I can track my life through a series of cookbooks.
All my life my mother has been a fantastic cook. A really, really good cook. Homemade meals every night. So when I moved into my first place, my last year of college, it was not surprising that she had an arsenal of basics to recommend. We picked them up at estate sales: Silver Palate, NY Times. But it wasn’t her cookbooks that grabbed my attention that first year. That first year, I was all about Martha.
Martha’s Cooking School was a precious item in my kitchen. Living with a house full of college students, I kept Cooking School in my bedroom, on my personal bookshelf. Much safer way to keep it clean.
For me, my first year, I needed cooking school. I needed to learn how to chop an onion, the difference between scallions and shallots. I read through the book as if beach lit, page by page, immersed, a gem picked up at the Culinary Institute of America during a quick day trip with the parents. Sadly, the recipes from the book have not nestled into my memory. The memory is honoring cookbooks. Placing them on a clean shelf, enjoying their photos, treating them as introductory, as knowledge to eat up.
Ad Hoc was the same year as Cooking School, but its memory is chock full of recipes. Zesty corn salad. Real croutons. My roommate making his Chicken Pot Pie on Pi Day. Keller was genius. Keller is genius. Keller was a coffee table book that began to get dirty. Three years later in my first real live apartment with a real live boyfriend Keller got moldy from the titled countertops in the kitchen. Little did we know puddles of water built up behind the microwave, where the cookbooks were stored for easy use.
Julia was my first step in learning how to cook. Butter made everything taste better. There was no need to add flour as a roux to a soup if you cooked the soup hot enough and let it boil down on its own. A sweet Christmas gift from my man, Julia could do no wrong and she too occupied my bedside table as I devoured her before sleep.
Julia, unlike Martha, unlike Keller, became my way of life. A month in Paris left me hungry for more butter more wine more flour. Riches beyond belief to their smallest extent. I deprived myself of no sensory joys, all sweats, all heavy cream in the eggs, ah, the eggs.
Two years after graduation, hungry after living in Paris, hungry after abandoning a career in film, I met Pam. Pam, a mentor, a friend, a colleague, How to Cook Without a Book was no such a book for me as a way of life. Suddenly, immersed in cooking school with an expert, as part of my job, cutting an onion was no longer a challenge. Strawberries, my first day, found a new lovely shape as I cut them sideways instead of top to bottom. Soups, roasting, frying, searing, all became second nature at her side and suddenly I was moving beyond the basics, the recipes, and into my own world of food.
Cookbooks became a mere inspiration, a suggestion. If you weren’t Keller or Julia, I began to feel confidant I could guess your tips, critique your ingredients. Rich food stuck around, but vegetables blossomed as well. Beets, brussel sprouts, and more than that, oysters, donuts, nothing was beyond my reach. It was all easy with Pam.
And then, one year later, it crashed. No gluten. No dairy. No sugar. How could I ever cook from Julia? Keller? Anderson? How could I bake? How could I make pot pie? Or soup? Or roast chicken?
McKenna was who brought me back up. After one year of learning to cook again, on my own, without recipes, I finally found my way back to a cookbook. I had figured out recipes from scratch instead of using substitutions, but to bake, I couldn’t wing it. I couldn’t wing potato starch or xantham gum. McKenna brought me around, returned my sweet tooth, and gave me the inspiration, the strength, to learn again.
And so, a couple of days before BlogHer Food, I look forward to returning to the community strong in my abilities, and finally, again, happy for food.