For the Love of Cookbooks

By Janey Womeldorf

I miss my cookbooks.

No longer do stained, tattered and brow-beaten spines spill from shelves in my kitchen and steal valuable space elsewhere. My once bountiful cookbook collection has dwindled; even my magazine collection shrank. No more bulging magazine racks, old copies in guest bathrooms, or magazine stacks growing in out-of-the-way corners. I blame the internet.

The sad demise of my culinary library started not long after I realized the space-saving and cost-free value of online food sites and recipe reviews. Not only did they allow you to adjust the ingredient amounts to suit your serving size – genius – but other people’s tips and comments became invaluable. Never again would unwanted spices sit in the back of my pantry, casualties of recipes that turned out to be tasteless. Consequently, cookbooks that once filled an entire wall in my kitchen now inhabit one shelf and one recipe box. As much as I love the internet and the extra space, it’s not the same.

There’s something about walking into a kitchen where irregularly-stacked cookbooks spill from the shelves that just makes you want to sit down and eat. Just the sight of them leaves you secretly hoping that any minute now freshly-baked brownies will magically appear from the oven.

My cookbook collection now totals less than ten and lazy afternoons are not the same. I used to love grabbing a pile of my books, curling up in a comfy chair, and perusing recipes I aspired to one day cook at elegant dinner parties that never transpired. The beautiful photos of dishes so elegant and perfect were not just inspiring, they were uplifting. My cookbooks did more than just provide recipes; their grease-splattered, tomato-stained pages transported me back to memorable (or in some case forgettable) meals, and over the years, the books themselves came to represent the culinary and marital journey of my life.

In the early years, titles like Introduction to Cooking and Kitchen Basics 101 were indispensable. They epitomized home cooking and were penned in an era when women wore aprons, computers and cell phones were the stuff of scientists, and nobody had heard of cholesterol. Even with all the technology, they are still my first line of defense when I need to cook the perfect hard-boiled egg, (as I in fact did this week for the first time in twenty years, after suddenly hankering for chopped egg on my salad).

Next came my prove-to-my-husband-he-had-made-a-wise-choice phase that occurs post honeymoon. I was desperate to show off my culinary prowess and aspired to the old adage, “The way to a man’s heart…” I bought anything with words in the title like gourmet, entertaining, and French; I also ironed everything. Fortunately, neither phase survived.

Next came my Italian collection. This phase is ongoing as everyone loves pasta; it’s the perfect go-to for family or guests, and the photos always look so damn irresistible. If it weren’t for my metabolism, I would have kept buying.

Then the busy years take over. The wedding is a distant memory, life becomes consuming, and titles promising fast and easy, under 30-minutes, 5 ingredients or less, and slow cooking fill the shelves; ironically, so do microwaveable meals. Bizarrely, this phase also includes the mandatory bread-maker machine.

Culinary-exploration phase was next. This generation of cookbooks appears a decade or more into the marriage when you suddenly wake up one day and realize you have been cooking the same eight dishes for the last ten years. Their titles represent adventure (and boredom) and seem like a good idea at the time. Words like cake-decorating, vegetarian and multiple international cuisines grace their covers and you cook roughly three out of the one hundred-plus recipes within their pages.

Check-out line cookbooks – these are the cookbooks you buy when you need to stop buying. They are the handy-sized, Betty-Crocker style books that sit in between the magazines and chewing gum in the checkout line. All these recipes use a can of cream soup and eight ounces of cheese. What more do you need?

Two or more decades have now passed nudging you into the final cookbook phase – the unavoidable watch-what-you-eat period. This era of books attempts to make anything healthy, sugar-free, low-calorie or fat-free sound exciting. Their shelf life lasts about ten years before they end up in a garage sale next to the cake-decorating and bread-maker cookbook because, one, we all revert to our old habits anyway, and two, because regardless of how many books you own, you will still cook and rotate the same eight meals for dinner.

The cookbooks that I do still have are now trusted friends that I will never get rid of; I can pick up any of them and almost turn to the page I need. In contrast, I don’t even know half the websites I get e-mails from, and can’t access most of them because I can rarely remember the correct combination of user name and password. The truth is, what were all those recipes I saved into that little recipe box icon anyway?

My “real” recipes live in two places – within the pages of my few remaining, beloved cookbooks, and in the large, open recipe box that acts as their book-end. Decades of well-used, fading, hand-written cards bulge from this box and range from the “I-must-have-that-recipe” cards, (most of which I never cooked yet begged from family and friends), to the multiple pages torn from magazines. I cherish these cards and the memories they inspire: Grandma’s onion dressing; Patricia’s chocolate-zucchini cake; Rick’s shrimp dip. Recipes are named, and often written by, the people who inspired them and provide more than just a list of ingredients and instructions. They invoke sweet memories of times shared, memorable meals and beloved friends and family.

I still believe the internet is invaluable but there is something about the look, the feel, and the magic of cookbooks that always pulls at my heartstrings. Their pages yield more than recipes, they yield comfort.

I miss my cookbooks.

About this writer

  • Janey Womeldorf Janey Womeldorf once went to work wearing different shoes. She now freelance writes and scribbles away in Orlando, Florida. It’s probably best.

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3 Responses to “For the Love of Cookbooks”

  1. chris w says:

    Love this – so true!

  2. marsha tennant says:

    I just found my mom’s 1848 cookbook- the history of my family is among the recipes and notes!

  3. Janey Womeldorf says:

    Marsha, how wonderful! It makes me wonder how differently people were cooking back then?? I have so many recipes that I may never cook but cannot get rid of, (especially when it is written in the giver’s own handwriting), because of the memories they evoke. Happy cooking!

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