I recently saw a great cartoon in The New Yorker. A man and a woman are standing in front of floor-to-ceiling bookshelves and he says, “I never have time to read but if I did these are the books I’d read.” Yep! I can totally relate to that! I also have multiple bookshelves throughout the house with books – some have been read and some have not. I also have quite a collection of cookbooks, some of which are used repeatedly, others are curiosities, and still others are windows into different worlds.
Some staples like Fannie Farmer have been used so many times throughout the years that it is held together with layers of different types of tape. Some of my cookbooks have cracked spines from being opened at the same page many times. Moosewood Restaurant Cooks at Home automatically opens to page 54 for the “Muffin Madness” recipe. This is an easy, basic recipe using readily-available ingredients that can be whipped together for a quick breakfast, coffee break or special treat. The recipe can be modified by adding fresh fruits/veggies and different spices. When I hear someone is blue, I open this cookbook, check what’s in the fridge or ripening on the counter, and bake a batch. Who isn’t cheered by a basket of warm muffins?
More and more cookbooks are incorporating narratives and gorgeous photos, making them more like storybooks with recipes. When I get one of these, I curl up on the couch with a glass of tea or wine (depending on the time of day) and read them cover-to-cover like a book. I learn so much about the author, the genesis of the recipes, perhaps history about different countries and ethnic groups, struggles, victories, relationships. And then there are the recipes which are equally as enticing as the stories and photos. I lose myself into a different world – one that includes instructions for making food – and then re-read with a handful of sticky notes to mark the recipes I want to try.
As my cookbook collection grows, and the spaces on my bookshelves shrink, there’s going to be a point where my cookbook habit is no longer sustainable. Yes, I do purge unused cookbooks occasionally because I did not like the recipes for whatever reason but I’m finding that more and more difficult. What’s a girl to do? I could have Dr. Pepper build more bookshelves, but his honey-do list is rather long and we’re at the age where we are considering downsizing and some very difficult decisions will need to be made. Checking out cookbooks from the public library and photocopying recipes is a trusty strategy – witness the recipe binders on my bookshelves bursting at the seams.
How about using an e-reader? Now, I definitely prefer paper books to e-readers (as evidenced by my bookshelves, my bedside table, my coffee table … OK, really, any surface in my house – not to mention my frequent forays to the library). I travel a lot and lugging books around is not practical. Books are easily damaged and they are heavy. Before a trip, I download a set of new books to sustain me. Using an e-reader is not new to me. But, a cookbook? For the first time, I’ve downloaded a cookbook to my tablet. I can search words and flip through pages quickly. It’s light. I can easily prop it up in its holder. I’m sure I can use some sort of electronic flag to mark interesting recipes, but I haven’t figured that out yet. I can download it and have it in my hand within seconds. And I don’t kill trees or use fossil fuels to have it shipped.
But what about the smudges, the drips, the spatters? The handwritten notes about adjustments or impressions? The cracked spine from opening it to the same page so many times? What about the worn covers? The dog-eared pages? My paper cookbooks bear the marks of use – some more than others. That cracked spine at page 54 of Moosewood Cooks at Home tells a story in and of itself. There are myriad other pages in my cookbooks with notations (cut the ___ in half – too much … add ___ for heat … bake an additional five minutes if using frozen berries). There are fingerprints and smears made from chocolate, butter, tahini, tomatoes and just about every ingredient used in recipes. And plenty of splatters when the whisk got out of hand or a messy spoon was dropped. While I would be horrified to find anything like that in my other books, a beloved cookbook should have these marks of love in them. And that’s where the e-reader falls short: intimacy. Tablets simply do not hold that intimacy of a trusty cookbook.
Pepper – March 2022