I remarked to a friend the other night that my evening plans involved a hot bath and turning in to bed early with a stack of cookbooks to read. She exclaimed, "You read cookbooks?" I was rather taken aback, until I realized that of course most folks do not, in fact, read cookbooks. For them, cookbooks are merely recipe repositories, lists of ingredients for specific dishes or menus to make. For me, they are so much more, for from the pages of books and magazines did I learn to cook.
My mother was a good cook in her way, and fed us well. But she did not, thankfully, teach me to cook. In my mind I think of her as a "'50's cook," although that may not be a good description. Our meals mostly involved foods from cans and boxes, and many one-pot wonders. There was Minute Rice with Campbell's Cream of Celery Soup "gravy," fried Spam and Egg sandwiches, hamburger pie (featuring Minute Rice and Campbell's soup), Hungarian Goulash (which was neither Hungarian nor goulash). Vegetables came out of a can and were boiled until mushy, that is until frozen vegetables in boiling bags came along. Then we had frozen vegetables boiled until mushy. At least the Green Giant Cheese Sauce for the most part hid the vegetables. It wasn't all bad; she could roast meats beautifully, and from my Italian grandmother (her MIL) she learned to make spaghetti sauce and meatballs. She made great spaghetti sauce (since my grandmother made great spaghetti sauce), and it's probably the one recipe she handed down to me.
When I was older and out the house, I became interested in food and cooking for some reason (perhaps it was all those years of Minute Rice). I first turned to Gourmet magazine (rest in peace, Gourmet). This was back in the day when it was a truly great magazine, appealing to everyday cooks, gourmands, and armchair travelers alike. From Gourmet's pages I tried many many recipes, discovering what I liked and what I didn't. There were some spectacular failures, but I learned to cook in the process, and determined that complicated recipes with long lists of exotic ingredients were not necessarily good, and that in fact a few fresh ingredients prepared simply could result in something excellent. I learned not only about cooking but about eating, through incredible essays from the likes of M.F.K. Fisher and Barbara Kafka. There were articles about artisanal cheese makers, and bread makers, and vintners. And there were travel stories that transported me to far-flung destinations, where I walked cobble-stone streets and ate in tiny tucked-away trattorias. These stories expanded my horizons and gave my dreams a more international flair.
Then there came the cookery books. Basic cookbooks for sure, those recipe repositories turned to for dinner inspiration. But there were so much more. Books more about how and why to cook, books about specific cuisines in a historical context, such as Waverly Root's The Food of Italy, books about daily life and cooking according to seasons, such as Elizabeth Romer's The Tuscan Year, and books about family cooking traditions such as In Nonna's Kitchen (why yes, there is an Italian theme here). There were the books about cooking with ingredients fresh out of your own garden, such as Georgeanne Brennan's Potager. There were the books about the art of eating, such as the classic The Physiology of Taste by Brillat-Savarin (translated and with comments by M.F.K. Fisher), social and cultural histories including Food in History, Why We Eat What We Eat, and Much Depends Upon Dinner. There were topical books such as the wonderful Olives by Mort Rosenblum, and travel essays such as Her Fork in the Road, edited by Lisa Bach. There was even the brief foray into the scientific and technical aspects of food through Harold McGee's On Food and Cooking.
Lately I've been drawn to cookery books with evocative names and gorgeous pictures, such as Long Nights and Log Fires. Yes, I did buy a cookbook because of its name! There are actually some good recipes in here, but this is the type of book for inspiration. This is the type of book to dream by.
Tonight, my plans involve a hot bath and turning in to bed early with my latest cookbook to read. It's called Lazy Days and Beach Blankets. Sweet Dreams.