There’s almost nothing better than curling up with a good book. I read anything and everything. Most often, though, I turn to mysteries, Jane Austen, Agatha Christie, James Baldwin, memoir, science nonfiction, spiritual self-help (I guess that’s the genre??), political and historical biographies, with some nature writing and poetry thrown in. Sometimes, though, it’s cookbooks that have my attention. I have a shelf in the living room bookcase brimming with them. It’s only due to self-restraint and budget that I don’t have more. After clearing out and giving away cookbooks over the years, the ones I own now are my favorites and I frequently use them.
In the kitchen, my cookbook usage is practical: follow the recipe exactly if it’s baking, make pantry substitutions when the recipe and my kitchen stock don’t quite match, improvise with a basic recipe for fun, use multiple recipes of the same dish to find the best of all, use the spice and seasoning suggestions when something seems bland. Cookbooks, however, serve a different purpose in the living room than they do in the kitchen.
One of my favorite ways to spend a cozy evening at home, particularly at the end of the work week, is to pour a glass of red wine and tuck my legs and feet into a pretzel on the couch with a stack of cookbooks on the seat next to me. I usually put one of my favorite CDs on repeat and then lose myself in the cooking and recipes and details. I dream about dinner parties and happy hours at my apartment with wine and hors d’oeuvres and endless conversation. I think about easy-to-preprare-but-often-overlooked recipes. I look at advanced recipes and simple recipes. I look in the index for recipes that utilize ingredients that I possess in abundance. I think about ways to spice up my current cooking repretoire. I brainstorm.
Reading cookbooks is a form of escape; it’s comfort reading. It’s a flight of fancy for food. It’s wanderlust with ingredients. The last couple of Thursday nights, I have been surfing through cookbooks, drinking red wine, and dreaming. Finding recipes or imagining new uses for oft-used ingredients is only part of the fun. Often overlooked as havens for strong writing, there are beautiful and poignant essays found in the introductions to the cookbooks and in the short paragraphs preceding a recipe. Warm descriptions and passionate words are there to connect us over food and time.
Sometimes curling up with cookbooks is a trip down memory lane. I will look back at recipes I have made, remembering the first time I made a fancy dinner for a new boyfriend, or had friends visit from out of town and we made our version of the storybook “stone soup.” I recall curling up with one of my best college friends at her apartment when she lived in L.A. and we threw together a frittata and put it in the oven and tucked into the couch to watch a movie and catch up while we ate warm fresh frittata and I reveled in its simple elegance. I recall loud and boisterous potluck parties in college. I think of a friend calling me up the day before my third half marathon and asking me over and carne adovada was prepared for me while I sat on a kitchen bar stool and drooled while we talked about everything and drank wine. Food memories with family come alive for me when I pull down the red and white checked “Better Homes and Gardens” cookbook.
As I mentioned before, my cookbooks are treasured items. Some were gifts and some were purchased after seeing them on friends and others’ shelves. A few years ago, for Christmas gifts, my older sister, creative and crafty, prepared a family cookbook with lovingly reproduced copies of old recipes in the loopy and angular cursive writing of aunts, great aunts, grandmothers, great grandmothers. This book has a place of honor on my shelf. I joined a mail-order cookbook club in college and surprisingly, a couple of those have stood the test of time in my adult years. A couple of my favorites were gifts from good friends. My friend Cathy, after learning of my lifelong hatred for broccoli, jokingly sent me a copy of The Enchanted Broccoli Forest in brown paper bag wrapping the summer after our first year of college for my birthday. Not only was that book a classic of vegetarian cooking, but it’s a classic and oft-used book in my kitchen and living room. In the months before she moved to Florida, I accidentally appropriated (I think?) a copy of her Moosewood Restaurant Low-Fat Favorites. The black bean-sweet potato burritos is an all-time favorite with lots of others sprinkled in among the pages. My love for Spain and a dream of hiking the Camino de Santiago trail led me to a public tv show (co-hosted) and then a cookbook (co-written) by Mario Batali and Gwyneth Paltrow. Say what you will, but that book has some great classic Spanish recipes and wonderful pictures for an aspirational traveler. I have long been a fan of Mark Bittman, who made a name for himself as a food writer for the New York Times and other publications. I love and enjoy his How to Cook Everything that I added to my collection after stumbling upon it at a used book sale fundraiser, after giving a new hard cover copy to my younger sister the year before. Two more of his cookbooks, Food Matters and Kitchen Express, were scores from the going out of business sale of one of my favorite bookstores. For a couple of years in the mid 2000s, I had cable and and the Food Network and fell in love with Giada De Laurentiis. I bought her first four cookbooks in rapid succession, and while I no longer keep up with the celebrity chef, those cookbooks have helped me find the beauty in classic Italian and easy California cooking. I own a weathered and battered sturdy paperback copy of Vegetarian Times Complete Cookbook that I turn to time and time again. I became a strict vegetarian in my first week at college and kept at it for 10 years. I now follow a “flexitarian” diet, but mostly follow vegetarian recipes (with some major exceptions) and that cookbook helped me learn how to form a meal without a meat “substitute” and to find tasty and awesome seasonings for the weekly challenge of a community-supported agriculture share and the often unwieldy abundance of in-season produce from the CSA and farmers’ market. In the height of courtship and near the end of my strict vegetarianism, a beloved boyfriend gave me a copy of Williams-Sonoma’s Vegetarian For All Seasons and then I discovered Williams-Sonoma’s Cooking Basics in a used bookstore. Those tiny volumes fill up a disproportionate amount of my cooking repertoire with clear illustrations and handy ways to use fresh and new ingredients. For a couple of years I subscribed to Cooking Light and their Complete Cookbook has seen a regular rotation in my kitchen. I enjoy a couple copies of Cook’s Illustrated that feel more like well-loved cookbooks rather than thick magazine issues, including an “All Time Best French Recipes” and “Cook It Right” that help partly due to their fussiness and thoroughness. I recently received an instapot and purchased a couple of used cookbooks as I navigate this new pressure cooker-slow cooker that came with a minimal of instructions. A couple of hometown fundraising cookbooks from my high school years round out my collection for the most part.
I still look to the library and occasionally used bookstores for new additions. I discover new destinations, new skill sets, new seasonings,
Curling up with cookbooks helps me to figure out how to economize with a stocked pantry and little money. Curling up with cookbooks allows me to escape budget and my skill level. Perusing recipes helps me to escape the daily life and imagine a culinary vacation. Perusing recipes allows me to revisit old favorites and discover new ones. Reading cookbooks assists me with taking stock of the current and planning for the future. Curling up with cookbooks allows me to find spice at the end of a long week. Reading cookbooks prompts me to new combinations, even new companions who might enjoy the fruits of these culinary escapades.
A recipe is as a simple as a list of ingredients and a series of steps. A recipe is a study in transformation. A cookbook is a collection of those transformations. Cooking and reading recipes can be part of a spiritual practice. We age, we grow, we experiment, we transform. We come together in a loose collection. I read recipes and I find ways to connect with friends and others. I expand my culinary skills while I use old favorites. I dream of new destinations while looking up new locales and the foreign cooking techniques. Cooking is the art of making a home. Curling up with cookbooks is both a practical and a dream task. Curling up with cookbooks is a wonderful way to end the workweek and a fun way to dream up the weekend. I curl up, I dream, I connect, I discover. If a recipe is a moment, a cookbook can be a lifetime.