Saturday, November 15, 2008

My Favorite Cooking/Cookery Books

I'm still in the haze and daze of getting this blog going, with the nice responses and kind words. In my usual scattershot fashion, I'm whirling out thoughts, writings and topics in no general order or sense, and for a while will probably be posting more often and more wordily than will become the custom when I get the hang of posting pictures and links and other interesting things. Until then, another topic: Books, always a favorite with me. These are the ones most used on my Cookbook Shelves, though they are not all strictly recipes and methods.

But they're ABOUT cooking and feeding folks and the enjoyment of both; I just picked up a fat paperback edition of Mrs. Beeton's Book of Household Management, shiny and bright with slick illustrations on the cover. Still lamented is the years-ago copy, brown-bound and worn, of an 1800's edition which I foolishly gave to my Sis's first MIL. She was a Home Economist (anyone remember that term outside the South?) and I thought she'd enjoy it for Christmas.
I part very seldom and very reluctantly with my books, and I do regret that one, especially.

And I'll always love these:

The Stillmeadow Books, and anything else by Gladys Taber. She woke to birdsong or snowcover, drank her strong stove-perked coffee, and stirred up some sourdough pancakes from her own decades-old starter. Butternut Wisdom, indeed. They're country books, walking-the-woods-with-a-dog books, pot-of-beans-simmered-all-day-while-writing-her-columns books. I love her line, "I think beans in any form are elegant."

The books are dated by their devices, their appliances, the cutting of wood for the kitchen stove and the hold-your-hand-in method of judging the oven temperature, as well as the political references and topics of the day, but I still re-read them and the great three-ring of her columns I clipped for years from women's magazines. There's a great peace to the telling, day-to-day happenings small as a new-found bird nest, and the immense quiet of a snowbound week with a full larder, a woodbox to hand, and the sure knowledge that no one could break the solitude before the melt.

I hear that she has a close kin in the late Laurie Colwin, whom I have not met as yet, but I look forward to her comfortable, homelike prose. I received a copy of Colwin's Shine On, Bright and Dangerous Object from a houseguest just the other day. I don't think it's about cooking, but it will give the flavor of the author.

And I have been flattered and honored by my friend Maggie, who writes me lovely, glowing letters, praising little bits and pieces I’ve written. She has been so kind as to liken my thoughts and ramblings to those of Ms. Colwin, so I'm interested to turn those pages.

Whole volumes in one book are encompassed between the covers of my battered copy of Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings' Cross Creek, with the orange groves, the corn patch, the Gullah cook whose loyalty and fierce companionship season each day as richly as her rough hands season the collards and pone and pie. The book is one long hot Summer stretching a lifetime, of swamps and the delectable froglegs and fish they yield, of coffee with cream that mounds on the spoon, of a canoe trip with her feet straddling a Dutch oven of homemade rolls which rose in the heat of the sun as they paddled. They stopped for the night, piled coals on the pan, and ate feathery rolls with pan-fried fish just pulled from the waters which had rushed beneath them all afternoon.

MFK FISHER---anything she’s written; the savor of the words equals any taste of anything she ever cooked or ate.

I still re-read sections of my Larousse just for the beauty of the words and images, and just bought a 1926 French edition of a generic Larousse, which I've been meaning to get to all Summer. Might be nice to see what it shows in the translation.

My favorite of all, I think, is the little spiral-bound cookbook by the ladies of our little church in Alabama. The small church volumes with the cardboard covers and little plastic spiral edge contain fourteen recipes for Green Bean Casserole, all printed so as not to hurt anyone's feelings. There are omissions, transpositions, and hilarious typos, in addition to some really outlandish combinations and seasonings.

But the little books contain the best of each cook's repertoire, gleaned from old McCall's and Farm Journals and from under the hairdryer. Mammaw's recipe for pound cake and Sawdust Salad, Mrs. Pund's uncooked fruitcake, the various alchemies which convert a can of Campbell's Cream of Mushroom into veloute, bechamel, whatever is required---those are the foundation of a kitchen and a cook's reputation. They represent the downhome, solid, family-around-the-table values which are disappearing like vapor from our homes and towns.

The little book I love most was in our little rental house in over on the Alabama/Georgia line, along with everything else which had belonged to the owner, an elderly woman who had gone into a nursing home. We slept in her beds, gathered the clean, fragrant sheets from her clothesline every week, ate from her cut-glass sherbet dishes, read her books, watched the children climb her trees and pull radishes from the little garden we planted that Spring.

When we were leaving, I knew her son was to auction off all the household goods, so I asked the realtor if I might buy the little cookbook with its margin-filled writing from its owner's hand. She gave it to me, and I've had it almost twenty years now. I smile every time I look at the flyleaf---in her beautifully-formed letters taught to scholars in another time, in the shaky, still-elegant script of an eighty-year-old hand---thin, pale brown scribing, as slender as the trail of a hatpin dipped into a rusty inkwell, it reads:


And I'd love a look into YOUR pages, as well---anyone care to share the favorites on their bookshelves?


Anonymous said...

Oh, yes, you must read Laurie Colwin's "Home Cooking" books one and two, gatherings of her writing for "Gourmet" back in the day. But Colwin was also a fancy-dancy "New Yorker" short story writer, and one of my fave novelists. "Shine On" is superb.

Rock on Rachel.


racheld said...

AHHHH---the illustrious Maggie herself, she of the scalpel-honed phrase and words like golden orbs. I'm honored to see you here.

Pay no attention to the superfluous adverbs.