Of cookbooks and dreams

I’m not quite sure why recipe books do this to me. For someone who has just taken up cooking fairly recently, I own an absurd amount of cookbooks. I adore them almost the same way I do the romance novels I could not have enough of in my teens. I dare say, there is something romantic about cookbooks. How else could I explain the gentle feeling that wells up from my heart and gut when I read about cookies and care packages journeying through land or sea to make one feel less lonely and homesick? How much more romantic can chicken soup get when it is lovingly prepared by a man for his pregnant/anemic/arthritic/down-in-bed-with-the-flu-and-a-broken-hearted woman?

There is something about cookbooks that draws me in, like a magnet or a dream, or both. Bring me to a bookshop and I will most likely wander down the aisle where the cookbooks are gloriously displayed, before I even go to the arts and crafts section, the autobiographies, the latest titles that made it to the New York Times list. Some of my all-time favorite authors I have met that way — starting with Ruth Reichl’s Tender at the Bone. I finished it the very same night I bought it, and it was the best story to ever meet my appetite, not to mention my hidden dream of one day becoming a goddess of sorts in the kitchen.

The next day, I went back to get the other two titles by Reichl. Needless to say, I enjoyed Comfort Me with Apples and Garlic and Sapphires just as much. Because of Reichl, I met M.F.K. Fisher, whose writing I love to pieces, and Samuel Chamberlain who authored Clementine in the Kitchen. I always leave a bookstore with a volume or two tucked under my arm, or amazon.com with great expectations of a wonderful delivery at my doorstep, regardless of whether they are devoted to savory or sweets, or both, and if I had more space on our bookshelves I would probably be buying even more and more, maybe as often as I do gel pens and blank journals. I do not know what unspoken magic they weave for me as I can bury my nose between their pages, be alternately or simultaneously roused in the heart, the palate, and the mind and almost forget that the author and/or contributors are not real friends.

I close the book, usually a heavy one with nice photographs on even nicer paper, and I feel all the better about the day, even when I am not having a particularly bad one but especially when I am. Reading cookbooks come next to my love for all things gift-packaging — nice paper and ribbons and lovely little things — and is almost like a prayer in that sense, rendering sustenance, comfort, a quiet, very simple, very reassuring joy.

The first recipe book I remember reading over and over again as a child my daughter’s age now is a hardbound volume the size of a regular notebook, whose title I now forget. The cover was green, the shade of fresh lettuce or asparagus, the thick white pages peppered only with black ink, and no illustrations. The sole photograph I remember seeing was that of the Filipino author, a very pretty lady in maybe her mid mid-30s with hair pulled back in a high ponytail, based in Honolulu. I do not know why I remember all this but not the title. One day it will flit back into my mind and I will share it with you. But from that book I baked, when I was in my very early teens, a gamut of pastries; the most notable of which was lemon squares that turned out to be quite delicious. My brothers and their little friends ate them all up, remnants of the powdered sugar on their lips making them look all pale and anemic, their plum, ruddy cheeks shiny from afternoon play being the only glaring fact negating that. Watching them enjoy the yellow bars with gusto was my greatest reward.

Much of what I read made little sense to me, I must admit. Being that young and so removed from real kitchen activities, and with none of the cooking shows that abound now, I could not make tails and heads of how simmer differed from boil, or why fold was not the same as stir. But I did not care. I was very sure I liked how these words rolled in my mouth, add to that how so very lovely the images they conjured up were. It all seemed very delicious to me. I read and reread every page because of how it made me feel; relishing how I could go all out as I entertained fantasies of cooking or baking very well in my own kitchen one day, making a layered circle of many happy memories along the way. After every recipe title in that green hardbound book the color of fresh lettuce or asparagus, there was almost always a very short story under it, usually just three to five sentences, of how the recipe came to be. I also know that is the part I enjoyed the most. I liked reading about a cake care of this or that aunt, a casserole from a neighbor who has since gone to distant shores, Christmas cookies lovingly nestled in a tin and sent out around the neighborhood to spread cheer, dishes that remain unchanged through the years.

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