A Memoir of My Life with Cookbooks


Phyllis Ilona Lyons


Here is what Rick Rodgers said last March about the current cookbook scene in an interview introducing his latest cookbook, The Carefree Cook:  “So many cookbooks out there are…. I think they’re like pornography.  Because people read them and they go, ‘Oh, my goodness!  I would never do that!’  But they still keep turning the pages” (Chicago Sun-Times, 3/10/04).   You probably remember what Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart famously said about “pornography”:  I can’t define it, but I know what it is when I see it.  Who was it that observed that the most intensely sensitive sexual organ in the human being is the brain?  Anything at any time can be fodder for pornographic interest, and there is no limit to the amount of imagination for it one can have.  The operant word is “imagination”:  anyone can enjoy a good meal at a nice restaurant, but one need not consume an actual meal to experience the enjoyment of consumption.  We can eat only so much; but we can imagine limitlessly.   Therefore, I will use as my working definition of “food porn,”  “anything that produces the buzz of food without necessarily requiring actual food.” 


In practice,  “food porn” is my large collection of cookbooks and food magazines, and by extension, my crowded museum of cooking pots, baking dishes, cooking machines, and cooking doo-dads, for example, the cherry pitter, the olive pitter, the citrus zester, the apple corer, the six-sided grater and on and on—the pleasure equipment provided by Williams-Sonoma, Crate and Barrel, Lillian Vernon, and dozens of other catalogues.  I have a tiny kitchen, and I’m too busy to do much cooking.  But I get a pleasurable chill up and down my spine just at the very thought that I have four sizes of rectangular Pyrex baking dishes nestled together in the cabinet.


Here I present to you the fetish objects of my desire that capture and inflame my imagination, that teasingly promise a fulfillment that never fulfills, that produce the heart-racingly luscious, lurid, juicy, glistening, engorged excitement that commands my attention.  I will shamelessly and proudly expose to you the deepest reaches of my desiring imagination.  The sub-subtitle of this paper is, accordingly, “My 500 Cookbooks and How They Turn Me On.”


My cookbook collection probably would not interest a bibliophile.  I think that the oldest one I have goes back only to 1940; most are mass-produced; few are even first editions; many of them are paperbacks and are late multiple printings.  Many of them have never been used to cook from; others count for just a single recipe.  But each one was an object of desire.  Some of them teased and then betrayed me; others turned out to be unexpected treasures, to be paged over, dog-eared and heavily breathed upon again and again through the years.  Because the topic, like the desire, is limitless, and the time is limited, I will touch on only the following aspects of my pornography collection:  Before Pornography; Boeuf Bourguignon; Dual-Language Cookbooks; The Thin Japanese Line; Sourdough; Deep Disappointments; The Magazines and Catalogues; and End Matters.



Probably the first book to enter into what became “my collection” was the General Foods Kitchens Cookbook, copyright 1959.  It was given to me when I was about to go to college—not that I was going to be cooking at college, but perhaps in the hope that all that book larnin’   would not eclipse my domestic skills


Those 1950s still echo in the cookbook.  Beyond what we nowadays call “comfort food,” General Foods Kitchens yearned for something grander.  Their cookbook was the new food of the day.  (Remember, Mastering the Art of French Cooking did not appear until 1961, and at the time, Julia Child was only third on the list of authors, after Simone Beck and Louisette Bertholle.)  The “Lobster Casserole Supreme” (a sophisticated variation of Tuna Casserole Supreme) asked you to make a light white sauce and add genuine canned mushrooms instead of a can of Campbell’s Cream of Mushroom Soup; it called for shredded Cheddar, not Velveeta; there were sliced ripe olives in it and five whole cans of lobster meat!  The “Jellied Chicken Salad Surprise” is a surprise, perhaps, because in addition to the four packages of lemon-flavor gelatin, the four cans of diced cooked chicken, the pecans, celery, wine vinegar, grated onion, sour cream, mayonnaise and garlic powder in the salad, there’s pineapple, black olives (again!) and watercress in the salad greens that bed the jelled cubes.


