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