A friend recently sent us a copy of Celebrating Radical Hospitality, the new cookbook from Hedgebrook, the women writers’ retreat on Whidbey Island, and it’s even more inspiring than the usual new cookbook. It doesn’t just make me want to cook more, it makes me want to write, it makes me want to retreat to a beautiful island all by myself and just eat and write and eat and hike and write.
But for now, I will just cook and pretend, as I eat these beautiful galettes — delicata with caramelized onion and ricotta filling on a cornmeal crust above; poached pear and frangipane below — that I am at Hedgebrook. The cookbook is transporting that way.
I don’t know when I first came across Project Guttenberg’s collection of old cookbooks, but for a cookbook hound like me, it is a total treasure. I give plenty of shelf room to the cookbooks I inherited from my late mother-in-law, including Elizabeth David’s French Country Cooking (1952), The Perfect Hostess Cook Book (1950), and The Brown Derby Cookbook (1949), not to mention the complete Time-Life cookbook series that my mom gave me when she was downsizing, but now I can get a digital fix, too.
Marion Cunningham’s death last month has had me thinking about the importance of voice in cookbooks. Her voice was the best combination of brisk and encouraging. Reading her cookbooks filled you with confidence that you could make the recipe at hand. The cookbook of hers that I use most, The Baker’s Dozen Cookbook, offers step-by-step instructions for some of the most daunting tasks in the kitchen (pie crust, meringue, buttercream) and makes them all seem eminently doable. Her cookbooks are not, like Elizabeth David’s or Julia Child’s, ones with which I curl up to read on a foggy day, they are ones that push me into the kitchen to cook.
That’s the welcoming tone in Top Chef finalist Antonia Lofaso’s new The Busy Mom’s Cookbook. Her goal is to get families together for meals, and her unpretentious but satisfying recipes work well to achieve that goal. As she writes in her introduction, “It could’ve been Rice-A-Roni with scrambled eggs, or a big dinner I helped my mom or my dad make. Either way, it was very important to my parents that we all sit togethr and share meals when I was growing up. They demonstrated to me how people learn about family and community through food.” It sounds like somehow Chef Antonia has already read Lisa’s and my book!
There’s not much I need to say about the recipes except that they work and they taste good, from coriander roasted cauliflower to caramel-almond popcorn. There’s a good range of recipes for vegetarian dishes (veggie sushi rolls; quinoa-corn salad; lasagna) and recipes kids can make (lemon crepes; mini frittatas; hummus). I love the movie night section (which offers that popcorn recipe, fondue, smoothies, chicken wings and more) and especially the section titled Multi-Meals, in which each dish (roasted chicken; oven-roasted broccoli; brisket) connects to another dish you can make out of the leftovers. All of it is written in the kind of warm, approachable tone that reminds me of Marion Cunningham’s writing, which is about the highest compliment I can offer.
As anyone who follows me on Twitter or Facebook is aware, I have started 2012 not in the kitchen, but in my garage. Like any family, we store plenty of things that we won’t need ever again but can’t quite bear to part with (my wedding dress; the boys’ knit hats from the hospitals in which they were born). We also store things that we only need a couple of times a year (ski clothes; camping equipment); emergency kits; and sports equipment. All of that, I have to say, is fairly well organized in labelled boxes.
Like many families, too, we store things we’ve inherited. My late father-in-law’s paintings and sketch books; catalogues from his shows; artwork by his friends. Also, bottles and bottles of the wine he made. Tony built racks for the paintings and periodically culls the wine, and this part of the garage doesn’t make me too anxious. It’s my late mother-in-law’s things, her address books and photo albums and stock notes and newspaper clippings and jewelry and correspondence, that are, frankly, a mess. She saved everything (I wrote a whole essay once about the abundant supplies in her kitchen) and organized nothing. My own grandmother was known for “filling a desk” and then sending it up to the attic for her descendants to deal with, and Nancy operated somewhat similarly. Anything special was saved in a pile, and then eventually scooped into a box, which ultimately went into her garage. When she died, we were too shocked and sad to do anything but move all her crazy boxes into our garage until we could cope.
Every year or so, I dive in and unearth treasures: one box might hold a string of pearls, a menu from Harry’s Bar (circa 1962), newspaper clippings about artist friends’ shows, a few postcards (some blank, some addressed to Nancy), a baby rattle, a pile of Italian stamps. But the way her garage became inserted in mine, it’s like excavating layers of an ancient city. I can only do so much before I need to retreat and gear up for another dig.
This dig, like earlier expeditions, has also unearthed cookbooks. Nancy was a fabulous cook, known for her dinner parties, and among all the letters I’ve found, I’m starting to make a separate file for the “thank you for the wonderful meal” notes. The cookbooks — Elizabeth David’s French Country Cooking (1952), The Perfect Hostess Cook Book (1950), The Brown Derby Cookbook (1949), “Master Chef” Louis P. De Gouy’s Gold Cookbook — with an introduction credited simply to “Oscar of the Waldorf-Astoria” — (1947) — these get to come upstairs. I may never cook from them, but they are fabulous reading, a sweet glimpse back at a different time in American cooking and an insight into another generation.
The cookbook I’m currently loving the most, just for its title, is Mary Hill and Irene Radcliffe’s Food to Make You Famous. I’ve just never thought about food this way. Food to fuel you through the day, sure; food to make your family happy, food to use up leftovers or the new vegetables in your CSA share, but food to make you famous? Maybe I should be thinking about food this way! I’ve paged through to see if I can tell what Nancy cooked from this book. Many recipes have check marks, like Clam Chowder, Hungarian Goulash, Glazed Carrots, Oatmeal Bread (Oatmeal Bread can make you famous?), Chicken Marco Polo and most of the beef recipes (except, thankfully, Epicurean Baked Beef Tongue Stuffed with Sweetbreads, Olives and Mushrooms) and the page with Maitre d’Hotel Butter (COLD) and Maitre d’Hotel Sauce (HOT) is splattered with some of that sauce. Aside from that one bread recipe, there’s not a single mark in any of the baking sections, but as this book leads me from the garage back to the kitchen, that’s where I think I’ll start, and I’ll report back. English Yeast Crumpets? Sweetheart Rolls? Maybe the food will make me famous.
One of my favorite preschool activities is “Dictation:” an adult sits with a piece of paper and a pencil, and asks the assembled kids a question: What do your parents do for work? What do you like to eat for breakfast? How do you get to school? The responses are unpredictable, creative, and often bear little relation to the family’s reality as the parents understand it (one oppressed child apparently has to walk 63 miles to school every morning. You’d think the family would at least consider the bus.)
Not long ago, one of the moms did dictation with a twist; she’d brought in pictures of food and helped the kids create their own cookbooks. They did the gluing and talking, she did most of the writing. Here is Eli’s:
There’s something rather elemental about it, its focus on producing the ingredients, the waiting patiently for cabbage, the optimism about the honey. But my favorite aspect might just be the unwritten notion that if you eat that salad (and why wouldn’t you really? it’s just vegetables you like!), then someone will offer you a couple big milkshakes. That’s my kind of cookbook.