In Praise of the Well-Used Cookbook

A few years ago, when I heard about the death of my old friend Beth, the first thing that came to mind was her copy of The Joy of Cooking. Missing its white paper cover, swollen with dozens of spills, bristling with scribbled-on scrap paper recipes and newspaper clippings, it was a testament to her wild, unconventional spirit, to her unmediated generosity and hospitality. I could see her standing in the kitchen, grinning her crooked-tooth grin, "The Joy" opened to the infamous, almost unreadable brownie page, thick with cocoa powder and sticky splatters.

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My own favorite cookbooks bear the patina of years of use. Lately I've taken to noting in the margins when I cooked something and what happened, who was there and even the weather or news events.

These books offer more than recipes and cooking advice, they now also tell a story, not just about me but about the time that I lived, and the possibilities therein.

Beth and I are not alone in riding our cookbooks hard. Deborah Madison writes in her new introduction to the 10th anniversary edition of Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone:

People come with their old books, pages tattered and stained with soup, inked with comments, and stuck with sticky notes. One, recently returned to me, was signed by all the monks who had used it in their monastery kitchen. The remains of the torn jacket were glued to the cover and the pages were so swollen with spills that the book was nearly twice its normal thickness. Clearly this old copy had had quite a workout, but nothing makes me happier than to see my books so much the worse for wear.

Perhaps I'm just getting old, but the shiny new is loosing its appeal these days and I find that I am more interested in the worn and wrinkled and dented, more intrigued by what has remained and endured. This is just as true for a tea cup or an old fence as it is for a well-used cookbook. It is especially true for a human face.

My friend Beth stipulated in her will that "The Joy" go to her daughter-in-law and future grandchildren. I have to think how relevant and alive this rumpled volume must be to those who are now carrying forward the tradition of crooked smiles and brownie bake-offs. If they can manage to pry apart the batter-glued pages, that is.

So what cookbooks have shaped your life and what kind of shape are they in? Is there one in particular that is so embodies you that you would include it in your will?

(Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone photo by Patrick McFarlin. Cookbook photo by Dana Velden.)

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