Cookbooks Aren’t Just for Cooking

I wish I’d saved the comment. It’s one of those things you think about later -- when the light bulb goes on but it’s too late. I’m talking, as some of you have guessed by the title, about the person who, several months ago, sarcastically said something like “This would only interest people who actually read cookbooks. If there are any such people.” I was tempted to reply “Yes, Virginia (or Virgil), there are such people, and I am one of them.” I come by it honestly. My Mom read cookbooks to find new uses for overabundant crops from the garden. Rhubarb, for instance. We had plenty every year. We ate it in tart pies red and shiny as rubies, and in the rhubarb tapioca that my brother and I especially loved. (We were pretty excited to find it among Mom’s recipes when we cleared out the house.) But some years there was just too much of the stuff, so the hunt was on for new ways to use it. Rhubarb fluff was ruled out after it took me five hours to make and used less than one cup of fruit. Blueberry/Rhubarb Jam was a success. We still make it, and it still delights people with it’s unusual combination of flavors. Who knew? So, cookbooks can be read simply to find a another use for an ordinary ingredient, to use up an over supply or find a new dish to put on the table tomorrow night. And that is no small thing.

Some cookbooks are designed to be read. They intend to Instruct You in something, like how to become a vegetarian or purchase and fire up your grill without singeing your eyebrows. I remember reading Recipe for a Small Planet, written by Ellen Ewald, in college. I learned about incomplete proteins and how to combine them cheaply and efficiently to make a complete protein. I also gained a tomato soup recipe that is out of this world. A few years later as a new bride on a tight budget I discovered food writer Jane Brody’s Good Food Book. It, too, discussed combing incomplete proteins so I didn’t have to buy expensive meats as often. Going beyond that, it included sections with titles like “Milling, the Rape of the Wheat Berry,” “Oats: Neigh for Horses, Yeah for Us,” and “Garlic: a Clove for All Seasons,” providing interesting reading for quite some time. Being a farmer’s daughter I was familiar with most of what she said, but I couldn’t recall anyone saying, as she did, that millet wasn’t just for the birds. In the next section of her book I learned that a cutting board, sharp knives and kitchen timer are essential items for a cook. I had to agree. The cheese cloth, corkscrew, mortar and pestle, and melon baller seemed less essential, (though I do have a melon baller now). With so many interesting ideas packed into
Ms Brody's Good Food Book, I read it over and over for days, and I still read and cook from it. Her carrot cake recipe is super, and a little doctoring of the black bean soup with cumin created a perfect dish.

Jeff Smith, aka the Frugal Gourmet, is
another great cook and food writer. He's especially known for authoring cookbooks that blend recipes and history. Want an interesting introduction to Greek, Roman and Chinese history, with some good eating included? Read The Frugal Gourmet Cooks Three Ancient Cuisines. Another of my favorites, The Frugal Gourmet on our Immigrant Ancestors, looks into their history -- the countries they left, their experiences here, and the recipes they brought with them. He doesn’t just cover the usual countries, though. Going alphabetically, Smith opens his book with Armenia and a recipe for double stuffed meatballs that I’m finally going to make now that I have a reliable source of lamb. He continues with the Basques and Cambodia, working his way through Latvia and Lebanon. Quite a few Lebanese settled in my town, so I‘m going to check his recipes against theirs. This cookbook concludes with Wales and Yugoslavia. Since my maternal grandfather was Welsh, I always enjoy this section, despite the fact that Smith writes “The cooks of Wales have never gained international fame… and, to be honest with you, I suppose they don’t deserve it.” How embarrassing. He does commend them for their love of hymn singing, probably passed down from John Wesley‘s many visits to the coal miners. I may never become a fan of Welsh cold pork pie, but hours of hymn singing I definitely enjoy. That's something, at least, that I got that from my Welsh ancestors. It’s probably a good thing, though, that my recipes were passed down from the German side of my family. No one ever said they can’t cook.

Tune in next time for more cookbook reading. In the mean time…

Read Well, Friend


Oh, to be Ordinary!