Recipes, photos line drawings and text alike tell us of times gone by.  1959 was a world of expectations different from ours today.  Wives were the cooks, and wives weren’t on diets.  But they were beginning to be urged to pay attention to their husbands’ diets.  It was the wife’s responsibility:  “In helping a dieter stick to his regime, desserts may be his biggest stumbling-block, if he has a well developed sweet tooth.  Don’t let him feel that rich desserts are gone forever; serve him a modest portion of a real gooey one every now and then, to keep his morale flying.”  The wives had other responsibilities, too:  “The dessert for your bridge club or community benefit will be long remembered for the delectable jewel-toned Crown Jewel Cake,” made of raspberry, strawberry and cherry Jell-O cubes embedded in two quarts of whipped cream held together by twelve packages of ladyfingers.


Sure proof of times lost is the photo of the grinning young girl training to be a Future Homemaker of America.  “Let the children cook . . . it’s fun for them and a help to you,” the caption urges.  The plate of meatballs and Chef Boyardee-red spaghetti she’s forking out could of course be made by young cooks today (although her brother would probably be grinning alongside her these days).  But what tips us off that she is not of our world is her garb:  her frilly little white blouse with the puffy short sleeves tells us she’s wearing a skirt; her little red-trimmed yellow apron is tied with a bow at the back, her crisply straight bangs and modest page-boy locks are held in order by a little ribbon.  We can be sure she’s wearing shoes and not Nikes; if her brother had a baseball cap, we know his mother would never let him out of the house with it worn backwards. 



One of the first cookbooks I purchased for my graduate student studio apartment was a 75-cent Signet paperback, Specialty Cooking with Wine, 1949 and 1956 copyrights, 1962 edition.  The back cover promised, “With a dash of wine and the cooking secrets of MORRISON WOOD—the well-known food columnist and culinary expert—even the most ordinary cook can become a kitchen celebrity.” (Poor Morrison Wood—he seems to have gotten left at the gate in the Famous Chefs Derby.) I decided I wanted to try Boeuf Bourguignon, which, Wood told me, “is simply Burgundy Beef, or beef stewed with Burgundy.”  His instructions promised a lot.  “Get yourself a couple of bottles of good Burgundy . . . depending of the state of your pocketbook . . . your favorite feminine or masculine companion, and two pounds of lean beef  . . . and I’ll guarantee you an evening that you’ll not forget very soon.  It’s really as easy as that…” There was a little liquor store right across the street from my apartment.  Maybe if I tried making the stew, the dinner companion would also materialize.  The recipe was easy.  I read it through and gathered the ingredients, followed the steps through frying the onions, sautιing the beef cubes and sprinkling the flour and herbs over them.  Then I added the beef bouillon, and it was time for the wine.  The recipe sensibly told us not to use our imported wine for the cooking.  I didn’t distinguish; all my budget had been able to manage was the $2 French import that was even cheaper than California.   So, as things were nicely sizzling away, I removed the foil from around the neck of the bottle, and discovered to my horror— the bottle had a cork!  What do you do with a cork?  My personal knowledge of wine at that time consisted of secret undergraduate dorm parties with Gallo Muscatel in screw-top bottles.  I turned off the stove, raced downstairs with my bottle, ran across the street to the liquor store, and desperately proffered the bottle to the storeowner.  He sold me a 25-cent corkscrew, and demonstrated how to use it by opening the bottle for me.  I ran back across the street, now prepared to be a kitchen celebrity.  I smile whenever I see that little paperback.       


