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cookbook gift memories

(post, Sarah Gilbert)

primary-image, l

Kim asked me to write about a cookbook gift I'd received, and as is my wont, my story came late and long. I have many cookbooks I love and want others to love, too, but few given to me as gifts; and though I've received several cookbooks as prizes or review copies (thanks Marisa and Culinate!) lately, those are already on 'the list.' So I had to reach back to find good recommendations. When I did, I was surprised how much those gifts now influence my life, given the huge changes that have occurred in my food life since the late 1990s, when I received them. Here is what I wrote:

Two titles stand out among cookbooks I've received as gifts; both predated my current fanaticism for local, seasonal foods, but both would turn out to be prescient and far more useful than I'd realize.

The first was A Well-Seasoned Appetite by Molly O'Neill. It came out in 1997, and was in a few 'best of the year' lists in 1998. I'd desired it, but a pretty new $20 cookbook seemed a luxury out of the scope of my lifestyle as a newly-minted business school student. Then came our cohort's holiday party. Our tight group of 60 high-strung MBA candidates had decided to hold a gift exchange. But not just any gift exchange: one perfect for Wharton, where a good percentage of our classmates would end up casually handling millions of dollars every day on trading floors and exchange desks. A 'White Elephant' gift swap, where participants bring a wrapped gift valued at $20 and draw numbers to decide who goes first. Number one picks a gift, then number two can either take number one's gift, or pick a new one. And so on. Imagine this with nearly 60 participants, each one more of a sharp-eyed future business strategist than the one before.

How would I pick the right gift, one that would be desired by my friends and classmates? How would I end up with something that I wanted? Shopping in downtown Philly, I came upon a bookstore and suddenly knew my path was clear: I bought the cookbook. I wrapped it and took it to the party, drawing #23. When my turn came, I picked my own gift, unwrapped it, and sat satisfied while my cohort mates did fierce battle over gift cards to Barnes & Noble and CD Emporium. As I suspected, no other future CEO wanted a quixotic seasonal cookbook.

For years, I didn't cook much from the cookbook; many of the recipes call for pricey cuts of meat and seafood, and seasonal produce far above my price range as a student. And after graduation, I was far too busy to allow time to forage for wild anything or properly prepare favas. But now it's both inspiration and market (or garden) shopping list; with the time and budget I now devote to food, it's ideal for my lifestyle. Her essays on sour cherries and asparagus hunting -- two things that now grow in my own yard and require only the investment of love, compost and time -- along with their recipes are worth the price of the book alone.

The second is the Pepperidge Farm Cookbook by Margaret Rudkin, bought for me by my mother for Christmas around 1999. Yes, the Pepperidge Farm of the stuffing mix and the poppyseed cakes in the grocery store freezer; no, it's nothing like it would seem. It's full of farm recipes infused with both American and Irish culture, and every time I open the chock-full book I find a surprise that's eerily appropriate for what's in my kitchen right that instant. Today: quince cream, which seems a version of a meringue made with plenty of quince puree, lots of practical instruction on process, and no new-fangled kitchen tools at all. "Rub through a fine sieve, using a wooden spoon," the recipe says. "Beat egg whites with a rotary beater." A particular treasure is an enormous chapter on cooking from antique cookbooks, in which she translates recipes like 'quaking pudding' and 'preserved grapes' into modern language and measurements. In the last chapter, "Ireland," she gives practical recipes for things like soda bread and Irish country ham, "serve with hot Raisin Sauce (p. 26)." Yum.