Collage by Wendy Goodfriend
Do you remember your mother’s favorite cookbook? My own mother, raised in the 1950s, married with children in the 1960s and 1970s, a working mom with a vegetarian husband and teenagers in the 1980s, had dozens of cookbooks on her kitchen shelves, each a talisman of a particular moment. To me, each of them is as much a part of her as her scarves and shoes, her Estee Lauder perfumes, the coral lipsticks and gold foil of half-unrolled tubes of Certs always in her pocketbook.
Now, I imagine, there are moms who love their books from Rachael Ray and Paula Deen, who gravy-stain their Emerils and their Inas. But I made my very first cookies “all by myself” from a recipe in the Joy of Cooking, the late-50s version that still had hand-drawn illustrations explaining how to skin a squirrel and decorate an Easter bunny cake. The recipe? Rolled Caramel Cookies, fussy, waferlike things that had to be swiftly removed from the baking sheet and wrapped into a curl around the handle of a wooden spoon while still warm. Even then, I wasn’t happy in the kitchen unless I was trying out something just a little beyond me.
I watched, then helped, my mother make the perfect Banana Tea Bread from Craig Claibourne’s New York Times Cookbook, whose austere layout was complemented by black-and-white photographs of an equally severe hauteur, presenting every veal roast like an affair of state, complete with bone-china consomme cups and silver candelabra. For dinner parties, we tried out the poached, stuffed sole with tricky beurre blanc from Mastering the Art of French Cooking and the chocolate mousse from The French Chef Cookbook.
Pretty soon, though, Mom loosened up, making homemade granola, whipping up Tiger’s Milk shakes, and growing her own basil and tomatoes in the backyard. Now into the kitchen came The Seasonal Kitchen by Perla Meyers, circa 1973, which I loved for its earthy, oily-garlicky insistence on cooking what was fresh from the garden, and for its chunky, resolutely modern sans-serif typeface and brown-paper pages the color of a Bloomingdale’s shopping bag. But I especially loved the photo of Meyers on the cover. The photographer had snapped her striding along, a confident brunette in orange turtleneck and black trousers, looking like Mary Tyler Moore if Mary had clutched a shopping bag bursting with organic vegetables instead of a plaid tam o’shanter.
It followed the New York Times’ Natural Foods Cookbook (1971), in which the paper of record tried to get down with what those crazy kids were doing, with their whole wheat breads and their bean sprouts and their blackstrap molasses. Mom made her own mayonnaise, went to the vitamin-smelling health food store for cartons of brewer’s yeast and wheat germ. She still keeps a plastic bag of soy flour in the fridge, the essential ingredient for the excellent Soya Coffeecake. And I still remember, vividly, the terrifying (“3 fruit bats, well washed but neither skinned nor eviscerated”) yet fascinating recipe for Fruit Bat Soup, not to mention the groovy, Rousseau-inspired dust jacket.
Given that my parents were a lot more interested in health food than most of our suburban neighbors at the time, these books were shortly followed by Mollie Katzen’s whimsically hand-written, cheese-heavy Moosewood Cookbook, then the equally whimsical Vegetarian Epicure (1972) by Anna Thomas, and Katzen’s follow-up, The Enchanted Broccoli Forest.
Julia gathered dust while these went into heavy rotation when first my sisters, then myself, then my father all became vegetarians. Easy broiled lamb chops and chicken breasts were replaced by tofu nut balls and endless veggie chopping, much to my now-working mother’s irritation. Having since tackled the multi-part, multi-page recipes in the The Greens Cookbook to impress my still-vegetarian sisters, I can understand her frustration.
Thank god, then, for quiche, salvation of the 1980s busy mother. Already a dab hand at piecrust, she could whip up a quiche à la anything the night before, pop it into the fridge, and instruct my dad to put in the oven an hour before dinnertime, which he could just about manage, having learned from the infamous Roast Chicken Incident that our oven only worked when both knobs were turned on, one for temperature and the other for settings like bake and broil.
The Silver Palate’s luscious chocolate fudge sauce was a much-loved indulgence in our house (over Haagen-Dazs vanilla Swiss almond ice cream, of course) and so the fabulous Silver Palate Cookbook (1982) quickly earned a place on the shelf. I pored over it, imagining a glamorous life of high-style dinner parties punctuated with goat-cheese phyllo triangles and seafood lasagna. As Paul Prudhomme became a celebrity chef on the strength of his blackened redfish and shrimp remoulade, my parents took jaunts to New Orleans, coming back with spiral-bound cookbooks full of recipes for gooey bananas Foster and gloriously messy barbecued shrimp, served swimming in bowls of tinglingly spicy sauce with yards of crisp-crusted French bread.
Although my father hadn’t been to the Bay Area since shipping out for the Pacific during WWII, he nonetheless bought my mom a copy of the Chez Panisse Menu Cookbook, written by Alice Waters with then-chef Paul Bertolli. My mother never cooked from it (too much grilled squab and nasturtium-flower salads to make it useful for suburban New Jersey, circa 1982) but I read and re-read it endlessly. Alice Waters had escaped the suburbs of New Jersey to eat deliciously in France and re-invent herself in California; how I longed to do that, too!
Stir-frying, fueled by the wok craze and our own forays into the newly popular Hunan and Szechuan restaurants in New York City, came into my mother’s kitchen through The Thousand-Recipe Chinese Cookbook by Gloria Bley Miller (1984). Tucked inside the front cover was a soy sauce-spattered sheaf of printed recipes from Uncle Tai’s, my parents’ favorite Hunan restaurant, a fancy place in midtown with ice-blue wallpaper, tuxedo’d captains, and fantastic hacked chicken, sesame noodles, and lamb with scallions, worlds away from the greasy fried noodles dunked in sticky duck sauce at our local strip-mall Cantonese joints.
I still find the sight of any of these books–on the shelf of a used bookstore, or in the welcoming, pleasantly decorated kitchens of ladies in their 50s and 60s–incredibly comforting. A glimpse of the Silver Palate Cookbook or Chef Paul Prudhomme’s Louisiana Kitchen (1984), buttressed by the twin volumes of Mastering the Art of French Cooking,and I feel like I’ve come home.
My mother watches Ina Garten’s cooking shows now, and collects her bright, enticingly easy Barefoot Contessa cookbooks. I tuck jars of homemade jam into my suitcase when I go to visit her in New York; she stocks up on goat cheese, bagels, salmon, and lamb chops. She’s discovered panko crumbs and Prosecco, rainbow chard and pomegranate juice. I sneak downstairs in the morning, to get the coffee going before she gets up. We cook together, and she reminds me again of how, at 15, I threw her out of the kitchen so I could finish whatever I was making my own way. We laugh about this, and she points out my own three cookbooks, now on display in the wicker kitchen bookshelf. I tell her I learned everything from her.
Happy Mother’s Day, Mom.