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?
as you are sifting and sorting through your shelves, I am packing up my cookbooks, which include a few of Katzen’s wonders too. Soon I will say goodbye to my tiny studio apartment and hello to a place that will be home for many years. This will be my first home where I will have shelves for books. I am ready to settle in and call a kitchen my very own. I know that a few years down the road I too will be sifting through the cookbooks and bringing a box to the library.Sometimes it seems the things that I want to toss out are the things that weren’t included in the recipe of life, or so I thought. At other time the must-have ingredient is something I would have never thought would make things taste a lot better. I didn’t think that life after grad school would include settling in Chicago, but here I am. I think there needs to be a lot more books that celebrate the joy of cooking and life, versus ones filled with restrictions on calories, content or flavor. I admit that I would like more cookbooks that focus on grace, balance, and everday feasts.I have this longing to sit down and read some of my cookbooks, versus looking for recipes. I want to see how I might be different after reading a cookbook. On some rainy day, when my love is doing the cooking, perhaps, I will curl up with the “Joy of Cooking” and find the story between the servings
it is a fine and wise rule to toss a few out when a few new come in… i do this in my closet. i am ruthless in my closet. but i am a marshmallow when it comes to my books. i seem always to find just a spare inch of space here, a pinch of wiggle room there, even that spot behind the books against the wall has been utilized. so, i commend you on a culling well-done. i doubt you will miss something titled “healthy ways with chicken” anyway. aren’t all ways with chicken healthy?
do you acknowledge what a good writer you are?! I mean, I feel like i’ve lost my super powers, like somebody must have put kryptonite under my bed last night…so- I sit down here with a cup of tea, desperately seeking inspiration…and i find as aways, the chair. thank goodness and betty crocker, your uncanny symptoms of long roads and lightening the load… and then i stumble across a phrase that i’ve never heard before, or put quite the way you did…”from now till the dining room.” bam, the imagery is of a home i’ve never seen, but feel a part of, by your words…and enthusiasm over even…cookbooks. thank you…bless you, and forget/edit everything i said but that first line. take that one to heart.
i heartily agree, true, what a great writer and inspiration…thanks (again) for the table, i consider it a blessing!
might i simply say that finding chairs pulled up to this table is enough to set me spinning? gleefully, that is….yesterday, a few hours after tap-tapping away, sending this off to the post office in cyberspace, feeling rather, well, middling about it all, finding a million reasons why it wasn’t nearly what i set out for it to be, i click back and find, poof, like magic, friend after friend has pulled up a chair, left me whole slices of cake, frosted even, for my mid-eve consumption. some of the finest souls in the world, stacked one on top of the other, offering your own thoughts, offering warmth, love, and plain old believing. i just want you to know that you make me spin round the moon, each one of you. even on a day when i feel like i meander straight off the path, into the weeds, you are there, to reach out a hand, and bring me back to the place where we all sit in the dappled light believing in something far bigger and brighter than we are…….so thank you, slj, sosser, true wonder, and mom of 2. and anyone else who tiptoed in and tiptoed off, filled up but not needing to say even a word…..
I am chuckling as I visualize my cookbooks crammed into two shelves…I think I am going to arrange them in order of how they came into my life and see what journey that takes me on….will post results later. Perhaps the titles alone will tell a story or make a poem!To be continued….
Just tonight I have two houseguests and guess what, when talk came about food, I pulled out my earliest editions of The Settlement Cookbook: The Way to a Man’s Heart, published in 1903 and we read ALOUD from the recipes. How about this recipe for hamburger, before people had ground beef or home grinders:Scraped Beef (doesn’t sound so appetizing does it?)Cut a piece of tender steak 1/2 inch thick.Lay it on a meat board.With a sharp knife scrape off the soft part until there is nothing left but the tough stringy fibres. Season the pulp with salt and pepper and make into little flat round cakes 1/2 inch thing, and broil them two minutes. Serve on rounds of toast. This ia a safe and dainty way to prepare steak for one who is just beginning to eat meat. When it is not convenient to have glowing coals, these MEAT CAKES mae be broiled in a very hot frying pan, on in the broiling oven of a gas stove.Happy cooking!
I just found your site via your commentary printed today in the Chi. Tribune Sunday paper. I read it and thought, when I saw you had an online site, here is someone whose writing I want to to read! And this meandering, which caught my eye first, didn’t disappoint.I have a similar spacial dilemma, 3 shelves in the pantry left on the wall by the previous owners. I have cheated a bit and use another shelf of the pantry shelves themselves for cookbooks. But they have to compete with cooking equipment and condiments, canned goods, and other kitchen paraphrenalia. My Mother had a large collection of cookbooks also, and was also buying more, and as a girl, I enjoyed helping her cook. I enjoyed even more curling up in the wing chair in the living room and reading cookbooks. I mean, actually reading them all the way through! I became a sort of early connoisseur of cookbooks. Larousse Gastronomic was a treasure of esoteric and just plain strange information about the history of cooking. James Beard was wonderful for his stories about his cooking adventures, as well as his pithy remarks about what he considered good, bad, or too ugly to contemplate!Thank you for reminding me of my past cooking adventures, when as a young girl often at home for days with illnesses, I spent hours imagining myself at dinner parties; traveling the world and dropping in to a small cafe, or a friend’s estate; or hosting a glittering holiday feast for friends.
