editing cookbooks

by bam

not for a minute did i realize it was a move in pure self-preservation. nope, i thought at the time, it was merely, er, cute.

yes, a word we avoid here (since we verge so close to the treacly anyway, now and again), it was–linguistic misgivings aside–that very thing, c-u-t-e.

cozy, might be apt. clever, another way of saying much the same thing. the arch of a doorway, the place from one room to the next, carved out for books. a book nook, floor to ceiling, instead of a plain old pass-through from one place to another.

and not just any books. the books we drool over, yes, we do. the ones we splatter, and don’t ever mind. proudly, we point to the tomato paste puddle on page 256. flipping along, we stumble upon the chocolate smudge, the thumbprint of a 5-year-old at the time, pulled up close to the counter, making a tollhouse pie for his papa. oh, yes, the once-lickable souvenirs now caked, dried and pressed to the pages.

yes, up the walls of the archway that spills from our cooking room into the lying-on-the-floor-watching-the-cubs room, climb two vertical libraries for what amounts to my culinary history.

there are the standards from back in the ’70s, when my cooking awakened: molly katzen’s “enchanted broccoli forest,” and frances moore lappe’s “diet for a small planet,” from back when i dabbled in all things lacto-ovo-vegetarian, and hoped to personally wipe out world hunger.

there’s a whole shelf of molly o’neill, once the new york times’ food writer, and the only such times writer i ever mustered the courage to write. (she wrote me back, pithy, punchy, managed to escape bursting my bubble by scribbling a few sweet short sentences.)

there is a whole shelf for baking–something i don’t often do, though i do like to think someday i will. and one for children’s cookery books, from back in the day when my wee ones stirred by my side (complete with eensy-weensy rolling pin and cookie cutters used, oh, maybe, twice a year, tops).

there is a grilling shelf, and mostly it belongs to my mate who’s afraid to light up the flames. and a literary shelf, because of course some of the droolingest writing in the world is on the subject of what’s for lunch, or midnight supper, or trekking through france in search of the perfect langoustine.

but each of these disparate shelves has one thing in common: the 11.25 inches from one end to the other.

and therein lies my salvation, or my penance, depending as always on inclination and perspective.

let’s start with salvation. were it not for the end of the shelf, i do believe i might string cookbooks from now till the dining room, which is around the corner and 20 some feet away.

i would forever cling to irma rombauer who’s insisted since 1931 that there’s joy in all cooking. and i might shove her up against the silver palate twins, sheila and julee (who despite their defections of each other, forever are paired between covers, at least on my shelf).

heck, i might integrate the neighborhood with the settlement cookbook spine-to-spine with beatrix potter’s country cookery book. who knew that gefilte fish balls could so seamlessly swim with fried minnows?

ah, but shelves are not endless. they come to an abrupt and unflinching end. it is known as the wall.

and so, i am saved.

yes, frankly, and structurally.

my house might cave in, what with my delight in plucking a fine cooking book off a quaint little shop’s shelf. why sometimes i have no intention at all, not a one, of stopping and browsing, but then in the winds of some shop, startled by the look of a cover, or maybe merely a title, i hear my name called, in whispers and taunting.

and thus, due to my occasional giving in to the sin of temptation, i am required to partake of the puritan art of decision. yes, i edit. i cull and i toss.

when one new cookery tome somehow makes its way under my transom, i weigh and i think. i meander my way through the books of my life and i make a ruling. if alice waters is to move in, someone else must pack up and leave.

and so it is that the other morning i found myself deciding which pages of my past i would expunge, to make way for the ones that had been piled high on the coffee table since, oh, my january birthday, and perhaps, truth be told, the christmas or two before that.

after much mulling, and pulling, i at last ditched a mere four. their titles don’t matter so much,
(though because maybe you’re nosey–no, i mean insatiably curious–the expired were these: healthy ways with poultry, healthy ways with vegetables, two from my skinny-obsessed days. two from which i’ve not once made a single anything ever, healthy or otherwise.

i waved goodbye, too, to a grilling book that once came, i think, with my first weber grill. i’ve not once followed a grilling recipe, and i don’t think the folks who make grills ought to stray from the bending of metal. luau ribs that call for a can of chopped pineapple, and a splash of cooking sherry just hasn’t lured me since i got the book back in the twentieth century.

last to go was the collection of recipes from my firstborn’s laboratory school, where the global pot of professors’ kids made for a rumbly tummy if ever there was one. asparagus in cream, for instance, followed by porc aux pruneaux, which i take it translates to pork with prunes, though pruneaux does have a classier ring to it than that shriveled fruit my grandpa downed every morn to “keep regular,” as my grandma so instructed while steeping said lumps in lemon and water.)

ahem, as i was saying, it doesn’t much matter which titles are now in a pile to give to the library, the point is that–at least for me, who’s been so, um, ensnared with food for such a very long time–fingering my way through my cookbook shelves is very much a long winding road through my psycho-gustatory past.

and were it not for the need to make room on the shelves, i might never be forced to face, and get rid of, the pages i’ve no room deep inside to any longer remember.

once upon a time all my cooking guides were strict marms who played into my peculiarities–not a scant drop of fat and gallons of vegetables, many a page tucked with my scribblings as i counted and calculated my way to safe moorings.

now, at long last, i push aside such strictures to make way for ms. waters, she who celebrates all that comes from the earth, and our blessings to taste it and wholly partake of it.

at long last what lurks on my cookbook shelves is not tucked away for no one to see. but rather, it’s proud enough, and whole enough, to make for a wide-open arch that anyone can pass through.

it’s taken some time, but at last, the last of my odd cooking tomes is scratched of my name.

it is the deep secret of growing older: we learn to edit the chapters that once held us back, to make room for the pages that, now, finally, lay out the recipe for being deeply, delectably alive.

does your cookbook collection tell a story of you? are there chapters you too would prefer to expunge? are there ones that bring you right back to someone you once learned to cook with?