I started reading cookbooks for fun because Lauren Ko’s Pieometry caught my eye on a browsing shelf at our local library. It is a beautiful volume full of gorgeous pies. For some reason, it hadn’t previously occurred to me that you could check cookbooks out from the library, but all of a sudden doing so seemed like a brilliant way both to get to know the work of a pie queen whose Instagram account has given me so much joy and inspiration, and to engage my sleep-deprived brain in low-stress, creative ways.
Sure enough, paging through Pieometry at night before bed was both relaxation and revelation, and got my baking brain humming without the pressure of making any concrete plans to actually bake something. Instead, I pondered Ko’s flavor combinations, admired the photos of exquisitely produced geometric toppings, and went to sleep with visions of passionfruit, lemon curd and chocolate mousse dancing in my head.
As the holder of a degree in fiction I’m a fierce believer in the power of a good narrative. The trouble is, a good narrative can also be the antidote to a good night’s rest. I love going to be with a good book, but if the book’s too good I won’t want to set it aside. A bad narrative – a terrible book – can be even worse for me: too boring, and my mind gets distracted by the 4,356 items still on my to-do list and the anxious worries, both real and blown out of proportion, from my day.
The narratives in cookbooks, however, are long enough — bite-sized, if you will — to grab your attention and whet your appetite for whatever recipe follows, but also short enough that they don’t get boring. The point isn’t to bore the reader with too many extraneous details; the point is make sure all the relevant information is known and understood, whether that means a key tip about how to whip cream or a unique anecdote about the world from which the recipe hails.
(People on the Internet love to poo-poo all those online recipes that begin with 700 words of backstory about the food blogger’s family. To me, though, that stuff is pure gold. These family stories, these glimpses at someone’s grandmother or their morning rituals, help explain why a particular recipe matters. I love that context, probably because I think everything in life can be enhanced with a little more detail about why something — anything — is important. Don’t just show me something, tell me a story about it. Give me some characters, some tension, some denouement.)
In graduate school I wrote a series of papers about the technology and cultural significance of rotary eggbeaters for a material culture class, and that’s pretty much all you need to know about me: I want to know what something is, how and why it works, and how it got to *be* in the first place, and if that thing belongs in the kitchen, if its significance rests in the hard work of women, so much the better. I loved reading historical cookbooks for that series of research papers, so it shouldn’t have taken me so long to start reading cookbooks of any kind for pleasure. It shouldn’t have taken me so long to realize that I could engage both the baker and the book-lady in me at once.
Whenever I can, I spend weekend mornings in our kitchen baking muffins or bread. The trouble is, kitchen time takes actual time, and time is limited resource. I will never be the kind of baker who bakes my way through a single cookbook, “Julie and Julia”-style, because I don’t want to waste limited resources on a project just because, for a result I’m not excited about.
(This is partly why I love the musical “Waitress” so much. The main character, Jenna, sings about how she bakes her feelings into the pies she makes for the diner where she works. The opening number is essentially the first three paragraphs of a food blog recipe — and we get it all, sugar, butter, flour, heartache:
Everyone wants to know what’s inside
And I always tell them
But I feel more than words can say
You wanna know what’s inside?
Simple question, so then what’s the answer?
My whole life is in here
In this kitchen baking
What a mess I’m making.)
Reading a cookbook from cover to cover, especially one from the library, is free and freeing. It’s an introduction to technique — like Yossy Arefi’s Snacking Cakes — but it can also be an introduction to a place — like Jessica B. Harris’s Martha’s Vineyard Table — or a time — Rae Katherine Eighmey’s Abraham Lincoln in the Kitchen — or a culture — see all of the above. The right details are right there in the ingredient list and the instructions, a whole life — a whole world, even — in there, messy, imperfect, and delicious.