Using Cookbooks

In which the art of using cookbooks and the recipes within them is explored.

People who have a genuine affection for food and enjoy experimenting with it often use cookbooks. They seek out and delight in discovering new ideas concerning food. Some people are not particularly imaginative but appreciate the imaginations of others. Others use ideas found in cookbooks as springboards for their own raucous experimentation in the kitchen or elsewhere. Full of ideas and information, history and science and culture, there is no way to ignore the value of cookbooks. And yet they often sit dusty on the shelf. Only one amongst them dog-eared and splattered.

Anyone who ever ventures into the kitchen might use a cookbook. Old tricks are nice and warm and comfortable, but new tricks can be refreshing and lend new aspect to the old ones. Go on and try new things. You might like them. Consider how new knowledge and understanding might improve old standards and habits. Surprise yourself by conquering a new thing, acquiring facility with a new herb or technique. Surprise others. Play with your food. Challenge yourself, and then remember to come up laughing. No one wants to hear about how miserable you are that an attempted recipe failed any more than they want to hear you complain sex was no good last night. They will look at you like you are nuts, wondering why on earth you think that’s a topic for conversation.1

Go ahead and use them.2 Everyone does once in awhile, or should.

Unfortunately for you, using cookbooks is not so easy as opening up the most attractive book and having a go. All cookbooks are not created equal, and you still cannot judge a book by its cover. Good recipes often come from the strangest places. Individual cookbooks are relatively homogeneous in their approach to food. Which is to say, if there are a several recipes you like from one book, chances are many of the other recipes in the book will also be to your taste. Conversely, if you haven’t much liked a number of things from a particular book, your chances of liking any recipe in that book, no matter how good it sounds, are slim. This is even somewhat true of the compiled cookbooks, where the recipes come from a wide variety of sources. The editors’ taste will out. Only the books in which there is no editor per se, where it is simply a compilation of recipes from whomever had the time and inclination to send one in remain mysterious no matter how many recipes you have tried. No way to know what sort of thing is being offered up in the next recipe. No way of knowing who thought it delicious enough to share. Very scary. Very adventurous. All the other books, including this one, have a single kitchen and a single person or two with their singular tastes deciding yay or nay on each recipe and each ingredient within it. And you can tell, and you can use it to your advantage.

Which is all in saying, if you insist on being experimental3 and using recipes from a variety of cookbooks, or if you cook so often that you need to adopt more than one new recipe each year, be discreet and sensible in your choice of books and of the recipes selected from them. And then be very honest about whether a recipe is worth repeating. If you are a rare cook, stick to experimenting with books of recipes which better cooks than yourself have recommended and from which you have enjoyed many meals cooked by others. Do not be ambitious and wild until you have finished Ms. Child’s masterpiece, The Way to Cook. Cover to cover.4 Then you can have all the fun you want with any cookbook in the world.

Is it possible that you are among those people who are more comfortable with some guidelines, some instructions? It can be so comforting to have a cookbook on hand which you trust and which you feel confident will produce food that is wonderful to eat. It is as good as having a real cook for a neighbor who is always willing to spend an afternoon helping you come up with ideas for dinner. Maybe you like to use cookbooks, enjoy trying a new recipe, reveling slightly in the comfort of knowing someone somewhere, if only in a test kitchen, figured out that these particular amounts of these particular things work together. And indeed they do. Strangest things, cookbooks. You can walk into a house where you have never been and see sitting on the counter a meticulously prepared something which looks just exactly like something someone else once prepared for you.

Which brings us to a very important courtship point for those of you who are using cookbooks: The person you are courting may very well have seen and smelled and tasted and enjoyed or not enjoyed this very same food at another place, another time, and with another person; and you might be inadvertently summoning up memories which will only in some circumstances be to your courtship advantage. More frequently they will be distracting, and at worst they may be damned destructive.

Some traditional and comforting foods have been elsewhere cited for the danger of serving them at all. Many cookies as well as hot chocolate fall firmly into this category, as does conventional spaghetti with meat sauce, roast turkey with stuffing, waffles, and a million other things we don’t need to mention because we don’t even eat them anymore so laden are they with baggage from our youth. Who can count the number of times they have sipped hot chocolate? How many memories involving maple syrup vie for position in their heart and mind, leaving your love with a jumble of what you hope will be good will? Specific nostalgia. As lethal and as beneficial as, and should be treated with the same respect reserved for, nitroglycerine. At once poisonous and life-giving. Dangerous and powerful foods, we could spend a whole chapter on them. 5

While less certain to provoke a nostalgic response than a more ubiquitous item,6 food made by following recipes from fashionable cookbooks are the very scariest and potentially explosive because the recollection attached to it is so much more specific and individual. There cannot be more than a handful of times, perhaps only one very vivid image of that other evening on which they were served that unmistakable pasta tossed with brie, tomatoes, basil and garlic, or that particular spinach salad with warm mustard dressing. And whether the event was generally positive or positively negative doesn’t even matter because their attention is now split between you and the last person who offered or shared this very, sensuous experience with them. Thin ice, as they say. You might easily find yourself suddenly home alone with a lot of cooled leftovers.

Be careful.

And do not forget that cookbooks, even unfashionable ones no one could have possibly experienced previously, are not at all appropriate when spontaneity is important. When your attention should lie elsewhere. When it should appear you know what you are doing, are confident of your own instincts and don’t need a manual to tell you what to do step by step. Don’t worry that you might not offer a plate to challenge the presentation of the finest chef, however much your guest might merit the finest of all things.7 The more important thing is for the meal to be executed with the sole and sincere intent to delight and flatter and primarily to feed the beloved, making them aware that they are deeply cared for, and accomplished partly by not caring at all about how the offering holds to more universal standards of aesthetic or artistic or other value.

