I am trying to remember those first attempts. They had to be failures. Probably middle school home economics class where the disaster was no fault of the effort, but – and I can still taste this clearly – a bad ingredient from the classroom cabinet that had been there who knows how long before we read the recipe and reached for it. Bleck. Fortunately, we were graded on the effort and not the ingredient.
That probably wasn’t the first time I cooked, or helped out in a kitchen, but it probably was the first time I took a recipe, printed words on a page, read it and followed its instruction in an attempt to cook something into being. I wasn’t in on the secret then, but it wouldn’t have been long before I was smitten with the practice: cooking is an act of reading.
I would have first learned how to cook standing by my mother’s side, watching and helping here and there, marveling at what came out of her mind and hands. She knew her way along. Or so it seemed to me at the time. I now know there was a box of index cards in a container on the fridge top, and, of course, a book case along the wall that grew from time to time as a new series subscription began, expanding the family menu beyond the basics.
It is probably there that something really took hold, that bookcase and the words it held. I can remember Saturday afternoons, probably winter and gray with not much to do: I’d open the pages of one of the books in the Time Life series Foods Of The World and dig in.
Spellbound, I was traveling. I was delving into cultures. I was imagining creations and thinking they were just a listing of words away from appearing in the very room I was in. Actually, at first I was probably just looking at the pictures and wholly captivated, whether it was in consideration of a beautiful landscape from a far away place, a joyous collection of people being who they were wherever it was they lived, a collection of ingredients from what seemed like it had to have been another planet, not a part of the world I lived in (decades on, the grocery stores have caught up), and, of course, the food exactingly prepared and brightly photographed, though, looking back, nothing compared to the food porn poses of many a modern day Instagram account. I was smitten indeed. Eventually, probably after a year or two or three of drooling over images, maybe after having started to work in a local restaurant as a day cook, I reached for the picture book’s companion recipe volume and had a go. Such reading has been a life long endeavor since.
These days, I reach less for those quaint Time Life books, though there are recipes still in the repertoire (and, I’ll admit, they also take me time traveling back to childhood and the family kitchen, or at least lazy, dreamy Saturday afternoons). Over the years, they have given me the confidence and the inclination to pick up cookbooks and have a go at whatever I am looking at. My work in the kitchen won’t be masterly, but it often is enough to have taken words on a page and turned it into bright and happy taste.
Lately, I am enjoying reading and bringing to life the words of the Thug Kitchen series, and I want to make every recipe in Ottolenghi’s Plenty, a gift received from a friend after a visit – I’ll have perfected a few things for the next time they drop by. Moosewood’s books are go to favorites – I remember going to their restaurant once, ordering something and then, after that first taste, exclaiming too loudly, “I made this!” as if I had made that particular batch. At least that was the look on the faces of those around me. I had to explain that I had made the recipe before and it tasted as right proper from my hands as from the Moosewood kitchen itself.
There is nothing like a favorite restaurant’s cookbook, especially if the restaurant exists out of town: I have both the Vedge and Vstreet books as well as Zahav’s. Both bring tastes from far away to the kitchen table. There’s a cookie recipe from one of Emeril’s books that I have made a hundred times. I am not good at cakes, yet. Perhaps I need to start reading more dessert.
Some of my mother’s cookbooks have made it to my collection. They are cherished, though I am reading them differently than I once did. While there’s the personal nostalgia of the Time Life ones and the connection to my mother throughout, there are books in the collection I wasn’t as clued into at the time, particularly the ones generated by the women’s magazines of the day. They gave us some of the everyday recipes, more easy, economic fuel than edible taste, like tuna casserole — I would have never learned to love reading recipes into being had I started there. They also share a window on the culture in America back not that long ago, sexism and racism steaming off the pages in places. But that is a subject for a future post. For now, go grab yourself a cookbook and feast your eyes.