(Pride, however, goeth before a fall, and sometimes a little imagination is too much.  Smelt season arrived in Chicago, and I decided to do something with the cheap little fishes showing up in the Hyde Park Co-op.  As a kitchen celebrity in the making, I was ready to experiment with shortcuts.  What could be shorter than pouring a can of Campbell’s Tomato Soup over the smelts, adding a splash of the superannuated wine souring in the refrigerator, covering the pan and simmering for fifteen minutes or so?  They were little fishes, after all.  When the time came, I lifted the lid, to discover a scene worthy of Hieronymus Bosch’s hell paintings:  little dead fish bodies floated on the top of a bubbling, lurid red sea! It didn’t smell too good, either.  But I still smile to remember my own gag of disgust.  As tight as my budget was, the dish went down the toilet.  I always remember that too whenever my eye lights fondly on Morrison Wood’s Specialty Cooking with Wine.)



The special pleasures of Japanese cookbooks for a long time were a difficult subject for me, with uneasy undertones.  “Japan” always implied “parents” to me, because they were the ones who took me to Japan with them to live for a number of years of my childhood.  And so pleasure had to be taken carefully.  The earliest Japanese cookbooks I remember were ones my mother had collected.  They were 1950 first attempts at Japanese postwar courting of positive American opinion.  It was as though the Japanese cooking gurus, in collaboration with the Japan Travel Bureau, had decided to redeem their nation’s honor:  “The ‘samurai spirit’ wasn’t a very good export; let’s see if ‘Zen and the art of Japanese cookery’ does better.”  They were part of an earnest and honest effort to replace negative images of Japan with the beauties and subtleties of Japanese food culture.  But because they stood in my memory somewhere in loco parentis, those cookbooks—and my thoughts of Japanese food in general—were complex.  I tended to treat them with respect and distance.


Then through my growing American collection I discovered the joy of cookbooks.  Soon I found myself living in Japan again.  Now I need not hold back, I could let my imagination soar, let my heart beat fast. The late-1960s ten-volume “Color Cooking” set published by the “Housewife and Family Life Company” signaled my liberation.  The two volumes I liked best were “Tsukemono” (pickles) and “Obentτ” (packed lunches), things I had never found especially interesting at home. 


How could pickles be exciting?  Ah, the lure of the exotic, in glorious, glistening color:  all the green things and orange and white things and purple things that Japanese housewives pickled; flowers and buds, spring shoots, autumn weeds; animal, vegetable, and mineral (if you include the nutritional content of sea vegetables).  Those full-color photos of disembodied hands packing household-sized barrels with wilted cabbage and salt like wet sand and tiny red peppers and translucent beige slices of something unidentifiable—how exciting they were!  Look at all the things you could put overnight into the nuka pot to have pickles for breakfast the next morning!  (In the old days, friends told me, every bride’s mother gave her a starter of the miso-like fermented rice bran mash from her natal home, to start off her own marriage kitchen.  It could be odoriferous for months from starter until her pot settled down to full flavor and mild scent; hence an old nickname for new brides:  nuka-kusai, or “stinking of nuka.”)  Would I ever make any pickles myself?  Of course not—when the neighborhood food stores had such a rich variety.  But oh, the photos—the excitement, the buzz!


And lunchboxes?  Well, I had of course learned the principle of making nutritious meals look attractive—thanks to General Foods Kitchens.  But American lunches are pretty penny ante compared to the color, texture and design in Japanese lunchboxes!  Here, in Volume 9, the  “Sunflower Lunchbox”: two tiny hamburgers topped with slices of hardboiled egg yolk for color form the center of the flower head, surrounded by carrot-slice petals, above a fence of little cheese sticks and cucumber logs, with a little flower-like bouquet of radish pickles in the corner, on a bed of rice sprinkled lightly with green peas and little lettuce leaves tucked in for color accent!  The recipe tells us this will take only 20 minutes, assuming you have the rice cooked already.  (To paraphrase Dylan Thomas from A Child’s Christmas in Wales,  “Easy Hobbi-Games for Little Chefs, complete with instructions!  Oh, easy for Julia!”)  Or consider something for adults:  “Sweet Egg and Meat Lunchbox.”  The name hardly even hints at the simple but gorgeously colored construction of sweetened scrambled egg, sautιed ground pork, 2 little Brussels sprouts, 3 cauliflower pieces, 2 tomato chunks and a little cluster of black beans completely covering the bed of rice.  How different from Big Macs, even if in teriyaki style (which is a Japan-based burger option)!  


