My love affair with cookbooks

cookbookA lot of people look at cookbooks as mere manuals. But in truth they’re some of the best reading out there. Whether laced with personal anecdotes and tart asides _ my favorite _ or written as a straight how-to, a cookbook is part self-help volume, part escapist literature,  part historical document.

There are cookbooks you read without any intention of breaking out so much as a wooden spoon. Think “The French Laundry Cookbook.” My goodness, that Thomas Keller has a lot of patience. There are cookbooks that get dog-eared and, frankly, kind of nasty with all the food that’s been dropped on them. Thank you Nigella Lawson and your “How To Eat.”

At their most basic, cookbooks can help you put dinner on the table. As a fairly clueless new mother, I got hold of a book called “Cook  Your Meals The Lazy Way,” by Sharon Bowers. There were some good recipes in there, but I think the most important thing was the general message of, “Buck up, kid. You can do it.” Often, you’ll read a cookbook and find one really good piece of advice. For me, the Lazy Way epiphany was Put Your Food Processor On The Counter. Yeah, it spoils the line of my lovely ‘70s era formica, but having it out and ready to go is often the tipping point between, “I can’t be bothered,” and “Oh, what the heck.”

But there is so much more.

Cookbooks can cure what ails you. When my family immigrated to America my mother, sister and I came by boat, which is where I discovered that  (a.) it is a total thrill to be in the middle of the ocean, and (b.)  I am a terrible sailor. I didn’t want to miss a thing/I wanted to lie in my bunk and die. So, being a resourceful 12-year-old, I dragged the pale shadow of myself up to the ship’s library, pulled out a book of tea time recipes and within an afternoon had recovered to the point that a steaming hot scone topped with homemade strawberry  jam and “lashings” of whipped cream, sounded pretty darned good.

And there’s nothing like a vintage cookbook for taking you back in time. I’ve read some fabulous wartime cookbooks with their eggless cakes and meatless casseroles. And I once had a Fanny Farmer Junior Cookbook, with a recipe for tomato sauce that called for 1 can of diced, stewed tomatoes, although it did not that “if unavailable, fresh tomatoes, peeled, seeded and chopped, may be substituted.”

On my own shelves I have a facsimile edition of Mrs. Beeton’s 19th-century cookbook, a pioneer in the field with her measured amounts and relatively detailed instructions not to mention excellent advice on hiring a lady’s maid. And I have a 1950’s British cookbook, “Home Catering and Cookery,” used by my mother as a young bride and replete with the kind of recipes that gave post-war British cuisine its well-deserved rep.

The  text is sexist as hell _ all about mother working out her timetable for cooking, marketing and housekeeping with not a whiff of a suggestion that father might get off his duff and fry a few chips. But you can see faint stirrings beneath the surface. There are a few quick meals the “bachelor girl” can whip up. There’s also fabulous advice on throwing cocktail parties that you just know were glamorous as all get-out with the ladies in pouffy skirts and the gents in jackets. As a long-reformed smoker, I especially like the earnest instructions to put out plenty of ashtrays.

To be honest, I remember eating lots of these recipes as a child and they all tasted great to me. Don’t know whether that’s my mother’s skill as a cook or the power of nostalgia.But because I am essentially not a nice person, I’m going to leave you with something that will chill your marrow. Readers, straight from the horror of mid-century British cooking I give you:Calf’s Head Vinaigrette:

  • Half a calf’s head
  • 1 carrot
  • 1 onion
  • 2 sticks celery
  • ¼ pint vinegar
  • 1 tablespoon salt
  • ½ pint vinaigrette sauce (which is described elsewhere in the book. Come on, you know you aren’t gonna make this so just visualize)

Wash and clean the head well, remove the bones, and keep the brains and tongue separate. If necessary, tie the head together with tape and wrap in muslin. Boil for 3-4 hours in water with the vegetables, vinegar and salt. Add the tongue 2 hours, and the brains 15 minutes, before the head is cooked. Skin the tongue and cut it into slices. Serve the head on a hot dish, garnish with the tongue and brains, and serve vinaigrette sauce in a sauce-boat.

And that, friends, is my new mantra: Garnish with the tongue and brains.

Bon appetit!