Well here’s a happy little gathering to greet me after a somewhat crappy day. I LOVE cookbook talk. I love recipe talk too. And I love to hear what others at the table are saying.First of all: true, you indeed need to go to bam’s house someday, but you will think you have been in the kitchen long comfortable hours when first you see it. It is exactly what you would picture based on what you’ve read and seen here.Second: bam in the photo I see that you have room for a few more books where that box is–two or three at least could be wedged in there…. And what’s the one that ends in “erama”?And: jehwriter, how lovely to welcome you here. I haven’t been around much this summer, but bam keeps on cranking out great stuff season after season, and I think you’ll find regular inspiration.Now. I do adore cookbooks and have way too many. I put them in one of the prime spots in my kitchen–two long shelves behind cabinet doors (highly necessary) just above my sink and countertop. My husband (and pretty much everyone else who finds them hiding in there) cannot believe I really want them THERE and that I need THAT MANY. I probably should cull them. I know there are a few that are the equivalent of healthy ways with chicken in their inspiration-value. And I have a few others that are so outstanding and their gastronomical caliber is so high that they actually make me feel bad. New Basics has this effect on me, but I cannot part with it because of its waffle recipe, and its vegetarian chili recipe, two keepers if ever there were. New Basics preys on my insecurities and makes me feel as if it’s the most natural thing in the world to roast my own chiles on a daily basis, or separate my eggs for every blessed baked good. Then there’s Rick Bayless, and Zarela Martinez, two practitioners of Mexican cooking that the world is indeed indebted to, but whose standards are just too damn high for me. And as for reading value, I just don’t get a lot out of passages like, “this casserole brings together several elements which were just beginning to be important to me at that time: creaminess, crunchiness, and a bit of spiciness.” I just can’t possibly care about that. On the other hand, I have cookbooks I can fall into and never come out, which makes it good that I rarely get to sit and read them anymore. Several of them can hardly be called actual cookbooks, like Robert Farrar Capon’s The Supper of The Lamb. But what a gorgeous read! Or Joan Nathan’s American Folklife Cookbook. Or of course Peg Bracken. Miriam Ungerer’s Good Cheap Food. Brother Peter Reinhart’s bread book and another one, Sacramental Magic in a Small Town Cafe. Or the Frug’s Christmas cookbook! That one is just a treasure that practically makes me weepy-eyed ever year when I reread it again. The very silly, but comforting and fun Mitford Cookbook and Kitchen Reader. And one coffee-table cookbook my mom sent me one year, Southwest The Beautiful. Knockout photos of the blessed homeland, and really, really wonderful recipes.Then there’s a whole category of funny ones. I mean inadvertently funny. The 1950s books with recipes like Blackberry Tongue, the apple orchard cookbook with Baloney Barbecue (“Take a whole baloney. [what?] Cut slits across the top. Wrap a slice of American cheese around a potato chip and insert into each slit. [what?] Pour barbecue sauce over the top, heat in the oven, and enjoy!”) and many, many pen corrections, where something like “1 c. lard” is crossed out and “1 c. sugar” is handwritten in the margin. My old Betty Crocker kids cookbook with Rocket Salad in it, that my mom and I laughed so hard over we were in tears. An old marshmallow fluff promotional cookbook filled with utterly revolting recipes. This type of thing is very hard for me to part with.Then there’s the simply handy, practical, can’t miss. My Fannie Farmer, which is in three pieces. A taped-together Betty Crocker. And for all things Greek, Diane Kochilas. (My 9-year-old son’s school-inspired reading of this book was recently rewarded by his discovery of a recipe for eel stew, which began, “Take one live eel, and club it over the head with a sharp blow. Hang it by its tail and skin it, top to bottom….” You can only imagine the thrill this generated in our home.)I can’t say I use all these books all the time, but I sure do count them as friends. And I echo those who want more joy in their cookbooks than calorie counts! Good heavens, we have enough dreadful things to deal with every day. We might as well take our joys where we can, and in gratitude.
dear darling, i’ve been away for a few days. oh, very much at home, but at home with a dear dear faraway friend who takes my breath away with the way she always seems to carve out time when here anywhere off her left coast to come stay with me and my boys. oh, jcv, you are such a careful reader. the “…erama” to which you refer is one of the great ones, passoverama by the sisterhood of temple beth-el in wynnewood, pa., a place i’ve never been nor never known anyone, but when i married, my dear dear adopted jewish motherinlaw (meaning not really my m-i-l but she made herself so anyway) well she cleared this keeper off her shelf to give to me, where it has over the years proven itself indispensable to the nice irish girl finding her way through the what-you-cans and what-you-can’ts of passover. plus, who knew from bella abzug’s matzo balls….anyway, first welcome to jehwriter, thank you for meandering your way over here. and to jcv, i could read you any and every day, all day, on the subject of cookbookery or cookery or bookery. as for the extra room on my shelf, my friend, that box with the crimson ribbon, it is my old recipe box, and it doesn’t LOOK like a cookbook but it is the very best sort….a cookbook recorded on little 3-by-5 cards, in the handprint of those i’ve loved and learned from……i notice the comment function is all mucked up again. my computer tells me there are four comments on the obsessed meander, but i don’t see a single one. alas, ever since the iphone, apple seems to have worms in its fruits…..we’ll see if this goes on, i fear it won’t. and perhaps, they’ll iron out the kinks. apologies for the frustration. for now, if you care to, you can email comments to me and i will save till the apple-ites let us get back to the business of discussing among ourselves, the very best part of the chair if you ask me….