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Cooking by the book

(article, Roz Cummins)

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Like many who grew up and learned to cook in the 1960s and 1970s, I cut my culinary teeth on [%bookLink code=0764526340 "Betty Crocker's Cookbook for Boys and Girls"]. Alongside each recipe was an earnest testimonial: a pencil drawing of a little boy or girl saying, “This was easy to make and it sure tasted good!” 

One night a few years ago, while I was having dinner with a local chef, we discovered that we’d both had the Betty Crocker cookbook when we were kids. 

“Did you make the castle?” he asked me, excitedly. 
“The sheet cake with upside-down ice-cream cones for turrets and a candy-bar drawbridge? Yes.” 
“Me, too,” he replied, dreamy and satisfied.

People become cooks in many different ways. For some, it’s a natural part of growing up, a kind of osmosis. They hang around in the kitchen, tasting foods, listening to stories, and watching family members cook. For others, it doesn’t happen until they are thrust out into the cold, cruel, dinnerless world, and are suddenly required to produce meals for themselves. 

[%image joy float=left width=300 credit="Photo © Culinate"]

So they learn to cook from roommates, books, magazines, TV shows, and recipes printed on packaged food. They may also begin experimenting with new ingredients, flavors, and techniques. Pretty soon, they have a repertoire of dishes and a degree of comfort in the kitchen. 

For me, it was all of the above. I watched my mom and dad, learned from friends, and read — and eventually bought — a lot of books. When I look at my cookbook collection, I see not just books but my autobiography. From the first cookbooks I owned, to my most recent acquisitions, they tell a lifelong tale of my education in food and cooking.

After learning the ropes with Betty Crocker, I started reading the other cookbooks around the house. There was an aging, dog-eared copy of my great-aunt Karlie’s The Kitchen of Tomorrow from the 1950s, which was so terribly outdated by the time I got around to reading it that all the pictures of the Appliances of Tomorrow already looked retro. 

I ordered The Peanuts Cookbook from the Scholastic Book Fair when I was in fourth grade. I couldn’t believe that a combination of two of my favorite things in the world — cooking and cartoons — not only existed but was within my grasp. Never before had I actually gotten anything that I wanted so desperately. I waited anxiously for the day the Scholastic books would arrive. 

A few days after receiving my copy of the cookbook (which featured a shocking green-and-deep-pink color scheme that would  make even Lilly Pulitzer shake her head and say, “No, no! Much too loud!”), our principal got on the P.A. system and warned the whole school against the book. 

“Do not attempt to make Lucy’s Lemon Squares,” he intoned. “They explode. I repeat. They explode.”

[%image peanuts float=right caption="Roz's new (old) book. Do the Lemon Squares explode?"]

Of course, every fourth grader immediately translated this into, “Attempt to make Lucy’s Lemon Squares! They explode!” I assume there was some sort of vinegar-and-baking-soda reaction involved, or perhaps it was just an early urban legend. I rashly told my mom about the warning and she prevented me from making the squares before I could discover the truth for myself. Damn.

Shortly thereafter, I was given a book about making ice cream with funky 1970s graphics that made me feel very modern and in the swing of things. I also read a few of the beautifully photographed Time-Life cookbooks profiling food from other countries. From the book on France, I made some kind of apple tart for French class, thus getting out of having to write a book report. (Although I still had to carve a highly inaccurate rendering of the l’Arc de Triomphe out of a bar of Ivory soap with the rest of the class. Why?)

I started reading Gourmet magazine when I was a mother’s helper at a neighbor’s house, and I acquired a working vocabulary of French terms and formal dishes. I learned a lot about American food and cooking by reading my father’s collection of cookbooks by James Beard. 

One of his books, James Beard's American Cookery, was so thick (877 pages) that I couldn’t read it while holding it in my hands like a regular book. It made the Bible look puny by comparison. I had to set it down on a table and then stand up and look down on the pages from above. Meanwhile, Beard on Bread started me on a bread-making kick that lasted until I baked bread professionally, after which I never baked bread again.

In high school I began to buy cookbooks about health foods and vegetarian cooking. First came [%bookLink code=0679427147 "The Vegetarian Epicure"], by Anna Thomas; from Thomas, I learned not only a lot about cooking, particularly Indian cooking, but also about another way of living, one very different from what I’d seen in the quiet, conservative town where I grew up. The book even mentioned passing a joint after meals! I am probably the only teenager in history who felt she had to hide a cookbook under her bed.

In college I got my hands on a copy of The Moosewood Cookbook, joined a food co-op, and learned to cook like a hippie. Soon I could tell tahini from tamari, tofu from tempeh. But none of this stopped me from cooking with sugar. 

The summer between my junior and senior year of college, my boyfriend had to go to Oklahoma for several weeks to help his uncle bring in the wheat harvest. I missed him so much that I cooked my way through Paula Peck’s book The Art of Fine Baking. My roommates were happy, and I learned a lot, but in my romantic desolation I couldn’t bring myself to eat very much of the cakes I was baking. I’d taste them just enough to see if they had a moist crumb and how the different flavors came through, but that was as much as I could manage.

It was also in college that I achieved my personal best in the Art of Fine Procrastination. One night, in a flurry of non-thesis-writing activities, I decided to make falafel. From scratch. At 3 a.m. (Moosewood, page 116). 

When I moved into a house with friends after college, I started branching out. I looked for books describing other cuisines and unfamiliar ingredients. I also found books that described foods I was familiar with but explained them in greater detail. And of course I bought myself a copy of The Joy of Cooking, or as one of my friends refers to it, “Aunt Irma.”

Today, many cookbooks later, I have one cookbook that I consider the most precious of all: a little notebook with a multicolored fabric cover and blank pages into which I have copied down some of my family’s recipes, from my grandmother’s recipes for maple charlotte to some of my own weirder inventions, like Soup d’Elvis, a peanut-butter-and-banana soup seasoned with cardamom that I invented one day when that was all I had in the house. 

I still have most of the cookbooks that influenced me, but somewhere along the way The Peanuts Cookbook went AWOL. Recently, I found a copy on eBay and ordered it. Finally, the mystery of the exploding dessert would be solved. 

The book arrived in the mail today, and I am going to test the recipe for Lucy’s Lemon Squares this weekend. If you never see my byline again, you’ll know that they really do explode. 

Good grief!

p(bio). Roz Cummins is a food writer based in Boston.

peanuts, l

reference-image, l

joy, l