Some things can’t be replaced and one of these is the joy of reading and using a real cookbook.
Long-time readers of this blog know that I’ve been a cookbook collector for many years. I own hundreds of cookbooks. In recent years I stopped buying 3 or 4 cookbooks a month, as all the currently available shelf space at home and at the cottage is filled. Somehow, however, new cookbooks creep into the collection.
Recently I looked at the cluttered shelves and decided to cull some of the books. Because of pandemic closures, I can’t take ‘surplus’ books to a thrift shop where, hopefully, someone else will find a treasure! I’ve stacked these books in a little-used closet with the expectation that I will eventually let them go to another home.
Most of my cookbooks are in pristine condition. No spatters nor dog-eared pages! The truth about my collection is that I ‘read’ the cookbooks more than I use the books for actual food preparation. For my real cooking and baking, I have a go-to binder of the tried and true recipes plus a few practical books that provide the step by step instructions as I’ve never committed recipes to memory. My favourites are a Canadian cookbook that I used in grade nine home economics class, my treasured Betty Crocker picture cookbook, and a basic Canadian Living cookbook. Of course, there’s the option of a quick internet search when I don’t have time to look for a print copy.
I love holding books of any kind, especially solid books and, most cookbooks tend to solidity. Weight and numerous heavy pages are necessary to accommodate their encyclopedic nature and the pages of beautiful photographs.
Why Read Cookbooks?
Reading a cookbook allows me to enjoy foods vicariously. It’s wonderful to imagine enjoying the unusual foods described by chefs and foodies. Having a memorable food experience is preferable but reading a cookbook provides a great substitute for travelling to a sublime location to sample exotic dishes especially during the pandemic.
I have no desire to make/cook most of the foods described. Instead, reading a cookbook entertains and allows for fantasy. It’s a form of escapism. I don’t read the cookbooks cover to cover. Instead, I randomly open the book and enjoy shifting my brain into a subject that entertains and stimulates my imagination.
The calming and soothing effect of reading in bed is a well-accepted practise for reducing stress before going to sleep. Cookbooks, especially those with a short introduction to each recipe, provide a bedtime distraction that allows my brain to settle. I also love looking at the beautiful photography that shows a finished product. Cookbooks provide a welcome retreat from worries that can cause insomnia.
Cookbooks as a Peek into History
Historical cookbooks were often regarded as humble texts and not worthy of a collector’s time. Until recently, when cookbooks came to be regarded as a subtopic of literary nonfiction, they were not considered a ‘real’ genre. This is understandable when we remember that historians and book collectors have primarily been male. Women in the kitchen were regarded as inconsequential!
Reading books like Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking is a pathway to the dining habits and culinary trends that have influenced diet and culture. She made French cooking famous with her television show but it’s the details in her books that give an understanding of the intricacies of making famous sauces and Cordon Bleu specialties.
And, what can be said of Betty Crocker’s influence as an American cultural icon? Her popular, Betty Crocker’s New Picture Cookbook sold more than a 65million copies, making it the best selling cookbook of all time.
This picture of my well-used Betty Crocker cookbook shows that it’s one of my reference cookbooks as it offers context as well as practical tips!
You can see that it’s been in the kitchen regularly as I’ve had to re-engineer it with some duct tape!
Flour mills, dairies, spice companies, and other food companies often published recipe booklets to promote their products. Robin Hood, Quaker Oats, and Watkins brands used recipe booklets as sponsored ‘free’ incentives to advertise their foodstuffs. The recipes featured their products with cautions like “no substitutions”!
At flea markets and garage sales, I’ve found a treasure trove of community cookbooks published by churches, legions, ladies clubs, sports teams and hospitals. These cookbooks were often compiled by local women’s groups as fund-raisers or to commemorate a special time such as a church anniversary, an annual ploughing match or a school event.
The recipes in these books are usually credited to the contributor with her name (or, sometimes, her husband’s name!) These books are usually cerlox or spiral bound. Most were published with advertisements by regional businesses to offset printing costs. The advertisements themselves are a testament to history!
Although it’s not a community cookbook, another favourite cookbook is a binder of South African recipes transcribed by a friend, who is a marvellous cook, She compiled these recipes from her home country and gave this compendium to me as a Christmas gift. Every time I look through these recipes, I have fond memories of friendship, shared meals and good times.
I particularly enjoy the older versions of community cookbooks containing what my mother called ‘receipts’, a word she used to describe the hand-written recipe cards that I treasure. ‘Receipts’ is a more distinguished and traditional term.
Some of the older community cookbooks used hand-written or typewritten scripts — no fancy type-setting! The most precious of my community cookbooks come from small Saskatchewan villages near to where I grew up. I’ve also amassed a good number of community cookbooks from southwest Ontario towns near our cottage.
Recipes in community cookbooks are usually short, practical, and economical. They tend to use ingredients readily available in any kitchen. No out-0f-season ingredients as grocery stores in the past had only basic stock.
The community cookbooks also contain household tips and domestic content. Personal stories are sometimes intertwined with recipes that developed long before gluten-free or vegan diets showing how eating habits and dietary preferences change. What’s valuable in these books is the preservation of family food traditions before food ‘experiences’ were popularized.
Reading a recipe from a book often inspires my cooking. It’s also a good sleep inducer! I value the culinary traditions that have shaped my practical approach to cooking. Yes, sometimes I’ll try a recipe from a modern specialty cookbook. I like the Jamie Oliver and Nigella Lawson books. More often, though, I turn to my dog-eared trusted recipes especially when I need something simple and quick for dinner.
Thanks for reading my post. Do readers collect and use cookbooks? Are you someone who appreciates the joy of a cookbook — or, do you depend on the internet for recipe ideas?