A cookbook can be both an impersonal tome and an intimate peek into a family kitchen. It all depends on how one uses their contents.
I can’t help but make it personal—is it because I cook with heart? Or maybe I’m a natural egoist? Yes. I’m a little extra, and so all of my food is, too.
Three of the four of my parents were teachers. Naturally, an A+ recipe is a stellar one. And while I don’t keep a strict rubric of how to grade a recipe, deliciousness of the result is an absolute requirement, but so is ease of prep. While I’d love to someday make homemade croissants or mini battenbergs, I am, at heart, lazy.
Or perhaps idle?
(I love to bake and cook as a break in reading, but ultimately, I’d much rather be reading.)
In my kitchen library (okay, it’s a shelf), I have family cookbooks, celebrity cookbooks, themed cookbooks, satire cookbooks, pastry cookbooks, and dog treat cookbooks.
Many of those tomes have notes in them. For a while I tried to insert small post-it notes, preserving the book for buy-back value (I’ve worked too many hours at buy-back counters at bookstores!), but those notes don’t steal my attention like my scribbles in the margins. The ones next to the grease prints from buttery fingers, or flecks of dried up dough. I note cook times, ease of preparation, who liked what and why. There are notes about freezability, ingredient swaps, doubling or halving techniques, or even for what occasion warranted the recipe.
This year I’ve not made my usual holiday treats. I’ve been ill this month, and too tired to grace the oven with my presence. But that hasn’t stopped me from flipping through, making plans for when I do feel better, whether it be for new entrees, or a complicated cookie I haven’t quite gotten to try yet.
The new additions to my library have me excited—one is plant-based, and the other is from the quarantine-year Great British Bake-Off. The chapter titles of that last one gives a nod to this difficult year. Admittedly, as I flipped through the earnest Great British Bake-Off on Christmas morning, I cried. Titles like, “Random Acts of Kindness,” and “Self-Care” struck me to the core. I’ve put on the brave front for the last eleven months, working at the hospital, talking with patients and friends and family about the importance of masks, of social distancing, of foregoing these traditions that keep us grounded and close. And then, I caught it: the illness I’d been so studiously avoiding. So dreading. And I’m not quite better yet. It has, quite frankly, been a struggle.
It took a cookbook and Paul Hollywood’s smug grin above his curt note of acknowledgement: the curt note that said, yep; this was tough. That bit of British sentiment sent me into cathartic tears. Tears for those who have lost friends and family to Covid. Tears for missed birthdays and engagements and school graduations. Tears for lonely Thanksgivings and staid Fourth of Julys. Tears for myself as I have laid on the couch for a month now, desperate to give my toddler the interaction he wants from his mama. Because he doesn’t really understand why Mama won’t dance anymore, or chase him as we pretend to be bumblebees.
This is not the place to struggle with describing how food keeps us together, how food binds us and shows us commonality—we know. It’s been said before. But our cookbooks are the spines on which we build this. It’s how I will learn to make Paul Hollywood’s gorgeous rainbow bagels, all the way over here, across the pond.
I’ve decided that books, since I keep them, are dynamic objects: they are meant to be used, not worshipped from afar. Especially cookbooks. They are workbooks in the best sense: belonging not just to the author, but also to the user. The Great British Bake-Off isn’t just Paul Hollywood and Prue Leith, it’s me too, after I get back to my mixer and spatulas. We’ll see if Paul’s bagels can earn my A+.
What is your favorite cookbook? Do you write in yours?
Edie Cay writes award-winning feminist Regency Romance about women’s boxing and relatable misfits. She is a member of the Regency Fiction Writers, the Historical Novel Society, ALLi, and a founding member of Paper Lantern Writers. You can drop her a line on Facebook and Instagram @authorediecay.