Even Cookbooks Tell a Story

I’m a big proponent of the homemade Christmas gift. Especially when it’s for my sister. She’s very specific in her tastes and anything short of a gift card is usually returned within 48 hours of being unwrapped. This makes it nearly impossible to give her something unique and heartfelt and not made of plastic. As a result, she’s turned out to be the perfect candidate for a homemade gift. She likes the thoughtfulness behind it and, even if she doesn’t completely like the gift itself, she’s always touched by the effort (and it can’t be returned!) Because of my sister’s recent burgeoning interest in cooking, I thought it best to make her a cookbook with some of my favorite recipes and some essentials. I pulled recipes from 15 different cookbooks in my collection and wrote a letter of introduction for the book, explaining a side of cookbooks that isn’t always evident to the novice cook. The letter turned out to be an interesting meditation on story and life that I wanted to share with more people than just my sister (though I have no doubt she will appreciate it as well):

Dear Alexandra,

Food tells a story. It tells of cultures and lost civilizations. It reveals mysteries through the ages. We track the lives of the ancients through their food. We can tell their diet, their habits, their nutritional intake, and their physical & environmental landscape. Today, food celebrates the modern equivalent of these cultures. It wasn’t until the middle ages that recipes were written down. Before that, it was merely through story and practice (a sort of pre-historic version of a home economics class) that people learned what to prepare for a meal. Though we have books filled with recipes, mapping out specific guidelines we must follow, it is the ancient people who had it right. The best things we eat are not written down. Recipes, no matter how thorough, can never be duplicated exactly. Grandma knew this intuitively. I think it’s something most Italians know. There is a basic outline for what needs to be achieved (a cooked meal) and a general map that will lead you there. However, in cooking it is the detours that make it the most enjoyable.

This cookbook is filled with my favorite recipes, some essentials, and some passed down from our grandmothers. Use these recipes as your rough outline, but remember to rely on instinct and take detours. The cheese they call for in a recipe may not be the one you think works best. Garlic can be replaced by adding more onion; delete peas and replace them with corn. Whatever you choose, throw yourself into it with abandon. Do not be intimidated. Mark up the recipes with your notes, your grease stains. Give them lives on paper and on a plate. These recipes are pieces of people. Julia Child may be known for her French cuisine, but it is her roast chicken that (to me) stands out the most. Jamie Oliver is a British chef, but his risotto recipe beats an Italian one any day of the week. Nora Ephron is a film director, but she also knows her food. I’ve included her favorite recipe (from the Julie & Julia cast & crew cookbook) here. Mark Bittman is a New York Times writer who was experimenting with using vegetables in place of pasta when he happened upon his simple, easy dish.

In the recipes from our grandmothers, I learned Dad’s mom had over 30 recipes for zucchini. She also had eight recipes for woodchuck (which dad swears he’s never eaten). Our maternal Grandmother’s recipes are like that of an artist or a writer, little notes jotted down on scrap paper, recipes ripped from magazines – like incomplete story arcs or the beginning of an idea. Some of her recipes are exact, but most are vague and leave much to the culinary imagination. In a way, it makes me believe that through her recipes she gave us permission to experiment, to make mistakes and to surprise ourselves. It’s a lesson parents try to teach their children everyday. It’s also why we study the habits of ancient civilizations, to learn from the past and pave our own future. Think of this book as both your past and your future. Approach it with love and passion and without fear. If you can do that, you can conquer anything (including boeuf bourguignon).




4 responses to “Even Cookbooks Tell a Story

  1. This is such a lovely idea for a present! I absolutely love to test recipes for my husband and then recommend them to our family members. Would you be willing to share some of these favorite recipes? Thanks!

  2. Hi Ilene. Here’s a link to two of the recipes: https://highbrowlowbrow.wordpress.com/2008/10/09/recipes/

    Unfortunately, I gave the box and book with the rest of my grandmothers’ recipes back to my parents — and I didn’t think to make a second copy for myself!

  3. This is amazing, I think this as well when it comes to my sister, appreciation and gift-giving; the heart-felt, family history letter is beautifully written and gives me time, five months in fact, to start thinking of homemade Christmas gifts. So happy we reconnected, you are inspiring.

  4. Thanks, Beth! Your comment was so touching. I’m equally inspired by you and the work you’re doing — amazing! xo

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