New Recipe: When I need an escape, I read my cookbooks

Illustration by Mary Kirkpatrick

On days like this, when the dog and the wind whine to come indoors, I like to leisurely leaf through the pages of my cookbooks. There’s something about a book dedicated to the preparation of good food that brings with it a feeling of comfort and rootedness.

There are three types of cookbooks I favour in these challenging times: those from the warm, snowless climates; those I’ve picked up on my travels; and community cookbooks.

I pour a cup of coffee and look through Mediterranean cookbooks – with full-page colour photos of hot spicy foods, market stalls where fresh-picked flowers and fruits and vegetables sit in the shade: glossy peppers and purple eggplant, mangoes, papayas and pineapples, and fruits unknown and exotic. Who can look at a vine-ripe tomato and not imagine biting into the sun-warm flesh? Or smell the pungent leaves as you reach to pick it?

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Another source of pleasure and comfort are the regional cookbooks I have found while travelling. Wandering through the pages, I am roaming the streets of the towns I have passed through. Nothing evokes my trip to South Carolina better than a recipe for shrimp and grits, or the streets of Amsterdam than those tasty little pancakes called poffertjes.

I love reading the anecdotes about the origin of a recipe: memories recounted of a grandfather filleting codfish or an aunt cutting out pie crusts. Sitting with a cookbook from San Francisco I am climbing the precipitous streets; the French-Canadian cookbook makes me think of the restaurant in the middle of nowhere in the Gaspé, with the mismatched tables and chairs and the front door propped open to let in the warm summer breeze, where we were happily surprised to be served poke bowls made with fish and freshly picked vegetables.

Most comforting to me in these isolating times are the community cookbooks, where friends and neighbours generously share their favourite recipes. The contributors are home cooks; the resources and ingredients are accessible to neighbours and friends, some passed down from one generation to the next. These cookbooks are often put together to raise money for a new roof for the church or a children’s summer camp.

I came across one such gem the other day that I bought in a job-lot at an auction. This cookbook had once belonged to a woman named Frances Evans, the wife of a dairy farmer in my area. Frances, who did her cooking and baking using a woodstove, had a reputation, locally, for her baked goods. What I especially like about this cookbook, published in 1964 by the Anglican Guild of Eustis-North and Hatley Waterville, is that the recipes are handwritten. The unique penmanship of each contributor lends the pages an intimacy, as if your neighbour just handed you the recipe. Each recipe conjures up an image of the person who wrote it – the measured tracks of the organized cook, the ambling footsteps of the amateur chef who included avocados in her fruit cake, the barely legible markings of the woman who might rather have been a doctor. It’s like being with them in their kitchen, chopping and beating, taking a taste and gossiping about the neighbours.

The pages of this book are stained and spattered, with small notes in the margins: “Made this” or “V. good” or “Greased pan” or “May be frozen.” Jammed into the pockets at the front and back are recipes cut out of newspapers – most of them for cakes, loaves and cookies – and on the blank pages at the end, recipes taped to the page or hastily jotted down.

These recipes from the 1960s carry me back to the meals of my childhood: Tuna Cheese Bake, Macaroni and Mushroom Soup Casserole, Sweet and Sour Spareribs, Date Squares, Cherry Nut Bars – shared by women with names like Hazel and Dorothy and Thelma, my mother’s name. My mother was a full-time homemaker until my early teens and, often, after school, when her children opened the front door, we were greeted by the aroma of peanut butter or oatmeal cookies (or sometimes the nose-wrinkling smell of braising beef kidneys). Just a glance at the recipe for butter tarts feels like coming home.

Even the dearth of vegetables in this cookbook makes me reminiscent. Their absence jibes with my mother’s own lack of interest in vegetables; she had dutifully read the Canada Food Guide and, besides starch, prepared at least one vegetable for dinner; we soldiered through overcooked Brussels sprouts or rubbery cauliflower as if we were swallowing cod liver oil (a winter ritual). Vegetables were the challenge: dessert was the reward.

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Of course, nowadays we have learned how to prepare vegetables; we work with them instead of against them, and we have at our fingertips an incredible array of fresh vegetables and herbs from all over the world and an endless supply of new recipes.

Still, there is something reassuring about the cream of mushroom soup, the canned tuna fish, the copious amounts of butter and white sugar – comfort food – that has a special appeal in these lockdown days. Maybe our home confinement helps us identify with the wives and mothers of that time, many of whom put their time and creative energy into meal-making. Maybe it’s the memory of the reliable routine of family dinner and conversation. Or maybe it’s remembering the moment we took before eating to acknowledge our good fortune in sharing the offering of a meal.

Heather Paterson lives in Georgeville, Que.

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