding, say, a good fish taco.

I was a volunteer counselor at a Planned Parenthood clinic one evening a week. Afterward the volunteers would gather at Piret's, a neighborhood bistro, where our shop talk often reverted to sexual organs and their functions, drawing disapproving glances from nearby diners. The George and Piret Munger Cookbook contains recipes for the charcuterie delights and innovative salads that we enjoyed with bottles of Chateau Augey; its cover pictures an elegantly set table in the casual-chic dining room that absorbed our laughter and risqué repartee.


The '90s began with a housing exchange in an English West Country village.

For six months I reveled in the cocoon-like compactness of my tiny temporary kitchen, its miniature stove and under-the-counter fridge. I idled away hours that stormy winter leafing through the cookery books (as they're called) of my British counterpart, who in turn reveled in my comparatively spacious San Diego kitchen. English food had come a long way from its days of gray meats and overcooked vegetables. I discovered the legendary Jane Grigson, whose recent death brought a wave of renewed popularity, and Delia Smith, whose three-volume Cookery Course dominated the narrow shelf over the sink.

England became my soul's home, and I visited annually for most of the next 15 years. I economized by staying in self-catering flats where I could cook instead of eating out. I bought and brought home The 30-Minute Cook by Nigel Slater, charmed by the hearty simplicity of his "real fast food," his unapologetic embrace of bread and potatoes, cheese and butter.

At home my favorite restaurant, Pacifica Grill, closed, leaving me bereft. The food was remarkable and unrivaled in my eyes: mussels with tomato herb salsa, mustard catfish, sugar-spiced grilled salmon, seared ahi with wild mushrooms. It was my go-to place for special occasions. I recall lunches with my closest friend—the first to arrive would order two glasses of sparkling wine to be delivered to the table as soon as the other sat down—and intimate dinners with assorted beaux, the last of these becoming my husband of the past 20 years. When my daughter pondered whether the Grill's crème brulée was her gold standard because it was really the best or just her first, I was adamant: "The best. No question." It endures in my autographed copy of chef Neil Stuart's Pacifica Blue Plate, a cookbook that gives me joy.

When Jacques Pépin smiled into the PBS camera on Saturday afternoons and said "Happy cooking," I was enchanté. When he took my hand as he signed my copy of Simple and Healthy Cooking at Williams-Sonoma, my heart pulsed like a Cuisinart. The book has no dog-eared pages or butter smears, no recipes I can't live without. But Jacques Pépin held my hand.

Craig Claiborne exudes not a whiff of sensuality, but his New York Times Cook Book is the one I use most and would take to the proverbial desert island (assuming my exile included a kitchen and well-stocked pantry). Its 799 pages range from appetizers (spiced olives, sardine canapés, shrimp toast) to desserts (chocolate mousse, crêpe suzette), and everything in between.


Food fads and fixations are worse than ever in the 21st century.

The superstar chefs, the restaurants where you can't get a reservation even if you can afford it, dishes that seek more to shock taste buds rather than satisfy them: I've wearied of it all. I retired from full-time work in 2007, so I have more time to cook but less inclination to do so. I've settled into a regimen of easy and nutritious cooking, steadfast favorites. I'm a pescatarian again, still with a fondness for bacon. My husband brings home a rotisserie chicken for himself now and then, but for the most part he's happy with my repertoire of fish, pasta, stir-frys, augmented by take-out pizza and Mexican food.

My cookbooks reside on shelves of their own since my husband built a cobalt blue hutch to house them and to store spices, linens, and kitchen kitsch. My collection is comprehensive enough to last a few lifetimes. But in spite of regular purges and a moratorium on new purchases, the numbers grow. There are gifts, coffee table specimens (though we don't have a coffee table) like the Opera Lover's Cookbook, with Met photos and an introduction by Renee Fleming, and Culinary Art, from The Art Institute of Chicago, which features a painting I love—Pierre Bonnard's "Still Life: Preparation for Lunch"—on the page facing the pan-fried salmon with red-wine vinegar and mushrooms that has become one of my staples.

My husband gave me Alice Waters' encyclopedic Chez Panisse Vegetables for a birthday. He knows I don't need cookbooks; he also knows I enjoy leafing through them. A last-minute shopper, original gift ideas aren't his skill set. Chez Panisse Fruit came next, followed by Julia and Jacques Cooking at Home. Julia Child and Jacques Pepin were unfailingly polite to each other on the show that spawned the book, but I invent scenarios in which they bicker: "Don't be a damn fool, Jack" (she always called him Jack), "you don't put blue cheese in a Caesar salad." "You're such une puriste, Julia, tu vache idiote," he replies. "You put whatever your heart desires in le salade César." (In fact Jacques praises Julia's authentic Caesar but prefers it with less precision and a little of le fromage bleu. So do I.)

My time in England launched and nurtured my interest in Virginia Woolf; my retirement has enabled my studies and published work on her life and writing. Books by and about Woolf have increased as cookbooks decline. The Bloomsbury Cookbook: Recipes for Life, Love and Art weds literature and artwork by Woolf, her sister Vanessa Bell, and others of the legendary Bloomsbury circle, with anecdotes and stories, recipes and repasts both real and fictional. I haven't allocated it to a shelf yet—is it a Woolf book or a cookbook?

In spite of her reputation as austere and anorexic, Virginia Woolf loved food and wrote about it lyrically. Food and dining were pivotal as setting and metaphor in her work, like the contrasting meals at the women's and men's colleges in A Room of One's Own, the boeuf en daube dinner scene in To the Lighthouse. Her observation that "One cannot think well, love well, sleep well, if one has not dined well" graces t-shirts and tea towels, bowls and plaques. During the first World War, Woolf sought to become self-reliant in the kitchen. She learned from her cook, exchanged recipes with her sister, practiced and experimented. When her live-in cook left, she wrote a friend: "I have only one passion in life—cooking. I assure you it is better than writing these more than idiotic books."

Cookbooks are stacked and grouped on the floor. It's been a journey through time, marked by serendipitous discoveries. The pile in the corner will go to the library or used book store—I have no use for them; they have no tales to tell. The books I value are padded with scraps and scrawls, post-its and paperclips, loose recipes tucked into their pages, newspaper clippings brown and crackling with age, index cards in my own hand or that of a friend. I'll keep those that reflect their authors' anecdotes and history, like Ismail Merchant's Indian Cuisine. He tells about his life in India and emigration to the US, movies he's produced and actors he's worked with, meals he's prepared for them—tandoori chicken for Christopher Reeve, saffron pilaf to coax Vanessa Redgrave into a part in The Bostonians. And then there are the ones that evoke my own stories, written on, folded into and staining their pages—literally and figuratively. Like the New Pasta Cookbook I gave my husband before we married. I inscribed it: "A clove of garlic, a splash of olive oil, a sprig of basil... and THOU." The pasta puttanesca became a staple in his bachelor kitchen, and one of us still makes it every few weeks.

My newest addition is a gift from my daughter. She's a marathon runner and has inspired my late-in-life running mania. Run Fast, Eat Slow features recipes for athletes. That's us, mother and daughter athletes. I've marked a number of recipes, tried the zucchini quinotto and the roast cauliflower. But I treasure it because it will always recall running half-marathons with my daughter. The cookbooks that will survive purges contain more than recipes—like diaries and photo albums, they hold portions of past, present, and future life.


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