I carefully lift the cover of each, pull back spines that are cracked and hanging free, cloth covers faded and frayed, and look at the dates of publications, looking for those printed 1953 and know that these were wedding gifts to my mother. Her old Joy of Cooking sits in my kitchen next to The Good Housekeeping Cookbook, jumbled together so appropriately with my mother-in-law’s old, faded Ma Cuisine by the great Escoffier.
A mixed marriage.
I poke through these cookbooks, turning over the stained pages, and spy the recipes my mother cooked for us when we were kids, before she stopped cooking, conceding the battle like some old Civil War General when the game was up.
Handfuls of brochures, promotional pamphlets chock full of recipes for Florida Seafood, Crisco, Florida Citrus or 300 Sensational Salads and Pickles & Chutneys, claiming their rightful place on a shelf full of hardcovers. Photographs in black and white or day-glo primary colors offer tempting images of Egg-Rice Salad, California Strawberry Salad, Celery Fingers, Dilly Tuna and Vegetable Toss. A Treasure Trove of dated recipes, our cultural history.
Printed or hand typed, the plastic rings binding loose pages cracked and chipped, I scan each of the Sisterhood Cookbooks, 1950’s, 1960’s, ages old, as old as my siblings and I, looking for familiar names. I bump into my own mother’s name, among great aunts, the next door neighbor and women from the synagogue, under recipes, many long forgotten, some as sharp in my mind as to evoke a grimace of disgust or a smile of pleasure, a tingle of the tastebuds.
Pot Roast and Sweet and Sour Tongue, Veal Scallopini and Easy Cream Cheese Cake. Peach Pie and Crown Jewel Dessert, just the very titles evoke sensations, tastes and sounds of clattering around the kitchen, noises of lawnmowers and hedge trimmers breaking the silence, white noise of a Saturday afternoon. Mealtime early evening, odors wafting from a pot on the stove, reaching us where we crouch over games and drawing us to the table.
Why do old cookbooks seem more valuable than the shiny, flashy new ones we receive in the mail or select from among the multitude of beautiful bound tomes, the hottest latest editions, at our favorite bookstore? Those coveted volumes, some cheap publicity gimmicks, others our parents’ generation’s version of the e-book, recipes gathered from friends and snapped together between laminated paper covers with the image of a shapely young housewife offering up something on a plate hand drawn in blue or black, are handled with love and care, caressed and held with a near-religious awe. There is a certain charm, something nostalgic that draws us back to the jumble of paper stapled together or once bound in plastic loops, sentiments so much stronger than simply the joy of owning one more cookbook, adding flavor, sweetness and spice to each recipe made.
Here you are, finally
Happy Birthday * Happy Cooking
2 – 1 – 81
I packed up my suitcases and moved north to a bigger, brighter, more cosmopolitan city and to dreams of changing who I was, where I thought I could go. This perfect gift from my older brother, my mentor, my guide in all things culinary, the vegetarian epicure book 2, added recipe upon recipe to my repertoire alongside the already well settled dishes of its sister tome vegetarian epicure, dishes made with joy and pleasure over the years as I moved from city to city, country to country, as I married my Frenchman and raised 2 sons. This book, like its predecessor, is torn and faded, split in two, but loved immeasurably, kept in the kitchen and near my heart, not pushed off into some dark corner or carton, nor left forgotten, lost among so many others on the hallway shelf stacked with my many, so many, cookbooks.
The years have flown by, sometimes racing at top speed leaving little time to do what we want, some years dragging slowly, painfully by, yet these cookbooks, my very first, the two cookbooks that were with me, my companions, from the very start of my journey through time and space, along the road of life, are with me still. These two cookbooks like two jewels among my most treasured belongings, objects dear that are the first to be boxed and packed when another move is upon us, the first to be unpacked and placed on a kitchen shelf. Along the road they have been joined by many friends, cookbooks British and French, Indian and Middle Eastern, cookbooks from around the globe to join these so very American cookbooks; they are all there, each one begging to be tugged off the shelf whenever I pass in the hallway or pause, running my fingers across their spines like a lover caressing the soft skin of a most beloved.
Like the wrinkles on an old woman’s skin, the silver threading through once-ebony hair, the stains and marks, the torn pages and frayed covers of these cookbooks mark our passage through time, the wisdom and experience that comes with it. Pages bent down to mark certain dishes made for certain meals long ago, guests or loved ones, romantic tête-à-têtes or spooned into the rosy lips of a baby, a cookbook is not simply a bound volume of ingredients, measurements and instructions. A cookbook is memories and life.
I handle the book delicately now, gently, like a newborn babe, like a broken heart; I carefully, very carefully turn back the front cover of my vegetarian epicure and reread the dedication – I have heard many times that offering a book to someone without a dedication is bad luck. The cover is faded, the pages brittle and torn, a book opened, perused, used and loved for close upon 30 years. Pages are stained, the pages upon which are printed my favorite recipes, bits of paper stick out between pages on which are penciled notes, calculations, measurements. This gem of a cookbook contains recipes I make over and over again, recipes loved by my new family, dishes even eaten by my persnickety, vegetable-hating son, his nephew.
A cookbook remaining long after the one who gave it is no longer with us.
We found an old notebook tucked away in a drawer of the house we were renting in the middle of nowhere in Italy. We turned back the cover and realized what a treasure we had stumbled upon. The pages were filled with the gentle, elegant handwriting of the wife of the house’s owner, Ettore, a man just short of 90 who lived next door with his brother. Ettore’s wife Anna had been a gracious hostess of dinner party after dinner party for friends, colleagues and family until she passed away in 1960 and she had scrupulously noted down the details of each and every meal, the guests, the wine served, the dishes made and shared. In this notebook, among many others, no doubt.
The odd recipe jotted down, maybe something concocted at the moment, too good to be forgotten, possibly passed on from a friend or sister-in-law, a cookbook in its own right, a record of the times yet varying little with what she would have lovingly, attentively prepared for her guests today.
A sure sign of her time, Anna refused to make the faux pas of ever serving the same guest the same dish, the same meal twice, no matter how far apart their invitation. In the weathered pages of this notebook, an endeavor of love and time, one could peruse the years, pass from decade to decade, holiday to celebration, and imagine the setting, hear the laughter, breathe in the smells emanating from her kitchen, the kitchen in which we stood while flipping through the pages of Anna’s notebook, her history overlapping with ours.
pie dough for 4 small pie forms
4 egg yolks
4 tbsp sugar
4 tsp soft butter
1 tsp orange blossom water
zest of 1 small lemon
Line the pie forms with the dough, keep the sides low. Stir sugar and butter, mix with egg yolks, orange blossom water and lemon zest. Spread out the the mixture on top of the pie dough and bake in a pre-heated oven (175°C/350°F) for 10-12 minutes or until golden. If you want, sprinkle with a little sugar while warm. Serve with fresh fruit, berries and/or whipped cream.