When Padraic and I were in Santa Fe this summer, we visited the Georgia 0’Keeffe museum, featuring an exhibit of paintings by O’Keeffe and photographs by Ansel Adams, both inspired by the artists’ visits to Hawaii. One 3D image on display, however, captured my interest as much as O’Keeffe’s bold, canvas-consuming flowers and Adams’s black-and-white depictions of industry steeped in island fauna: it was Georgia O’Keeffe’s cookbook collection, arranged neatly on a wooden shelf. O’Keeffe, like George Balanchine, and scores of other celebrities, I’m sure, famous for sophisticated works of art that extend beyond the culinary realm, loved to cook. There’s something about a cookbook collection that is a remarkably intimate way to remember and pay homage to great minds — providing the viewer with a living record of meals prepared with an artist’s own two hands, a record of what they willfully crafted, off-duty, when they were taking a break from peering through a camera lens, holding a brush, or rehearsing choreography. This is what they made for themselves; this is what they made as a form of escape from the art that defined them.
As someone who owns highly impractical cookbooks — whole volumes dedicated to variations on French fries, grilled cheese, even “mini pies” — I can argue from firsthand experience and ever-dwindling shelf space that I believe cookbooks are meant to be collected, that they possess a value and a presence that goes far beyond the utilitarian. I buy cookbooks for pure reading material as much as for how-tos and display them prominently in my kitchen/living room space as an invitation to imagine future meals to be made, to spark food memories, to establish my household as unequivocally food-centric. Ina Garten likes to dress her tables with things edible — like lemons, oranges, or fig leaves — likewise, I would argue the chicness of adorning your home with pictures of food and recipes, allowing the cookbooks to stand alone as works of art in their own right, just as Ina lets the food serve as decor. I’m generally a pretty frugal and no-fuss person; too much of one thing makes me feel scattered and weighed down, so I live pretty light. I take exception with cookbooks, however — I believe that a true food-lover, even if she’s a mediocre and/or minimalist cook, even if she relies heavily on the Internet when she’s actually doing the cooking, cannot have enough of them. With that said, here are nine things to do with your cookbooks besides the obvious:
1. Tag recipes with (tiny) Post-its once you’ve made them for the first time. This way your cookbooks form an ongoing document of your kitchen, and invite you to take on the impossible, long term project of cooking your way through every volume.
2. Place a stack of cookbooks by your bed and try reading them cover to cover, for each recipe marking the ingredients that you don’t have on hand on a Post-it. This way you can more easily recall recipes that match the contents of your fridge, more quickly write up a grocery list, and even group meals together on a weekly basis that share similar ingredients.
3. Rearrange them on the shelf. Feature and/or juxtapose different covers with appealing photographs, stack them according to food category, or pepper the books creatively throughout the room. Give them a stylish display, a place of honor, let’s say, in your dining/cooking/gathering space.
4. Pick a dish and cook it from as many cookbooks as you own, recipe testing until you find your favorite. If you’re like me, you’ll also end up writing in great detail about the best lasagna or blueberry pie you discovered.
5. Once you find your favorite version of something after expending the effort to compare and contrast, stick with it. Make that dish over and over again. You will become known for your fudgy brownies or creamy, garlicky mashed potatoes and this is an honor to be coveted.
6. Resist the temptation to surf the food blogosphere and instead, select one cookbook to cook from for the week. Chances are you can reuse any ingredients that you’ll need to purchase and you won’t get overwhelmed with the prospect of planning a variety of creative meals.
7. Pick a cookbook to cook your entire way through and blog about it! Ahem, Baking Through Martha Stewart’s Baking Handbook.
8. Start the daunting process of crafting your own recipes by cross-referencing cookbooks and combining recipes and techniques. Write your own, personal cookbook of hybrid recipes.
9. If you don’t already own it, purchase The America’s Test Kitchen Cooking School Cookbook and read it at your leisure, cover to cover. It will make you a more knowledgeable, efficient, and confident cook and give you a few tricks to store in your sleeve. Things like soaking eggs in hot tap water to quickly bring them up to the suggested room temp for baking, and the difference between French and American omelettes…
Oh, and one more thing — keeping adding to the collection 🙂