This cool and foggy May Sunday morning, I’m baking streusel topped muffins to warm us up. The recipe (a coffee cake recipe; I prefer to use a good coffee cake recipe to make my muffins) is from what we call ‘the new cookbook’–a version of the red-checkered Better Homes and Gardens recipe book. My sister-in-law Mary gave me my first copy when I first got married way back in the early eighties; that copy lasted until about 1994, when my husband and sons got me the latest edition for Christmas. Jim, who was four then and very literal, dubbed it the new cookbook because of its recency, not its title. Twenty years later, when we’re discussing where to find a recipe, we might say, “That one’s in the new cookbook,” and the seeker will know to go grab that twenty-year-old book.
I read a fable once about a man who drowned because he refused to let go of a trunk filled with his prized possessions. And I’m on board with that; our things should not own us. Every so often, I go into purge mode and really think: do I need this? Does this add anything to my life? Would anyone be at a loss if I got rid of this? Have I used this within the past year?
And so blouses that I like but will probably never wear again, books that were mind-opening when I was 32, jewelry with broken clasps, scented candles, tape players,–they all land in a box for the thrift store. I have cookbooks on my shelf, however, that I’d be hard-pressed to let out of my grasp, even as the waters swirled around my ankles.
My Betty Crocker cookbook holds together with packing tape; it has a pie chart photo on the front featuring, among other culinary treats, a fondue pot full of pale orange stuff. My brother Sean and I bought that book for my mother in the very early seventies; we bought it with money saved from baby-sitting and paper routes, and when Mom opened it, she blurted, “No! You spent TOO MUCH!”
We were so proud; that was Mom-speak for, “What an incredible thing!” The Betty Crocker Cookbook was Mom’s cooking bible, and her old version came out just past World War II. We knew we had given her a gift she would cherish and use, and when it came to me after her death, the cover was already wobbling apart. I used it enough to seal the separation and the packing tape came out.
I make the recipe for Hungarian Goulash in this volume; it’s a recipe I met under the name ‘Beef Paprika’, and that’s what we still call it. A dear friend, Pam Hall, fixed it for a dinner party when we were running with the same crazy post-college crowd, and my companion then and I fell in love with it. It was a recipe that Pam’s mom, a truly gifted cook, was testing for the Betty Crocker kitchens. It’s re-named Hungarian goulash, in Mom’s cookbook.
Pam is gone now, too, and I never follow that recipe without thinking of her openness and generosity; nor do I ever use the book without memories of meals at my Mom’s. (And…I love the picture of Betty Crocker on the back of the book; she had been revamped for the Women’s Liberation movement of that day, and sports a smooth page boy haircut and an ascot type collar. She looks as if she could be bringing home the bacon before cooking it up in pan…)
From that same era, I have a slim paperback volume, Betty Crocker’s Dinner for Two Cookbook. That was a wedding shower gift from another dear friend, Sharon, a high school friend who stayed close during college. We lost the reins of friendship after that, but I still think of her fondly whenever I gently open this aging book. One section talks to young couple-cooks about stretching a budget; I used those recipes a lot. I still make the ham and bean skillet fairly regularly, and there’s a concoction made from leftover ham, cheddar cheese, and Bisquick–Bisquick’s big in a lot of these 1970’s recipes—and sprinkled with sesame seeds that’s a nice side with a steaming bowl of soup.
Last month, there was a potluck at Mark’s work for a departing colleague; most people signed up to bring a dish, but Mark was tapped by his colleague Debbie to bring what we call ‘Lee Brothers.’ It’s a mac and cheese recipe from a book that my darlin’ niece Meg gave me–The Lee Brothers’ Southern Cookbook. There they are on the cover–Matt and Ted Lee, their waists about as big around as the circumference of my knee–and I turn the page to find recipes with no regard whatsoever for modern diets and cholesterol concern. The mac and cheese recipe is actually listed under vegetables, with the argument that school cafeterias always considered macaroni and cheese a vegetable side.