Something else to do with books

Browse through them now and again, in your own home, or in a bookstore, or maybe while visiting with someone in their home, lingering at their kitchen table, wandering in and out of chaotic conversation. Browsing is a fine art which is too seldom honed to good use. You should try it, here and in many other places. You’d be surprised how much you can learn and about what. Little things that can transform your view of the world. Transform your world. Open up a new line of thought that would have remained ever closed, but which now opened so slightly encourages new thoughts and ideas and theories and observations to pour in from all sides. That, among all things, is most appealing to a would-be amour.

In this particular case you would be learning about food. More than that, and especially if you are browsing aloud in the company of a precious other, you will be learning about that other and what they think about food and possibly glean knowledge from their experience which is so much easier and less messy and time-consuming than learning it on your own.

Mostly you absorb slowly and in the most painless of fashions an understanding of what sorts of foods are placed with what other sorts when people who are very good with food are doing the placing. You read a few recipes for fettuccini alfredo and eventually you get the general idea. You peruse several descriptions of what to do with fennel and you begin to understand. Notice which herbs appear where and in combination with what else. Look up ingredients and recipes that interest you in the index. Look through cookbooks describing cuisines very different from your own. See how familiar ingredients are used in unfamiliar combination. Other notions may begin to wander into your head, ideas which do not hail from nowhere but which have some substance of knowledge or the beginnings of wisdom informing them. Open minds with open books before them, explosive and fertile. Look at anything which catches your eye. Browse through the table of contents and the index to see what sort of recipes are in the book. Flip through the pages to see if any particular list of ingredients catches your eye. Lemon grass, which almost no one knows what to do with, might show up. Read on. A recipe for something which has always been a mystery to you might appear one day. And then you will understand more than you did before.

Let worlds of ideas and thought-out thoughts wash over you, the one you are ready for, the one which will catapult you to the next idea of your own always the one that catches your eye. Thousands of well-paid and well-meaning researchers try daily to figure out why and how our brains are so good at this sort of sifting and sorting even when we make virtually no effort, and maybe even more so when we make no effort. But they can’t figure it out. Your eyes sweep the page and inform inward, but no one knows what other parts of the body are consulted before the eyes are caught and slowed and the hand involuntarily moves to touch the words on the page and the lips silently move. “What is the process,” they ponder, “by which one thing rather than another is selected as interesting and pertinent? How does it happen, and why, and how can we emulate it electronically, mechanically, or chemically?”

Which ponderance is of virtually no interest to you and me. You probably won’t ever want to enlist any sort of robotic thing to take your place at any table with a glass of wine or cup of some other sultry poison on a Saturday afternoon in the chatty company of friends or family while paging through beautiful books about foods and all the wonderful things that can be done with them. And then doing them or not doing them but in any case having done something. The success not only in the capture but also in the pursuit, for what is captured in the course of the pursuit will be of great value.8

Browse9 without ever bothering to on this and other subjects and you will advance all your courtship skills immensely. If only because you might come across things you want to try or explore and there you are, making others smile and glow without even trying. Which is the way they like it.


1 Not that they wouldn’t have been delighted to discuss what went wrong in either arena had you maintained your humor. But in the face of complaint, they will think, “Shut up and get over yourself,” and will say as much if they are one of those blunt and frank-speaking friends so hard to find these days.

2 Cookbooks. Not your friends.

3 That is, experimenting in a conventional way with new things rather than experimenting in new ways with old things.

4 Hyperbole. What I actually think is you should open the book, look around in it for a half-hour or so, read one or two things carefully, and thereby gain respect for the huge amount you do not know about food and how to cook it. That humility will go almost as far as actual knowledge when you are in the kitchen trying to cook.

5 We don’t.

6 Peanut butter cookies, for example. Which to the dismay of my mother I make oversized, both to make them unlike the actual cookies served to children and so not childish, and to make the experience even more akin to that of childhood, when cookies were almost as large as our hands. Always served with adult drinks, and not milk. To evoke childhood, especially its nicer parts, is very different from recreating it, in which case you will get more than just the nice parts. Yikes. Stand back unless you are a trained professional.

7 As Rosalind so wisely points out to Orlando, one cannot trust the suitor who offers excellent love poetry. It shows that their attention lies with their own accomplishment and therefore in their own vanity rather than with the object of their attraction. And that object cannot help but notice. There is a great area of possibility where everything is good enough to please, but not so good as to provoke questions about priority.

8 Maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow, but soon and for the rest of your life.

9 Do you know how to browse? Has this reverie been enough to illustrate? It is a technique of experiencing books, or anything else, in an intermediate manner and depth. You do not read nor absorb nor possess the whole thing, but you see enough and experience enough to know whether you need more, and in any case you come away knowing a little more than you did before. Open books and look at them. Read a paragraph, at least, maybe a page or two to get an impression of the voice of the author. Look at the table of contents to see what subjects appear to be addressed. The way the chapters are titled will also give you insight into the flavor of the book. They might be elegant, flippant, scholarly, direct, anything. Read the back cover and any other criticism of the book that comes packaged with it. It is all propaganda and you must read through the lines, but there is understanding to be had there as well. Practice browsing. There is no law that says you must read a whole book in order to be at all familiar with it. Just as you know some people only because you had a brief conversation with them once at a party or on a street corner, you can also know books casually, perhaps later deciding to get to know them better. They will wait for you.

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