And new excitement has come into the Japanese cookbook world.  Over thirty years after those “upgrade your skills” books, we are in a world where new cooks have no cooking skills to upgrade.  We have the virgin cook, which hardly used to exist in Japan.  As the old joke had it, what did such a person make for dinner?  Reservations.  The girl was too busy hanging out in the shopping malls and entertainment districts to learn anything from her mother; now she has an apartment.  The guy is still single but has decided to move to an apartment on his own instead of continuing to let Mom take care of him.  They are tired of boiling water for instant ramen.  “Hang in there—living alone,” the covers exclaim, on the two “Better Home” books for neophytes. Cooking, First Grade and Cooking, Second Grade have graphic step-by-step photographs, with lots of disembodied hands holding, cutting, turning, wringing, drying.  The First Grade is truly ground-up.  It starts you with how to hold knife and position chopping block so as not to cut off the ends of your fingers when you chop onions.  There are lots of little hints:  “Draw a little fish with indelible ink to mark the fish/meat side of the cutting board from the veggie/fruit side;” “When washing the chopping board after using it for meat or fish, rinse first with cold water and only then with hot—if you start with hot, the protein hardens and sticks to the board”).  [Bet you never thought about that!] The text and pictures go on all the way to washing and drying at the end (“Wash chopsticks carefully one by one—if you bunch them up and knock them against each other, the lacquer will chip;” “For the stains on tea- and coffee-cups, soak them in a basin with a weak bleach solution”).  In between is the basic food book, which in its very organization gives an accurate picture of the nation’s ideal diet:  28 pages on kinds and how-tos of fish; 70 pages of veggies; only 19 pages all together for meat/eggs/dairy (including how to cut a hole in a raw quail egg so you can serve it in the shell to garnish a dish).  No wonder they weren’t fat until they started eating steak and ice cream. The pictures are intimate and glistening, and they show everything.  For example, four pages are devoted to squid:  what a good whole one looks like, with arrows to the different body parts and racy text revealing how to choose a good one (“blackish-red, translucent, round, glossy body; eyes not sunken; when you feel the legs, the suckers should seem to stick to you”); how to disassemble one and strip off its thin skin (“If you hold it with a wet cloth and put salt on your fingers it won’t slip”); where to detach the legs at a spot just under the eyes; how to remove the beak, cut off the suckers, trim the skin from the legs so they won’t cause spitting when you put them in hot oil;  how to remove the gut sack carefully so the ink doesn’t leak onto the meat; three fancy ways to cut the meat so it’s easier to eat, either raw and cooked (“fine cross-hatch, pinecone, Chinese curl”); and finally, a simple recipe:  “squid and broccoli stir-fry.”  Any boy or girl can do that!  Right after that come two pages on how to bone and fillet a sardine.



There is something both charming and a little sad about bilingual Japanese-English editions of cookbooks.  There is the search for authenticity, from either the Japanese or American side:  how to teach your maid to make Tuna-Noodle Casserole, or how to arrange the sukiyaki plate when you’re back home and no longer have a maid to do it.  This is for training to run a foreign household in Japan; or it lets the American show the folks back home how civilized and domesticated Japanese cuisine is.  Or it might be to help the Japanese abroad have a taste of home in the unfamiliar supermarkets that don’t cut meat right or stock the essential dried fish.   The publisher of the bilingually titled Nihon ryτri/ 100 Recipes from Japanese Cooking reveals its secret agenda:  “Have fun with materials you can read naturally, and English will become a part of you naturally!”  In other words, bilingual editions are part of the century-and-a-half effort of Japan to make friends with the rest of the world and practice that impossible language, English! 


