Our history in cookbooks

Recently we stumbled on something in the back of one of our cookbooks: a list of meals we had served to friends in Boston (where we lived after graduation), along with a few editorial comments. On a separate page were notes on wines we had purchased. Wine was new for us, and we had such a limited budget all of the bottles were inexpensive, yet we took our tasting notes very seriously.

We laughed so hard when we discovered these notations. But we were also reminded of friends from long ago, and happy times when everything was new.

“Gretchen Z to dinner: onion soup (Bandy secret recipe), champagne, beer, bread and GZ brought great salad. Orange-vanilla sorbet for dessert.”

“Jim G to dinner: tacos with beans, chicken (Jim couldn’t eat), lettuce, tomatoes, cheese, onions, beer, Bishops cake (burned), and orange and vanilla Haagan-Daz and coffee.”

Those are by no means the only annotations in our cookbooks. With every recipe we like, we make notes because we almost always make some adjustments (seasonings, more vegetables and less meat if meat is called for, less oil). I don’t think we’ve ever made the same dish exactly the same way, but if we like the results of our tinkering we try to record what we’ve done.

My favorite cookbooks are those where the author’s voice comes through. Mrs. Bentley’s cookbook is one of the best examples, because it is also handwritten in her perfect penmanship and she offers a wealth of advice. Mark Bittman provides great context for his recipes, as does Jane Brody.

In yesterday’s paper was a nice story called “Between the Recipes, Scribbles Speak Volumes.” Kate Murphy writes: “Ghosts linger in old cookbooks, possibly the most annotated form of literature. People who wouldn’t dream of writing in other books don’t hesitate to edit (‘add ½ t. cayenne’), write reviews (‘never again’) and even note special occasions (‘anniversary party ‘84’) next to recipes.”


Our cooking (and eating) life can be traced by perusing the recipe pages with the most stains, and the margin notes with our improvements.  Maybe it’s time to revisit some old favorites.

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