One hundred-ninety-seven. That’s the number of cookbooks I currently own. I know this exact number because I recently purchased a 6-foot by 7-foot bookcase to shelve them all. With millions of recipes readily available on the web, this may seem slightly archaic and cluttered. I can rationalize this excessiveness as necessary to my career, but in truth each book is precious for its contribution to my emotional map, for so few of them are simply instruction manuals but a window into our relationships. Cookbooks remind us of where we’ve been, and who we aspire to be. They engage the senses and invite you to envision a world where you genuinely and comfortably care for yourself and others, where (most) meals are designed for pleasure over convenience and for depth over speed.
Unlike the ephemeral quality of many websites, a cookbook permanently reflects the cultural zeitgeist. Sixty-five years ago, simple preparations and making do with less were the themes of the most popular cookbooks of life during wartime. Casseroles, time-saving convenience foods, and the introduction to Americanized versions of ethnic cuisines (introduced by returning soldiers) appeared in the cookbooks of the 1950s. In the ’60s, the intersection of tradition and change was fundamental to Julia Child’s voice in Mastering the Art of French Cooking, and the 1970s provided such gems as The Watergate Cookbook and Better Homes and Gardens Fondue and Tabletop Cooking, and capitalized on the emerging trend of fad diets (remember The Complete Scarsdale Medical Diet?). Two working parents were responsible for the deluge of plan-ahead cookbooks of the 1980s, celebrity chefs (Bam!) defined many of the best-selling cookbooks of the ’90s, and we can point to a global pantry without borders as the source of inspiration for much of the current decade’s books dedicated to single ingredients (Fat by Jennifer McLagan), techniques (Molly Steven’s All About Braising), or cuisines (any of Madhur Jaffrey’s books following the Indian spice trail). Though some vintage cookbooks can be outdated (I will never make a recipe calling for Jell-O or Dr. Pepper), I can’t resist them for their smell, the handwritten notes in the margin, and the dog-eared pages of well-loved recipes.
Design is another element of cookbooks that I find endlessly seductive. There is the visceral quality of such aesthetic masterpieces as Salvador Dali’s Les Diners de la Gala (1973), the elegant drawings of the belle époque in Toulouse-Lautrec’s The Art of Cuisine (1966), and the iconic cosmic colors of Peter Max in Teen Cuisine (1969). My passion is enlivened by the voluptuous centerfolds in all of Charlie Trotter’s books, the Art Culinaire series, and Cooking with the Seasons, Chef Jean-Louis Palladin’s glossy foot-high tome. And like most lovers, each cookbook whispers a promise of satiating an appetite for desire, for pleasure, and for possibility.