(Sidebar:  But the “having fun” part of bilingual books is important, too, and they are a major genre of Japanese publications.  One of my favorite little books from graduate school research-abroad days was, Chϋgaku Eigo de porno ga yomeru!  (You Too Can Read Pornography in English with Only High –School Level Language Study!).  There were eight chapters, each a section from a different English-language pornographic book; at the bottom of each page was a vocabulary list of “new words and phrases in English” and each sample had a chapter-end discussion of content, grammar and language usage in Japanese.  In fact, this invaluable little textbook aroused in me a desire that will probably never be satisfied, since neither Alibris nor lists it:  that is, to find and read the rest of “The Sins of Johnny Solo,” only eight memorable pages of which were reproduced.)



Okay, if the Japanese have nuka fermenting in the kitchen, I have sourdough, and one important subset of my cookbooks is sourdough cookery. By this time, I know as much about the care and feeding of sourdough as the cookbooks do, but at least they give me other ideas on how to use (or imagine using) the starter, beyond the standard sourdough bread. The pot of sourdough starter in my refrigerator is, to my knowledge, almost forty years old.  That is, long ago, when I lived in Seattle, I received a starter pot of its ancestor yeast cells from my cousin, and I’ve kept it going since then.  She had gotten hers from friends in Fairbanks, Alaska, some years before.  She didn’t know how long they had had it before then, or whom they had gotten it from.  But that means that I can trace my starter back to genuine working Alaskan sourdough—as distinguished from effete touristy souvenir instant powder packet sourdough.  (Of course, to be honest, that too is as valid a way to keep the starter; one always protects one’s own starter by drying and/or freezing some of it, to reconstitute in case of disaster.  I draw the distinction only because I’m a sourdough snob.)  I carefully hand-carried the live pot with me when I moved from Seattle to Chicago.


Here’s the excitement:  I know that in the dark of night, or in the blaze of summer, there is an innocent bubbly colony sitting there quietly in the fridge, ready and responsive to any approach.  Give it a little flour, a little water, and it will lithely stretch its little yeasty muscles to build a lacy structure as clever as a spider web out of the strings of gluten in the flour, and it will fill the little storage cells formed by the gluten strings with carbon dioxide to puff up the colony, and fill the surrounding air with the subtle but rich scent of fermentation.  Yeast metabolism is simple:  eat flour, excrete alcohol, burp carbon dioxide.  The alcohol makes that lovely scent when you open the pot.  The carbon dioxide makes the earth move.


Of course, when the flour is all digested, the alcohol threatens to poison the colony.  Rain or shine, you do have to keep replenishing the flour.  Sometimes when you forget to feed it for too long, it starts to look pretty skuzzy.  The books all say to feed it at least once a week, but who has that kind of time and undivided attention?  I know from experience that it is hardly fazed by once a month.  But after two or more, it gets kind of grayish, the syrup-like liquid (which is used-up alcohol) rises to the top, and the flour mud at the bottom seemingly has no bubbles of life in it.  Help—what to do?  Pour off the liquid and most of the sludge, reserving a couple of tablespoons of the cleanest part at the bottom.  Put that in a clean bowl, add fresh flour and water, and let sit.  In a few hours, or ten or twenty, a few little bubbles will start to show on the surface.  Pour off almost all of that, add fresh flour and water, and let sit.  Now after a fewer number of hours, there will be more bubbles.  Pour that off, repeat the process two or three or even more times, and the starter will come back to vigorous life:  light and bubbly, fresh smelling, sexy little starter, ready to go!  Don’t use milk, as many books suggest, because that can go bad.  Just flour and pure Lake Michigan water is the best combination for transplanted Alaskan sourdough starter.  (When I first got the starter, I had a stove with a window in the oven.  I would sit on the floor in front of the oven and watch it bake:  see it rise, rise, start to harden, turn golden brown—it was almost as exciting a magic as any you could get by yourself.)



