Collecting cookbooks

Occasionally I’ll review or comment on a local cookbook, especially if it gives readers a glimpse of the local restaurant scene. Durango is usually spot-on when it comes to food trends, so if those trends are captured in local chef’s recipes, cookbooks document culinary history.

I believe if you take three cookbooks written in the same decade from opposite corners of the country, you’ll see that more unites us than divides us in the Western culinary world.

It’s true. We’re all subject to similar marketing pushes, agricultural influences and nutritional information. We may choose to apply that information differently because our perceptions differ, but again, more unites than divides us when it comes to the kitchen table.

Think about what seems to have defined food in the first decade of this century: online recipe resources, organic/locavore menus and, finally, reality TV cooking shows. It’s pretty scary what the next generation might say when they look back at this one.

I took a trip into the past when I “pondered” meatloaf for the Durango Herald’s April 18 feature story.

My trip into the meatloaf world was mostly about walking through old cookbooks. I have to admit, I went all the way back to a post WWI Wellesley College alumni cookbook in which I saw the words “suet” and “shortening” more than anyone should. The only real standout recipes were two that revealed much about the contributors. One was for a yeast roll recipe credited to “The best colored cook in the whole state of Georgia.” (It’s an excellent recipe, by the way.) The other was a recipe reflecting the entrée in a memorable, American soldier’s dinner in Paris. When cookbooks include anecdotes about recipe origins, the history is that much more entertaining.

Most of what remains in my eclectic collection of 200 cookbooks are Junior League, church fundraiser, ethnic or classic textbooks on baking, for example.

I have the first edition of Julia Childs’ Mastering the Art of French Cooking. My mother gave it to me for Christmas, when I was maybe 12. It was very expensive at the time, and she must have made some sacrifices to purchase it. I remember not really appreciating it – except for the quiche, Boeuf Bourguignonne and instructions for pate brise. Reading about the internal animal parts, specifically organ meats and jellied hoofs – the foods French people apparently like to eat – made me sick.

I’ve decided that I’m going to spend some time with my cookbooks from Louisiana, the White House and California. I have one from Ethiopia, too. I have a 1982 cookbook from the National League of American Pen Women that has me convinced these women surely write better than they cook.

In the weeks ahead, I’m going to write about the era –maybe it was the ’70s – when every boxed cake mix was merely the base for something exotically enhanced with liqueurs, Cool Whip or crushed pineapple. Given the popularity of those bundt-cake assaults, it’s no wonder we still bake them. Well, bake them minus the Cool Whip, maybe.

And how about the 1950s Jell-O craze with shredded “salad” that defined Methodist church potlucks and after-funeral receptions? Or how about when women played bridge after a lunch of frozen chicken “sandwich” loaf frosted with God-knows-what?

Yes, it is time we look at the forces that shaped recipes for gumbo and halushka, 1940s biscotti, “clothespin” cookies, etoufee and pierogies, not to mention zucchini everything.

Look to your tattered cookbooks for an anthology of culinary history. And remember, what goes around comes around.

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