When people come to our house and gravitate towards our kitchen, they always linger around the bookcase that only has cookbooks.
“Wow,” visitors inevitably say. “You have so many cookbooks!” And then they ask if we use them all, or they remark that they don’t use cookbooks very often themselves– as if cookbooks are only good for one thing.
Our bookcase is a hodgepodge affair, all jumbled together– my old Bon Appetit magazines, some early 1980s Gourmet magazines I pilfered from the free shelf at a neighborhood café, a three ring binder full of my own recipes and what I could remember from when I would cook with my grandmother, and all the vintage cookbooks and pamphlets I’ve acquired over the years from yard sales and thrift shops. I’ve got a bizarre penchant for the kinds of homegrown cookbooks called things like Callin’, Cuein’, and Cookin’ (from a square-dance club in the 1960s). While I would never make a gelatin salad involving lime Jell-O, mayonnaise and canned pineapple in a million years, I do like having multiple variations on that theme to gawk at.
I mean, we don’t do that anymore, do we? Now, we are all about unprocessed foods, or maybe we try to eat grass-fed beef– or maybe we replace our eggs with flax seed and go completely vegan. What’s gone on in our culture that we once recognized gelatin salads as the perfect thing to bring to a party, and we now see the same dish as disgusting? Meanwhile, talk to your grandmother about baking without butter and eggs, and she will think you are trying to ask her about war-rationing from the 1940s. Sure, we think that gelatin salad is the grossest thing ever now, but what would your grandmother have thought about Tofurkey? Styles change, drastically, and they are fascinating.
The modern foodie part of me reads those trainwreck recipes (a cup of mayonnaise and a cup of sour cream in artificially-flavored lime Jell-o?) and is horrified. Yet I keep right on reading! And I’m not just reading the recipes out loud to my husband so we can laugh at them (which we do)– I’m also reading to figure out what kind of culture produces a recipe like that? In so many cookbooks of that era there are similar recipes, and so it is genuinely fascinating to wonder how our tastes could have changed that much. I imagine an aproned, 1960s housewife trying to perfect her gelatin salad, desperately searching for something to take to a church potluck. A cookbook is not just a cookbook– it’s a door to another time or another culture.
But we don’t just have a bookcase.
Under some cabinets we have the really big cookbooks stacked as neatly as we can manage. You know these types of coffee table behemoths, I’m sure. I like to collect those huge Culinaria tomes that Könemann put out a few years ago. These are the cookbooks that really put the fear of God into friends and relatives who don’t like to cook. They mistakenly assume we’re churning out spaetzle and artisanal sausages every night like pros (perhaps not the best example, since I do like to make spaetzle from my German Culinaria), or that we keep grape must on hand for the more authentic Greek pastries.
Instead, these cookbooks are our way of branching out. It’s rare that we go out and get all of the ingredients we need for one of these recipes. Instead, we flip through them after dinner and daydream. Ooh, look at all those Hungarian peppers. Did you know Spain has so many kinds of cheese? And why are there so many herring recipes in the salad section of this Swedish cookbook? Wouldn’t it be cool to visit Singapore just to eat their noodles?
My family is Greek, and left to my own devices, even when I make American food or any other kind of food, really, I approach the dish like a Greek person. Olive oil is the default oil. When a recipe calls for a clove of garlic, I might as well use two. Virtually any vegetable can be dressed up with olive oil and lemon, and I tend to cook my meat to death. The latter is a habit I didn’t know was cultural until I read it in one of my Greek cookbooks. If I didn’t have my trusty cookbook collection, would I have ever tried using peanut oil in a stir-fry? No, it would have tasted like a Greek stir-fry forever. Would I ever have found out how easy it was to scrape German spaetzle batter into a pot of simmering water, or how refreshing homemade Vietnamese spring rolls are on a hot summer’s day? No, never!
Instead of shunning out of date recipes or being intimidated by cookbooks that have ingredients you’d have to order from Amazon, just let yourself be amazed by them. Bring in an ingredient or technique at a time and maybe– just maybe– let people think you are as impressive as your cookbook collection.