When my friend Elise got married about six years ago in North Carolina, we her friends gathered from around the country to celebrate with her.  We stayed at a lovely bed-and-breakfast called the Fox Trot Inn in Tryon, NC.  As is my practice, I brought back with me the cookbook they offered.  Published in Tryon in 1995, Cooking with Reckless Abandon by Betty Alice Daugherty, part owner of Fox Trot Inn, has since become the source of some of my favorite party foods.  One gorgeous recipe has been particularly successful:  Pesto Cheesecake, which I usually make in winter with pesto from my garden’s basil the previous season and frozen to tide us over until the next season.


Last year at Sam’s Club I came across a cookbook that was new to me, although it had a1996 copyright date. Its alluring title was, Celebrate Chicago:  A Taste of Our Town, and it was issued by the Junior League of Chicago.  I bought it and when I was at home alone, I began to leaf through the “Starters and Beverages,” when what to my wondering eyes should appear on page 28 but “Pesto Cheesecake”!  I ran to get my Cooking with Reckless Abandon, and with pounding head, compared the two recipes.  Except for minor wording changes, they were identical, even to the “1/8 teaspoon cayenne” and the “Serves 18”!  It is remotely possible that they both got it from a third source—but then, shouldn’t that chef be recognized, at least by the Junior League?  I couldn’t help wondering which of the eighty-nine names plus Junior League Board of Directors listed on the “Acknowledgements” page had stayed at the Fox Trot Inn.  Surely Rick Bayless, credited (along with Jim Brust and Robert Adrian) with providing props, or Rick Koebler, whose Scarborough Faire provided flowers, hadn’t contributed it.  For certain, Betty Alice Daugherty was not among the names listed.  How many other kitchen celebrities were similarly not recognized in the volume?  I was so disheartened that my desire faded and I haven’t had the energy to return.  The thrill is gone.


And then there are the Ravinia cookbooks: Noteworthy (with my favorite recipe for sorrel soup), Noteworthy Two, and Noteworthy: Celebrating 100 Years of Ravinia.  I was very excited to see the third volume in the gift shop last summer.  During intermission, in the crowded kiosk I took a copy of the Celebration off a pile, passed it over some other shoppers’ heads to the lady at the cash register, and asked, “Is this a new collection?”  In the din, she probably couldn’t hear what I was saying; she just nodded and took my credit card.  What a disappointment to discover when I got home that it was the same first volume reprinted, with just an attractive new cover.  I could give it to someone as a gift, but then I wouldn’t have the new cover.  Oh well, I can think of it as a contribution to the Festival.



It was actually my monthly-growing collection of food magazines and catalogues that first prompted a friend years ago to refer to it as my “food porn,” and it doesn’t even enter into the number of my cookbooks.  I subscribe to Gourmet, Bon Appιtit, Cook’s Illustrated (with its wonderful line drawings instead of photographs), Eating Well (in both of its incarnations), Cooking Light and Cuisine at Home.  And so monthly or bimonthly an unending stream of ostensibly more ephemeral diversions and entertainments enters my home.  (I say “ephemeral” because some people toss them out after culling the few interesting recipes each month.  I keep mine.  I have a complete run of Gourmet since 1973, except for a brief, mad period in 1982 when I decided to simplify my life and didn’t subscribe for a while—until I realized I couldn’t live without it.  Clearly, I was not well at the time.)


