Monday, January 2, 2012

Books I have Known

A difference exists between reading and knowing a book. I read many books, but I know cookbooks. Cookbooks are life’s little instruction books of the culinary type.

Every January my mind fixes itself on food. After indulging in holiday foods during December, I once again focus on everyday kinds of foods.  I return to books about cooking.

I enjoy cookbooks, especially old ones. The old ones tell us how to prepare foods. In recent years of cookbookery, some beautiful, pictorial books have arrived, but the old ones are the basic how-to manuals.  They don’t specialize like today’s volumes. The pictures are black and white, with some line drawings.

The cookbooks I know best are two: Better Homes and Gardens New Cook Book, 1953 edition, and The Boston Cooking-School Cook Book, by Fannie Merritt Farmer, 8th edition, completely revised by Wilma Lord Perkins, 1948. I read others, but I know these.

The BH&G book is my first cookbook. I bought it when I was twelve years old, when my junior high school home economics class did a class purchase. The cover has fallen off. The title page is missing. Many pages are frayed and becoming brown. This book, and Mrs. Robertson, my teacher, taught me how to cook. Here is where I learned to make pie. Here is where I went when I was forgetting Mrs. Robertson’s lessons about making applesauce, biscuits and muffins.  Here is where I learned to make pancakes from real ingredients.

The Fannie Farmer book is another treasure. My mother gave it to me in 1962 when I married Rick. My copy is very worn, with the cover detached. It is in better condition than the BH&G book only because it has more traditional binding; the other book is spiral bound. In this book Fannie Farmer taught me how to make bread after my new husband wanted me to make bread like the bread his mother made. Fortunately, I had eaten his mother’s wonderful bread.  The book taught me how to make brownies and sugar cookies, which my children and grandchildren still like.  The page about sugar cookies is brown and stained with dropped ingredients. The book taught me about soup from bones and vegetables rather than cans.

The worst book in my hall of fame, according to my husband and children, is the book that showed me how to make the all-time worst entrée they ever had to eat. Oats, Tomatoes and Cheese casserole is a legend among them. (I like it.) This little vegetarian cookbook is called Cooking With Conscience: a Book for People Concerned About World Hunger, by Alice Benjamin and Harriett Corrigan (Vineyard Books, 1975). It has some other equally strange concoctions, and overall I would rate it about average. Today the stores have many vegetarian cookbooks that would rate higher. This is a book that I read but don’t know as a friend of my kitchen. However, it is part of my history.

Long live the cookbook.

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