The dish calls for whole milk, lots of cheddar and Swiss cheese, butter…it is oozey and fattening and totally wonderful. (How do those Lee boys stay so thin? Do they EAT their own cookin’???) For the potluck, Mark mixed it up the night before and rolled it into the crockpot, letting it cook on low all morning at work. There were no leftovers to worry about when he brought the crock pot home. (This recipe, by the way, is easily available via a quick Web search; I needed it just post-move when cookbooks were still packed away, and opted for the easy route.)
I also favor the Lees’ recipe for Hoppin’ John at New Years’ time.
Meg, like the Lees, is now a South Carolinian, and she gave me, also, Baked by Matt Lewis and Renato Poliafito. Lewis and Poliafito opened their first bake shop/cafe in Brooklyn, but they followed it, I believe, with one in Charleston; when I visited Meg, we visited that (no longer run by the founders, but still–quite, quite yummy.) This book yields the closest recipe I can find to Starbuck’s Reese’s cup cookies. I can’t find those cookies in any of the Starbucks in this area of Ohio; I insist on braking for Barnes and Noble stores in New York and PA–not a hard sell with my boys–on the off chance of finding my favorite cookie in their attached cafe’s—and usually my luck holds. Meanwhile, I strive to re-create those cookies in my kitchen; Baked offers a pretty darned good approximation in its peanut butter cookie recipe.
Mark gave me a chicken cookbook, the Reader’s Digest Great Chicken Dishes, when we lived on Orchard Street; its chicken corn chowder recipe was a great thing to cook when in the law school years, with hungry young law students visiting for meals. (Mark’s young classmate, Todd, used to pass him notes in the midst of challenging class sessions. “I’m hungry; I need soup,” the note might say, or, “I like chicken corn chowder.”)
I have a stack of those little fund-raiser compilation books with the plastic spiral bindings; they yield the best recipes for things like no-bake cookies, Buckeye-style Rice Krispy bars (corn syrup and peanut butter instead of marshmallow; a topping of melted chocolate chips; these don’t last long on my counter), and never-fail pie crust. I go to Julia Child for roast chicken (and one of these years, she’s going to show me how to make French bread). My Joy of Cooking helps with everything from how long to cook a roast of beef to a reliable recipe for raspberry bars. And Alice Waters’ Art of Simple Cooking is my go-to for risotto; my homemade broth is forever enriched by her technique of roasting the bones and veggies before immersing them in a deep, long simmer.
I also have notebooks full of recipes clipped from newspapers and magazines or printed from the Internet; my son Jim helps me organize these by numbering pages and creating tables of contents. This is where Mark’s parents’ recipe for “Dom’s Mom’s Meatballs” resides and my sister-in-law Mary Ann’s directions for Buffalo Wing Dip, along with a classic cheesecake recipe that can’t be beaten and Louise Pelletter’s directions for a long-simmering red sauce.
I suppose I could add my favorite recipes from each of the cookbooks I’ve mentioned; type them out, save them to a thumb drive, print out a copy and paste them in a notebook. That would be efficient, maybe.
But I am not so interested in efficiency in this process.
Everyone once in a while my Jim, who is a lover and a maestro of lists, will sit down with a cookbook and start listing recipes we should try. So we will experiment, say, with parmesan crusted chicken–very, very delicious-or pepperoni bites, a classic seventies appetizer treat. Our repertoire, getting just a little bit stale, expands.
And my cookbooks give me the sense of continuity, of gifts, not just of the physical book, but of the tastes of the giver, and their care for my well-being. The cookbooks I’ve gifted to myself give me the sense of the passing on of important techniques and processes–a true home-making tradition not limited to an age or a gender, but an essential part of any life. I like to open and savor them; I like to read the intro’s and anecdotes.
I have worked with young people immersed in strong passed-down traditions; I have worked with young people whose lives don’t have the shape and the girding this kind of passing-down provides. I feel for that second group, having been lucky enough to have both, the passing down of lore from family and friends, and the acquiring of new traditions along the way. But I know that, with caring friends and personal curiosity, good stuff can be shared, and traditions can be begun.
That’s why my cookbooks travel with me. I’d let go of their trunk if I had to choose between them and the deluge.
But it wouldn’t be easy.