On Reading Cookbooks

One of my lofty goals for this year was to actually read my cookbooks cover to cover. Not all of them (Bittman, I love you, but you are more encyclopedia than novel!), but the ones that called to me. It’s sort of a singular experience, reading through a whole cookbook, as opposed to flipping to a certain recipe. You really come to know the person who wrote it, or you understand more about how a kitchen works (in the case of cookbooks related to restaurants), or, best of all, you come grasp what it is about food that made that person fall in love, over and over again.

Some cookbooks come with stories for every recipe, and those are hard to put down; they are a powerful initiation into some of the most treasured flavors in someone’s life. Case in point: I devoured Molly Wizenburg’s A Homemade Life in two days. They were such delicious and moving days, truly.  The night I bought Ottolenghi’s Plenty, I sat up late in bed reading through all of the fascinating influences of his recipes and drooling over the gorgeous photographs. I felt as if I were traveling with him, picking up black lentils here and sumac there, and then bringing it all together into one irresistible and culturally expressive whole.

It’s funny that this is the first time this idea has come to me, since I am such a great lover of cookbooks of all kinds. I think maybe it is because we have so many new ones, graciously given to us as wedding gifts (thank you, sweet family and friends!). I use all of them all the time, but I just had this inkling a few months ago that there was a greater experience to be had through swallowing them whole (pun intended). And I am very happy to report that I was very, very right.

So, here is a small report on my progress thus far. I started with The Cheese Board Collective Cookbook, which Eric gave me for my birthday. (He really loves seeing me open a present and then squeal with glee, “I *really* wanted it!” He hears that a lot, come to think of it.) For my Bay area comrades, the name requires no explanation. For others, the Cheese Board is a collectively owned bakery, insanely amazing cheese shop, and glorious thin-crust pizzeria. It is a local institution, so deeply interwoven in the culture of Berkeley. It has been in North Berkeley since 1967, and it is still a rite of passage to stand in their long line while enjoying the jazz trio, buy a few pies, and eat them in the grassy median of Shattuck. This cookbook is so much more than a cookbook: it is a piece of local history, with interviews from members throughout the decades. I read it in two days, and then I asked Eric why we ever moved away from Berkeley. Sigh! I have probably baked all of the scones in the book already (The Great Scone Explosion of 2011 had to have a foundation!), but these recipes meant so much more to me when I learned more about the people who bake them, what their daily routine is like, what the bakery sounds and smells like at 4am, and how they know their customers by name. It is, quite simply, a beautiful thing. Their pizza recipes are also stellar (ah, nostalgia!), and I am longing to bake some of their breads–oat sandwich bread, you shall be mine, and also perhaps some sourdough, if I have the patience to make my own starter. Really, the reason I started with this book is that there is a ton of information about cheese, and I wanted to learn how to make some fancy cheese plates. I had no idea I’d also be given an introductory lesson in how cheese is made, and now I fully understand why it is so expensive and fully support its right to be so. I never could have gotten all of that from my scone recipes alone. I am so grateful for the experience, and so excited for what I’ll learn next!

Now I am reading the girl & the fig cookbook, which was also a gift from Eric, this one for Christmas. The girl and the fig is a fantastically delicious restaurant in Sonoma. Eric and I ate dinner there last year for our anniversary and had a lovely time, so it is a special place to us. So far what I am loving most about this book is that I feel like I am coming to know the chef. Sondra Bernstein is so incredibly gracious, using almost her entire introduction to thank her staff and team of chefs, as well as her customers, some of whom she mentions by name, especially the children! There is immediately the sense that this place is a real community, which is so much of the beauty that is present at the Cheese Board too. Right now I am loving learning about their kitchen staples: the oil blend they use for every dish, the mix of olives they place on the tables, the bouquet garni they always have on hand. I love learning about the real staples of a kitchen (anyone’s kitchen, really–the fascination is endless, and there is always so much to learn from others), and these are so interesting and so helpful. But my absolute favorite part so far is that Bernstein spends pages presenting what is essentially a prose poem of gratitude for all the memorable foods she has eaten all over the world. Several sentences in, I was with her in Chile, and in Santa Fe, and in Kenya. I found the whole idea of preserving those sensory memories–treasures, really–in one place to be absolutely moving. I may just have to write my own soon. And so, only a few months into this little resolution, I feel incredibly moved, inspired, and grateful. Grateful for the people who took the time to share their kitchens with me, grateful for all the people who make those kitchens work, grateful to be able, in some small way, to participate.

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