Earlier this week I read an article about cookbooks and the ways in which they echo with the wisdom of past chefs. The article discusses how, scribbled in the margins of perhaps a mothers’ or grandmothers’ favorite cookbook, the delicate lacework of their lives unravels to reveal relationships and personalities in the form of drops of liquid from the pan, short phrases and staccato notes. While the pages of these cookbooks are rife with adjustments to the recipes “a
scant heaping teaspoon” and even such candid commentary as “never again” or “total disaster,” the handwritten notes in the margins are a testament to triumphs and disappointments not just limited to the dishes themselves. They contain annotations as personal as, “I made this dish on the day my son was born.” The article celebrates the secret wisdom and knowledge passed down through physical cookbooks as markers of time and events. It recognizes and mourns their loss to a certain extent with the advent of online mediums as cooking resources.
A History of Talent in the Kitchen
Reading that article resonated with me in an unexpected way and left me feeling wistful, although my mother and grandmother are not and never were catalogers. As far as I know, their practicality never gave way to a sentimentality that would manifest itself in journals or into the margins of a cookbook. Though I’ve seen them using recipes, their talents seem to float upon an endless and invisible current of knowledge in the kitchen in which they merely have to dip their spoons to come up with heaps upon heaps of perfect dishes.
So why am I stuck on this feeling of loss? Is it because I am sentimental? I do all of my chopping on a plastic cutting board decorated with black and yellow mushrooms that my grandma gave me. That cutting board is older than I am and I remember it in her kitchen from when I was still sitting in my high chair. While I’ve been tempted to buy newer, trendier, rustic wooden cutting boards, I know I will only use this one. In a similar vein, the only ladle I own comes from my great-grandmother, who likely brought it with her on the boat from Russia. My grandmother found it in her mother’s house and abandoned the tarnished silver piece in favor of something more practical years before, without ever having used it. I only found it by accident when I mentioned to her that I scoop out soup with a measuring cup. She hesitatingly told me that she possessed this tarnished ladle, but had no idea where it was. She’d rather me get something new. She believes in the value of new. I assured her that I could find it (Grandma knows where everything is in her house) and restore it and it would mean so much more than a new one. With that, I opened the floor level cabinet next to me, which is where I knew she stored all of the kitchen items that are too precious or too old to use and it was the first thing to fall out, beckoning for my attention.
A Non-Family Artifact
In a quest for knowledge, history and out of my love of old books I bought a vintage canning recipe journal from an antique bookstore in Boston. The book is a faded ledger where the owner had cut out canning recipes from newspapers and pasted them in. It’s from the early 1900s, alphabetized and annotated in typical New England taciturn style with simple phrases like “very good” next to before-their-time recipes and spicy sauces, a hint of the author’s personality and preferences.
Maybe this unsettling feeling is a longing for a physical manifestation of the intangible. A personality, a daily life, a private moment. I’m searching for clues in spent places, like a girl who doesn’t wash her shirt in order to preserve the memory of a good night just a little bit longer. Are antiques and used books nothing more than dead people’s things or are they full of stories, lifetimes, a source of strength? The women of my family debate this.
Fear of Not Being Known
I fear that while I am documenting my role in the cooking chain that binds me to my past and the future, I do so deliberately and online rather than in a private space for one person’s eyes only. I supplement my online cooking sources with cookbooks rather than the other way around. I don’t measure my moments in meals or jot things down in books, leaving frugal, secret clues and hints about who I am. The fear is in the dissonance between descriptive language and sensation. Am I accurately describing what I taste, smell, think and feel? What impression of myself will I leave behind?
Maybe my reaction to the article boils down to the fact that I want someone to wonder about me when I’m no longer around. I like the idea of accidentally helping out my great-granddaughter in the kitchen with the ladle I left behind. Sometimes there is so much more value in just a phrase or a word scribbled down, a comb kept hidden, a surprising gesture of sentimentality or a silver ladle, than in volumes of a journal.
While I can’t quite pinpoint the source of the feeling this article conjured up in me, I at least wanted to take a stab at sharing it. In the meantime, I will go on cooking and writing and hope that I may reveal an unintended piece of myself, not just in a body of work, but in my deeds and choices. Ironically, the only way to do that is to attend to the mundane details of life and allow your dealings with them to accumulate. With that in mind, I’m off to face the day.