Navigation menu

Tuesday, December 06, 2011

The Joy of Cooking, Part Two

How do you read a cookbook?

About a month ago, I posed that question to The Muffin readers in part one of The Joy of Cooking. I talked about reading it like a book, immersing myself in the narrative, mulling over the ingredients, and savoring each photograph. It's a non-fiction feast that tells a story. The recipes are a bonus.

I also shared that I seldom use a cookbook when I'm in the kitchen. Instead, I rely on instinct and creativity. I just know what works. It's a trait I inherited from my mother and grandmother.

But it hasn't always been that way. Take a look at my culinary reading skills through the years.

This is the first cookbook I owned. I received it as a Christmas gift from my parents. It's a first edition, third printing, and boy, has it seen its share of wear and tear. When my girls were growing up, they used it to learn to cook, too. Open the cover and the first 66 pages are loose. Turn the next page and you'll discover what every junior cook should know. I circled every kitchen utensil we owned. Pretty sure I begged my parents to purchase the utensils we didn't have. But if you flip through the book, you'll notice certain recipe titles are circled - my code for "make this again." Some recipes have an 'x' penciled next to the title - my sign for "it's ok, but i may not make it again." And next to other recipes I wrote the date or occasion I first tried the recipe. Note: I prepared the Drop Biscuits on page 32 and the Bunny Salad (made with pear halves and cottage cheese, p 57) for Father's Day. It may not look like much of a story, but I see a book of memories and a kitchen filled with love - and great food.

This particular cookbook reminds me of love, marriage, and divorce. No juicy narrative printed on these pages, just hearty recipes. I received this cookbook from my godfather when I married in 1982. It's from the church in Primgahr, Iowa, where he was a pastor. The book, like the marriage, unraveled, losing its cover and initial pages somewhere along the journey. The pages are stained from oil, and occasionally, you find a drop of food coloring spreading across a page. You'll also find detailed notes next to the majority of the recipes, suggestions to improve the recipe or notations about cooking times. This book chronicles my life: the pineapple upside-down cake, the prime rib, the wilted salad, the cherries jubilee. Each recipe tells a story of accomplishments and failures. And, it's my favorite cookbook of all time.

Here's the book that really got me started thinking about how a cookbook tells a story. The Sopranos Family Cookbook, as compiled by character Artie Bucco, comes from my all-time favorite television show. Laced with photographs of the dishes, as well as still shots from the TV show, this cookbook puts a new spin on food and the narrative behind it. Each chapter is introduced by a character and offers a glimpse at how and what they think, as well as a bit of history about Italian cuisine. This book is the total package: delicious recipes, compelling storytelling, and gorgeous photography. Reading The Sopranos Family Cookbook is a guilty pleasure, delicious as Tortoni and as satisfying as Lasagne with Sunday Gravy.

We writers may believe our stories must follow a recipe, a magic formula that captures readers and piques their interest.
To an extent, that's true.
But good writing, like good cooking, combines a variety of spices, adds a hint of intrigue, and promises a satisfied appetite.
A well-written cookbook accomplishes those same goals.

by LuAnn Schindler.  Read more of LuAnn's work, including her weekly newspaper column "Nebraska-isms,"  at her website.


  1. Lasagna with Sunday gravy? thanks.

    But I do enjoy your take on cookbooks. I have so many of them, my husband counts them in pounds. (We've moved a lot. ;) ) Each of them is different, but my favourites are the ones with that little bit of story-telling included. One is a small, rural community's cookbook with old "standards," home remedies, and a few handy household hints. Another favourite is a "family" cookbook (my BFF's family) that includes anecdotal advice from each contributing cook/family member and snippets of family lore embroider the margins and "white spaces."

    Until your post, I hadn't considered how much story-telling there is in an engaging cookbook...though, I've long marvelled over my decades-old, dog-eared, splattered and stained copy of "The Joy of Cooking." Old Faithful, I call it. Now I realize, it's the story-tellers voice that I find so reassuring, offering promise for each recipe I try.

    P.S. My sister had that very same Betty Crocker cookbook. What a blast from the past it was to see that cover! Although, I still shudder recalling her macaroni casserole.

  2. Gail,
    Hey, Sunday Gravy (recipe in The Sopranos cookbook) makes a decent tomato sauce to add to the pasta dish. :)

    I loved the Betty Crocker cookbook and would come home from school and decide which recipe I would try. I checked and I marked an 'x' next to the mac n cheese recipe in this cookbook. HA!


We love to hear from readers! Please leave a comment. :)