I used to envy people whose mothers taught them to cook, who learned ancestral ravioli recipes brought over from Italy by their wise old great grandmothers. But this was not to be. First of all, we weren’t Italian. Second, my mother did not like to cook.
She executed her kitchen duties as efficiently and conscientiously as possible and used a handful of battered cookbooks to get the job done. Cookbooks were not tomes to be thumbed through and dreamed over, but manuals in which she wrote her businesslike comments about what worked and what didn’t, when she’d made a dish, how it froze, whether her children liked it, how it worked for a party.
Often, she included the comments of her friends about dishes they’d made, so she would know not to bother with the ones that didn’t work for them.
Why she needed anyone to warn her off a creme de menthe Jell-O salad, I do not know.
As a child, I would flip through her cookbooks looking for these comments. It was like my own private Where’s Waldo? She was here! She was there! The Toklat cookies were “great — like pecan pie” and the potage cressoniere was “excellent.” I revered my mother and wanted to know everything about her mysterious, grown-up life so I could be exactly like her.
But I wasn’t. I wasn’t businesslike and efficient and for me cookbooks were tomes to be thumbed through and dreamed over. My mother noticed. She started buying me cookbooks when I was 10 and, because she had a great sense of ceremony, she always inscribed them.
She also let me do pretty much anything I wanted in the kitchen, provided I clean up, or at least pretend to. After all, if I cooked dinner, she didn’t have to.
What did I cook at ages 11, 12, and 13? I can open any of my old cookbooks and find out. I can guess my approximate age by how poor the spelling is and how bubbly the handwriting. Among scores of overambitious recipes I tackled: veal parmigiana (“Super!) from the 1960s Gourmet cookbook and apple souffle (“Pretty good but not extremely delicious; a little bit bland”) and Austrian cheesecake:
Out of this world! I favored the florid adjectives of my mother and her friends because I thought they made me sound sophisticated. Now I find these notes a little embarrassing. Sweet, but a little embarrassing.
I made a breakfast souffle from San Francisco A La Carte that contained chipped beef, bacon, mushrooms and 12 eggs: “Awful! Rich and eggy and disgusting.” Unsurprising to my adult self, but nice to see confirmed. And I made the chicken fricassee in From Julia Child’s Kitchen:
Thinning? Did I mean “slimming?” In any case, yes, omitting heavy cream generally does make a dish more “slimming.” And I don’t doubt this recipe was HARD.
But while my mother used her comments as a memory aid, mine were, at least initially, a way of leaving my mark. Cookbooks were like checklists. I would put my notes on a recipe and move on, never to revisit. I was ambitious and compulsive and wanted my books full of marks.
I suppose I still do, but I’ve calmed down and often make the same dishes again and again, noting changes and improvements right on the page.
I have a dialogue going with my cookbooks and the more marked up they are, the more useful they are to me. And, I would argue, to anyone else who picks one of them up. My sister, who also comments in cookbooks, has a friend who is aghast at this practice and has told her so. He treats his own cookbooks like precious objets d’art, especially the works of his godhead Thomas Keller, author of the gorgeous French Laundry Cookbook.
Indeed, Keller’s books are so dazzling it’s hard even for me to sully their vast, lovely pages. But I do. Of course I do! A cookbook is meant to be used. I will never forget that Keller’s fried chicken from Ad Hoc At Home is the best I’ve ever made (it’s that delicious), but unless I wrote notes, how would I ever remember that? I can open the book and see that the chicken pot pie had a “delicious crust, buttery and perfect, filling was good, but lacked flavor.” The pan-roasted halibut: “Blah.” The mint chocolate chip ice cream: “Fantastic.” And I see here a note in handwriting that is not mine, but my daughter Isabel’s:
Yes, she has become a cookbook annotator, too. Her notes are all over our copies of Dorie Greenspan’s Baking and Nigella Lawson’s How to Be A Domestic Goddess. I love to come across them because they are tiny glimpses of her, of who she was, of who she is and what she likes and how she thinks, and they are also helpful, because I know I’ll probably take a pass on Nigella’s chocolate loaf cake which she deemed “Ok, but very eggy.” Instead, based on Isabel’s notes, I’ll make these, which are grat! grat! grat!:
And now that my mother is gone, when I come across her comments in the pale blue 1964 Joy of Cooking (steel-cut oat bread: “Excellent. Fool-proof.”) I see tiny glimpses of who she was and what she liked and how she thought, glimpses that are even more precious to me now than they were when I was child. I also think maybe I will bake that excellent, fool-proof bread. We may not have an ancestral ravioli recipe, but we have our own family traditions in the kitchen.