Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Beyond Books (sort of) - My Cookbook Shelf

I have never fancied myself much of a cook. I say that out of no false modesty. Until a couple years ago it was something I didn't like to do. It was also something by which I was intimidated, quite frankly. 

My mother had a handful of recipes on which she relied, but unless she was cooking for a luncheon or throwing together some funeral food, what came off her stove or out of her oven didn't vary much. The things at which she excelled,though--potato salad, skillet chicken, cornbread dressing, pimiento cheese; pound cake--well, I could live on those things. 

My grandmother--her mother--was much the same way. We often wound up around her table on Sundays, and there are only three things I remember about those meals: my Grandpappy's mumbled blessing, which always included the words, "...and God bless all the little men and all the little women," because we were his heart; the butter pecan ice cream Nannaw'd serve in her Johnson Bros. Devonshire china; and having a one-in-four chance to be the lucky grandchild selected to wield the snuffer to extinguish the candles at the table at the end of the meal. 

Nannaw made a great Chicken Tetrazzini and her Sunshine Sauce is something I wish I had a good excuse to make. Oh, and her stuffed celery was always highly anticipated at holiday gatherings. Again, though, I certainly never got the sense that cooking was something she particularly enjoyed. 

On my maternal side, then, spending time in the kitchen trying anything new just wasn't part of my experience. What I grew up seeing were women who knew how to make some things that I loved, who'd prepare them without spending much time talking about the what or how. Mama did coach me in the making of her famous potato salad, and I say with no false pride -- because I have earned it -- that mine is almost always almost nearly as good as was hers. 

In spite of my protestations and natural aversion, I have managed to put together a really nice collection of cookbooks. For the longest time I'd walk past them, running my hands against their spines, hoping that kitchen osmosis might somehow cause me to begin talking like Julia Child, and stirring the pot in a way that would actually, you know, feed somebody. 

It wasn't until I'd ordered one of Mark Bittman's cookbooks to give to my son that the little light began to go on. Because, you see, Mr. Bittman gave me written permission to not be perfect, to leave out an ingredient I didn't have or didn't like, because mostly, recipes will work just fine with most of the things on the list...and if it was a key ingredient, Mr. Bittman whispered to me, "Just rename the recipe."

Some of the books here are in heavy rotation. Some I just like to peruse. Because I came to this about as tabula rosa as it's possible for a person to be, I learn something new every time. 

But my sentimental favorites are these. Both Blue Moon cookbooks used to be delivered to us at the bookstore by their author, until he ran out of copies he had in his garage. It was, perhaps, the single bestselling book we had at the bookstore, because no self-respecting Montgomery bride could set up housekeeping without a copy. There's a smattering of cookbooks published by the UMW of my church in years past. Seconds, Please!, another local one long out of print, is highly sought after and there are times I feel guilty for holding on to it when I know somebody else might actually cook something from it. (I hold on to it because one of the authors gave me a salad spinner as a wedding gift nearly 4 decades ago.) Oh, and that copy of White Trash Cooking was given as a joke, but lordamercy, there's some dangerously delicious stuff in it, and on a couple occasions, I've heard a sentimental sigh from my husband for some of the foods from his childhood he finds in there. 

(Lest you think I can claim high culinary ground here, my Mama routinely gave us mayonnaise and peanut butter sandwiches for lunch, with a sugar sandwich for dessert. And even now, my mouth is watering for them. Damn. If I only had some white bread in my kitchen....)

Like any other good Bible, cookbooks that have been used and loved need to bear witness to the people who sat and thumbed through their pages looking for inspiration. I'm fortunate that the inherited cookbooks are chock-through with marginalia and clippings. Is there anything better than running across ink put to paper in the hand of someone you loved?  

Although I also use and rely on several food sites on the internet for inspiration, there is just nothing quite like sitting on the sofa with a cup of hot tea, flipping through pages of possibilities, is there? 

I just eat it up. 

I'm linking up with Weekend Cooking hosted by Beth Fish Reads


  1. What a wonderful memoir you have written! I enjoyed every word.

    best... mae at maefood.blogspot.com

  2. I loved your post and your mama sounds terrific!

  3. Fantastic post! I love your memories of your Sunday meals with your grandmother. And, yes, Mark Bittman can be a huge breath of fresh air.

  4. What a lovely post! It's so interesting to hear all your sentimental favourites. And sugar sandwiches! That reminds me of the condensed milk we used to drip onto white bread when we went camping as teenagers

    1. Thanks.... and yowza on that camping menu!