I find that no amount of house cleaning will result in any of my cookbooks going off to be recycled at the local library’s “bookstore” where I send read-and-forgotten paperback mysteries, out-of-date travel guides and abandoned how-to craft books. Cookbooks are different. They are memories packed between covers, but at the same time the pages resonate with future possibilities.
When I open any of my cookbooks, I am reminded of dishes cooked or pondered, of the friends, family or lovers I cooked for, of bittersweet moments, of places visited and meals eaten, of who I was at 20 or 50, and the years between and after.
I was recently at a friend’s house near Healdsburg. It was a 1940s stucco cottage that they had expanded, set among vineyards. The kitchen had a wall of cookbooks, including many of mine, I was happy to see. It was an impressive collection, reflecting all kinds of interests and tastes from thin volumes on a single herb to tomes of 1,000 recipes. The living room was full of bookshelves, too.
My husband and I took a tour of Glenn and Melissa Alexander’s house and property, as one does when visiting someone for the first time, and Glenn pointed out an outbuilding across the patio from the kitchen.
“We’re turning that into a library,” he said. I thought, how fun. A stand-alone library. Were it going to be mine, I said to myself, I’d be thinking white-washed wood plank floors, Persian rugs, floor to ceiling shelves, maybe a book-ladder like the ones that always seem to be in Merchant Ivory films, comfy wingback chairs, plus pools of light cast by old-fashioned standing lamps. I was mentally snuggling down to long hours of reading in a private place, admittedly slightly envious.
We continued on through the garage and lo and behold, the garage walls were lined with book-filled shelves. All cookbooks. I immediately saw old favorites, like the entire Time-Life Good Cook Collection from the early 1980s, and some new to me about Southern food. The library that Glenn had mentioned was going to be a cookbook library for Melissa’s collection, which must number in the thousands.
“I just love my cookbooks. I’ve been buying them for years, and I’ve kept all of them, I think,” Melissa laughed. Talking as we perused her shelves, we agreed that cookbooks aren’t just books, they are friends and memories packed between covers.
Copies of books dating back to my early 20s have traveled halfway around the world with me from Alaska to France and back again, finding a place on shelves in the more than a dozen apartments and houses I’ve called home. And, with each year, more books were added. I’ve always seemed to find a way to wedge them onto my overflowing bookshelves. I like reading the spines, looking at the colors. They are my companions and friends and portals of memory.
When I thumb the pages of Stella Chan’s “Secrets of the Art of Chinese Cooking,” I think of Arlene, now deceased, who gave it to me for my birthday when we were young mothers, and of all the times I have cooked from the book. She was Filipino, and I think got tired of my asking why and how she cooked the delicious food she did. It was the only gift she ever gave me.
The pages, as I look through them, reflect my enthusiastic efforts at making such exotic dishes as sizzling soup, stir-fried fresh squid and braised squab. In another lifetime, years after the gift, I made the sizzling soup and squab for my step-son’s 14th birthday. I had discovered he liked Chinese food, and I wanted to put on a full Chinese meal for him from start to finish. There are still dishes I envision cooking one day, like squid and pickled mustard greens and black bean spareribs.
“Mastering the Art of French Cooking” by Julia Child was purchased with a $25 check my mother-in law gave me and my husband on our 10th wedding anniversary. I bought it at the now-gone Nut Tree gift shop in Vacaville. The cover has finally separated from the book, and the pages are rumpled and stained with years of French onion soup, seafood quiche, cheese soufflé and so many other dishes. When I pick up the book, reading over yet again the well-loved recipes, I am transported back to other homes and other kitchens, and reminded of dishes and dinners cooked over the years.
One recipe in particular, braised sweetbreads with brown mushroom sauce, reminds me of the stubborn, determined overworked mother and teacher I was, one insistent upon cooking and serving a civilized meal every night no matter what. In this case, it was sweetbreads for dinner on a school night. My then husband, now deceased, chastised me for being unrealistic, which I now recognize I probably was. However, the sweetbreads were delicious and my son and daughter remember having them growing up. I still use that recipe for sweetbreads whenever I can find them, and my French son-in-law and his children are very appreciative.
Most tattered and most beloved of all my cookbooks is one whose title is now lost. It was given to me for my 10th birthday by friends of my parents who had no children. I was thrilled and proud to be considered capable not only of reading the nearly 600-page book complete with menus and more than 1,100 recipes, but capable of cooking from it, which I did throughout grade school and high school.
I took it to college with me, to Europe, back and forth from California to France, to Alaska, and finally back to California to its final home here on my kitchen bookshelf. Here can be found, among many others, the family brownie recipe, the first thing I made from the book, the one I baked for my children and that they later baked themselves. I can still see my son and his little friend on the floor of our kitchen in Point Hope, Alaska, stirring up a bowl of the chocolate batter. It’s been a long time since I cooked from that book, but I would never part with it.
Between the covers of a recent cookbook, “Paris to Provence: Childhood Memories of France & Food,” I discovered reflections of my life through words, recipes and photos, not from my point of view, but from my daughter’s. In the introductions to her recipes to the food that framed her early years, she recounts a childhood of summers with her parents, a childhood speckled by donkey-back rides with her little brother to visit cheese-making friends in the mountains, of cliff-hanging encounters with flocks of sheep on skinny Alpine roads and of staying up late after long dinners listening to adults talking about the resistance during World War II and other mysterious grown-up subjects.
I was there, of course, for all those moments, and in reading through her book, cover to cover, I saw my own young self, full of hopes and dreams, frustrations and moments of deep happiness. These are the same kind of emotions that my current self experiences as I continue to build memories and see possibilities on the pages of the books, old and new, in my never-ending cookbook collection.
Georgeanne Brennan, an award-winning cookbook author and culinary journalist, has written more than 30 cookbooks and garden books. She lives in Winters, where she writes, cooks and runs her new online store, La Vie Rustic (www.lavierustic.com).