The Joy of Cookbooks
Reflecting on the pleasure of cooking and the woman who gave me that gift.
In the early 1970s, a bearded, scary-looking boyfriend took me to New York to meet his parents. “They’re intellectuals,” he shared, “and Mom is an epicure.” We were invited for Sunday brunch, and it was awkward. As it turned out, my boyfriend’s parents had never seen him with hair down to his shoulders and a beard. At the same time, I had never seen an apartment only slightly bigger than a breadbox. Or met an “epicure.”
I was enchanted. After a one-second tour, his mother asked if I would lend a hand in the kitchen. A worn cookbook laid open to “Fresh Eggs Scrambled With Cream and Chives” on the Formica countertop. A clear bowl with whole eggs, a small pitcher of cream, and a chopping block with a tidy pile of chive rings completed the still life. “Would you like to whisk it all together for me?” she asked as she pulled a sheet of crisped bacon out of what looked like a toy oven.
The verb, “whisk.” I had heard of the little brooms, of course, but I had never held a gourmet whip or contemplated the transformation of eggs with such an effortless, light motion. I was struck by the luxurious combination of fresh eggs, cream, and chives. My hostess dropped a pat of butter into a well-seasoned pan and swirled it around, and I watched it froth. Even though she was spitting mad at her bearded, scary-looking son, she scrambled the eggs with calm, elegant movements until they were just so, arranging them on china plates that were rimmed with a regal dragon pattern. Somehow, I knew that more than anyone I had met before—and even in her insanely tiny apartment—this woman knew how to live.
She brought toast dry to the table, and we buttered it there. Marmalade was not in an institutional-size jar, but a lovely little bowl. No one asked for seconds. So civilized! After brunch, his mom and I sat together while she shared her collection of Gourmet magazines. Until then, my experience with recipes had been confined to ads on the Kraft Mystery Theater, and the dishes had always involved Miracle Whip. She laughed. “Well if you’d like to go a step further,” she said. “I’ll give you my copy of Craig Claiborne’s Kitchen Primer. It has everything you need to know. But I must warn you, you won’t be able to stop there.”
I returned to college, and the bearded, scary-looking boyfriend and I broke up. But using money I made working the breakfast line in a dormitory, I bought a subscription to Gourmet. The 1970s were raining politics and mayhem on our college campus, but between marches, I read Craig Claiborne’s Kitchen Primer, and I was cooking up omelets and pork chops and pasta with homemade sauce for my friends. I saved my money for hardbacks by Julia Child and James Beard. I read recipes the way some people read prose, so evocative were the nouns (Jerusalem artichokes!), so precise were the verbs (minced! chopped! diced!). When I cooked, it was with love and unbridled pleasure; I always wondered if that could be experienced in the food I prepared.
As I grow older, and the easy beauty of youth has waned, the beauty I aspire to rests in how I live my life. I think about the kind of living I first encountered in that tiny apartment in New York. I don’t know what happened to the scary-looking boyfriend—or his mother, for that matter—though it is very likely that he has shaved, and she has passed away. The other day, when I was organizing my cookbook shelves, I picked up my battered copy of Craig Claiborne’s Kitchen Primer, and the details of that long-ago encounter came back to me. I poured a glass of wine, and I marveled that a generous woman whose name I cannot remember gave me the secret of what is now my great contentment.