There are two catalogues that make my heart beat especially fast:  Penzey’s Spices and The Baker’s Catalogue.  Yes, one can order things, and I do; but it’s the catalogues themselves that raise my blood pressure.    If you know The Spice House in Evanston, you probably know that the proprietors are offspring and offspring-in-law of the original Wisconsin Penzeys.  If you know cooking magazines, you know that Penzey’s is the most-listed source for spices by mail order in the U.S.  We are by no means friends of the family, and the business was thriving long before we found out about it.  But we have known it since the days it was mostly a mail-order business and we had to drive up to Milwaukee to do our spice shopping at the mail-order building in an industrial park outside the city.  This was before they opened the fancy Brookfield, WI retail store, and then spread around the country, including Oak Park, IL.  Every issue of the catalogue offers something new, but the old regulars, too, provide joy, solace and comfort. (The other reason we used to drive all the way to Wauwatosa instead of doing our shopping by mail was the frozen custard stand across from the mail order building.)   There is a limit to how many spices one can buy in a year.  But I can leaf through the catalogues again and again, poring over the photographs (including pepper on the branch in Sarawak, vanilla on the vine in Mexico, and harvesting nutmegs in India), or luxuriate in the rich prose.  Consider the two-page discussion of cinnamon that tells us that what we in the U.S. think of as “cinnamon” is actually Cassia, while the special flavor of English and Mexican sweets comes from the citrusy Cinnamon--with the list of what kinds you can order from Penzey’s:  Chinese Cassia, Extra Fancy Vietnamese Cassia, Korintje Cassia, Cassia Cinnamon Chunks, Cinnamon Sugar, Ceylon Cinnamon, Ceylon Soft Stick Cinnamon, and Cinnamon Sticks.  (Korintje Cassia comes from Sumatra in Indonesia; following the horrendous earthquake and tsunami, the crop may have been affected for years to come.  But we can trust that the Penzeys will let us know in a future catalogue, just as they happily told us several years ago of the re-availability of Vietnamese Cassia after so many ugly years.) 


And Baker’s Catalogue—what to say about Baker’s Catalogue?  The cake pans and candy molds, the equipment and utensils, the various King Arthur flours, the Polish stoneware, the stirring and baking machines, the grain and seed mixes, the citrus oils, the fillings and toppings, the many kinds of chocolates, the nuts, nut flours and nut pastes, the twenty-nine bread mixes—it is a sensory overload!  And each new catalogue brings me the warmth of remembrance:  When I got married several years ago, a friend made the wedding cake for us, and she needed fondant for the frosting and decorations.  Gasp!—Baker’s Catalogue did not carry it; but I called them (in Vermont on their 800-number), and the lovely Vermont lady I spoke to gave me the 800-number of a purveyor in Minneapolis who could provide it.  Now I look at page 48 in the latest Baker’s Catalogue and what do I see?  “Item #1194   Fondant:  ready-to-use, ultra-smooth roll-out icing for wedding and other ‘fancy’ cakes.  Enough for a 9-inch double-layer cake plus a moderate amount of molded decorations.  KOSHER. 1 1/2 lb.  $6.95.”  It’s better than telephone sex—they not only listen, but also reach out to their customers!  Life is rich.




So many things yet to touch upon, so little time!  There are the restaurant cookbooks, among them The Palmer House (1940); Lόchow’s (1952); Antoine’s (1979, in honor of an early favorite book, Frances Parkinson Keyes’ Dinner at Antoine’s, but I also have eaten there); Chez Panisse Menus (1982, and the memory of the dinner there, where I choked on a piece of truffle—kind of exciting in its own way!); Spiaggia (2004—with memories of the wonderful wine drunk there, an experience the later bottle from Schaefer’s in Evanston alas did not repeat). 


There is history and geography:  Charleston Receipts (1950, from their Junior League); Flavors of Dubuque (1970, issued by the Women’s Auxiliary of the Dubuque Symphony Orchestra); Once Upon a Thyme (1982, The Women’s Club of Evanston).  There are the dozens of exotic cuisines to be visited in imagination:  Moroccan, Persian, lots and lots of Chinese, Mexican, Hungarian, Vietnamese, Italian, French, Samoan, Spanish, Thai, Greek, Russian, Canadian, Portuguese, Turkish, Dutch, Indian—oh, and yes, American regional.


