They say the cookbook industry is booming, despite sluggish sales elsewhere in publishing and the fact that the Internet is positively bubbling over with recipes. Why do people buy a single book when they can find infinite recipes for free online? The same reason you read newspapers rather than get your news from Twitter, except instead of rumours of celebrity deaths you have someone who thinks guava gravy is a good idea.
In our house, we haven’t purchased a new cookbook in years. The most recent books that didn’t just somehow appear (because, believe it or not, that happens sometimes) are Vegetarian Times Complete Cookbook and Moosewood Restaurant Low-Fat Favorites, copyright 1995 and 1996 respectively. This was around the time we were flirting with the notion of being partial vegetarians, until we remembered that we had children.
There’s a chickpea-mushroom curry in the Veg Times that I turn to now and then, and the Moosewood has a recipe for chili burgers marked with a note: “Good, but might as well make burritos.” Otherwise, these books sit with others on a floor-level kitchen shelf, untouched except for the occasional de-furring.
We own a mid-seventies edition of The Joy of Cooking, which, by modern standards, reads like an automotive manual. The J of C also displays a strange fixation for aspic. No one cares about aspic anymore, unless it’s for punning purposes.
At some point we inherited an old Larousse (1961) and Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking (1961). These are the War and Peace and Ulysses of home gastronomy: they look good on the shelf but remain unread. If you ever pass out on our kitchen floor, though, you’ll surely be impressed.
I refer to our thick New Good Housekeeping Cookbook for basic meat cooking times and temperatures, as well as for my go-to pancake recipe. When Deb makes the pancakes, on the other hand, she looks to the Better Homes & Gardens New Junior Cookbook, which, copyright 1979, is far from new. We also differ on the correct way to slice an avocado, and yet we remain married.
We get our three-bean salad recipe out of the classic Moosewood Cookbook and a lime-ginger chicken with salsa from a thin paperback book of chicken recipes. Then there’s the chaotic binder of recipe cards, photocopies, and loose pages torn from Canadian Living and newspapers – disorganized, spilling out, half of them never tried and just taking up room. When these recipes say that preparation time is 15 minutes, we need to add an extra 5 simply to find the right sheet.
Our most-worn book, though, is The New Basics (1989), which Deb and I acquired when we first moved to Montreal, though we bought it in Ottawa. It’s funny that I remember that. This is where you’ll find our salsa and guacamole recipes, that beef marinade the kids like, our couscous and tabbouleh recipes, a pasta sauce we refer to in our house as simply “the artichoke sauce” and a few other favourites.
The pages in this paperback edition are curled and stained. The dog tore the spine off it when she was a puppy, another example of why putting books at floor level is a bad idea. The covers are long gone, some of the pages are ripped, and this week, the spine finally split in half.
We’ve loved this book, probably because it was one of our first, and it made us feel like grown-ups. I remember actually reading it. Reading a cookbook! Because that’s what grown-ups do, right? I don’t remember smoking a pipe while reading it, but it’s possible.
And yet, as much as we’ve loved The New Basics, we’ve never once attempted Asparagus Arugula Frittata, Risotto Primavera, Cajun Meat Loaf or even Nutty Quinoa Salad before Nutty Quinoa Salad was cool.
And chances are we won’t, and not just because of my personal vendetta against quinoa.
Our recipes become a metaphor for our lives. We start out excitedly exploring, sampling this and that, discovering our tastes and dislikes. We make notes and add variations, we even venture out on our own. But, with the exception of the occasional foray into the new, we eventually tend to stick with the stand-bys, even when they become worn. We come to realize that we’re happy with what we have and that there are only so many things you can do with breasts.