A guest post by Betsy Jordan, who just happens to be my best and favorite daughter, who is not, and has never been, ordinary. Enjoy.

"Long and long ago, when Oberon was king of the fairies, there reigned over the fair country of
Phantasmorania a monarch who had six beautiful daughters." So begins one of my favorite childhood books - The Ordinary Princess by M. M. Kaye. I actually have lots of "favorite childhood books," and frequently have trouble figuring out exactly which one is my true favorite at any given moment. But lately, I've been feeling nostalgic and have rediscovered the joys of Princess Amy - actually, Her Serene and Royal Highness Princess Amethyst Alexandra Augusta Araminta Adelaide Aurelia Anne.

Poor Princess Amy. You see, she was the seventh princess born to her parents. When her fairy godmother came to the christening she took pity on the little baby surrounded by such a perfectly lovely royal family and gave her a unique gift. Her
proclamation - "You shall be Ordinary." Not ravishingly beautiful, wonderfully clever, prodigiously musical, or even the possessor of a great personality. Nope. She would be ordinary. And as Princess Amy grew up, the ramifications of her "gift" became obvious - mousy brown hair that wouldn't curl, freckles, and a turned up nose would be hers. I kind of knew how she felt, too. I had always wanted to be a princess, but they were so... so... unachievable. Breathtakingly beautiful with perfect complexions, beautiful hair and teeth, sweet natured with little musical laughs, etc. You know what I mean. Finally - finally! - I had found a princess that felt a lot like me.

Although she was still very much loved by her family, Princess Amy was pretty much left up to her own devices. She discovered at a young age that she could climb down a wisteria outside her window and run off into the forest to play anytime she wished. I always wanted to be able to do that very same thing, but there were never any big trees outside my first-floor bedroom, nor any forests full of "dappled deer, the frolicsome rabbits, and little gentle woodland creatures" to run off into. One thing I did have, however, was a vivid imagination. So I would run off with Princess Amy and together we would "do such exciting things" and pity her six perfect sisters ("oh! what a lot of fun they miss by not being me," Amy would say).

Over time, Amy and I grew up. Her sisters all got married and it was her turn, except that no one was
interested in Amy. "One after another, after their first shocked look at the Ordinary Princess, they hurriedly remembered previous engagements. They apologized for having to make such a brief stay and said that if they should ever happen to be passing that way again they would of course drop in. After which they would pack their luggage and hurry away the very next morning." The suitor situation got so desperate, her father even considered hiring a dragon to lay waste to the country so they could marry Princess Amy off to whoever vanquished the dragon. Once again, Amy and I seemed to be kindred spirits. My friends and family were all getting married, having children, and going on to their own happily-ever-afters. While no one was offering to hire a dragon to help ME out, neither Princess Amy nor I would have been too happy with that solution. You see, Amy ran away. And oh, how I wished I could go with her!

Amy and I discovered the joys and pains of that four-letter-word all ordinary people become
intimately acquainted with - w.o.r.k. We both learned that single girls don't make much, and that it can be kind of lonely on your own. I envied Amy her two new friends - a squirrel named Mr. Pemberthy and a crow, Peter Aurelious. MY landlord didn't allow pets.

And, in time, Amy and I both found what we had really been looking for all along - our prince. Mine came in the guise of a business customer at the bank where I was working, and Amy's, well, that's her story. Needless to say, both our stories turned out well, and our princes sound remarkably similar... "And indeed a more ordinary person...you could not wish to see. His velvet doublet was stained with moss and rather torn where he had caught it on a branch while climbing an oak tree to pick acorns. His hair was very ruffled and full of bits of bark, and he had a smudge on his nose." Amy's prince built her a little cottage in the woods, and my prince and I are saving up for ours.

I guess that, in the end, Princess Amy says it best. "'This has been quite the nicest day of my life,' thought the Ordinary Princess. And she thought, too, that the nice young man was easily the nicest person she had ever met. 'It's because he is an ordinary sort of person - like me,' she decided."

Here's to being ordinary!

Read Well, Friend