There are the books by the famous chefs, for example, The Chef’s Secret Cookbook by a local celebrity some of you may remember:  Louis Szathmαry, whose Bakery Restaurant  (and his wife’s bar, The Cave in Old Town) were among the few lights in the dark ages before Cuisine happened to Chicago.  Chef Louis’ signature Beef Wellington, and my favorite, the Oxtail Stew, may not seem buzz generating now, but they were in the mid-1960s.  And here too, I feel a special glow that goes beyond restaurant and cookbook.  Chef Louis occasionally gave cooking demonstrations at Marshall Field’s downtown in those days.  Whether he was being paid by Farberware or not, he certainly talked up their cookware.  And so, when I wanted to give myself a reward for surviving the first year at my first job, I went out and bought myself an eleven-piece set of Farberware.  Thirty years later, they are still my primary pots and sautι pans.  The chrome outside still shines brightly, and the solid steel-jacketed aluminum bottoms are still unwarped, as Chef Louis promised.     


There are the Holy Grails, one found, one still sought.  Found: the missing Volume 11 of the 12-volume Women’s Day Encyclopedia of Cooking (1966-67) that I had assembled in bits and pieces over several years, except for that last one; I found it in Seattle at my boss’s house, and his wife gave it to me, perhaps seeing the fever in my eyes.  I feel a sense of completion every time I look at it, even though I use the set only for Gazpacho (that very Vol. 11) and Poule au Riz (Vol. 3).  Still sought is the source cookbook from which comes my one of my favorite recipes of all times:  “Uruguayan Salad” of Romaine lettuce and avocado with lemon-thyme vinaigrette dressing.  I have only a small yellowed newspaper clipping; the recipe came from a book review decades ago in the food section of one of the Chicago papers (I don’t even remember which, and type font is no clue), discussing a new cookbook of South American cooking by a new young chef.  I’m sure he had other wonders to offer, but I didn’t buy the book at the time, and since I remember neither the chef’s name nor the book’s title nor even the date (except to know that it was well before newspapers started computer-indexing their recipes), it’s unlikely I’ll ever find it.


There are the other famous

names, like a convocation of the saints, only tied to indulgence and decadence.  If any of you are “foodies,” you too will feel a buzz just at the mention of them: Ada Boni, Penelope Casas, Dean and DeLuca, James Beard, Marcella Hazan and son Guiliano, Alma Lach, Maida Heatter, Michael Field, Jennie Grossinger, George Lang, Martha Stewart, Jehane Benoit, Jacques Pιpin, Elizabeth David, Diana Kennedy, Paul Prudhomme, Madhur Jaffrey, Biba Caggiano; the two Alices (Waters and B. Toklas), Marian Morash  (whose Victory Gardens Cookbook is one of my standards), Bert Greene, Dione Lucas, Bernard Clayton, Patricia Wells, Sheila Lukins and Julie Rosso, Christopher Kimball; the “natural food” mavens—Frances Moore Lappι, Adelle Davis, Jane Kinderleherer,   Mollie Katzen and the Moosewood Collective, and their brother,  Edward Espe Brown (perhaps less well-known than his cookbook, The Tassajara Bread Book);  and everyone’s favorite girl,  Betty Crocker.  And so many others.


And, for Americans, the guide, teacher, shining beacon.  The Joy of Cooking first appeared in 1931; the 1967 edition was my standard for years (along with Craig Claiborne’s New York Times Cookbook).  First Irma Rombauer, then joined by her daughter, Marion Rombauer Becker, now shepherded by her grandson, Ethan Becker, it has spoken of and to America for almost three-quarters of a century.  Irma and Marion taught me to make the jams and jellies of my foremothers.  Mutatis mutandis, in Ethan’s latest edition, young cooks can find out about jicama and cherimoya, but they can no longer learn how to make jams and jellies.   But the line drawings in my dog-eared old copy even show how to know when the jelly is done—that magic moment between 200 and 220 degrees when the syrup “sheets” from the spoon—and they remain as live and juicy and vivid in my imagination as the taste of last fall’s crabapple jelly.