There’s a bright spot in the black hole of our kitchen remodel: Dozens of cookbooks are stacked in the guest room (next to the fridge and stove), and I’m taking inventory.
Before you turn to the sports page, know this: Most of them belong to Widdle. He’s collected cookbooks for 25 years, starting when he had a traveling job that took him all over the country. He’s especially fond of church cookbooks, but any small-town receipt collection will do. He reads them avidly, marking the dishes he’d like to try.
I enjoy cookbooks, too, but in the way one enjoys a novel. There’s something comforting about reading five variations of Watergate salad on a yellowing, spiral-bound page. (For the uninitiated, WS is not a salad in any way, shape or form: It includes cool whip, crushed pineapple, pistachio Jell-O and pecans, and may make your teeth explode.)
Most of our cookbooks have titles like “Heavenly Delights” and “Pass the Plate.” They hail from Yemassee Baptist, St. Paul’s Episcopal, Rehoboth United Methodist, Grace Advent Christian, Westminster Day School in Spartanburg, S.C., Christ Church in New Bern, N.C., First Baptist in Varnville, S.C…. you get the gist.
I used to collect cookbooks too, once upon a time. The oldest one is “Favorite Recipes of the Lower Cape Fear,” which Aunt Eleanor gave to me on my 16th birthday. On the flyleaf she wrote, “Remember, the way to a man’s heart is thru his stomak!”
I did not heed her advice. The best that can be said for my cooking is that you will probably survive it. (Some readers may remember the Thanksgiving I microwaved a turkey breast, which blasted through the microwave door, slammed into a wall and slid reproachfully to the floor.)
Widdle, being intelligent, approaches my cooking with deep suspicion. I keep telling him if I ever kill him it will not be in the kitchen; it will be in our bed, during one of his epic snoring fits. No matter—he still peers at every pot I stir with the expression of a man marching to his doom. (Note: I do bake cookies with some success. Candy-making is fun, too, but it’s hard to mess up pouring melted chocolate into a plastic rosebud mold.)
When I do get the odd urge to cook, I turn to tried-and-true recipes. Last month, for example, I decided to make coleslaw, so I went to our trusty cookbooks, which are normally wedged into cabinets and cupboards in the laundry room. Why didn’t I search online? Simple: I’m hopeless at printing out recipes. The font is either too small or 45 pages of ads spew from the printer along with the three-paragraph recipe. P.S. I ended up not making the coleslaw because A) We didn’t have any mayonnaise and B) Who wants to shred cabbage all day?
A few of my favorite cookbooks are: The Cincinnati Junior Service League’s “When Pigs Fly,” which I grabbed in an airport; “Favorite Recipes from the Backs of Bottles, Boxes, Jars and Cans,” which is essentially a 410-page tribute to Campbell’s cream of mushroom soup; and “The 3-Ingredient Cookbook,” which is positively Zen in its simplicity. A sample recipe: “Peel and slice carrots. Pour melted butter over carrots. Bake at 350 degrees until carrots are soft.” Another one: “Clean fish. Lay bacon on top. Bake until fish is opaque and bacon is curled and brown.”
That’s just it: Everything I cook comes out curled and brown.
Julie R. Smith, who is currently living on microwave popcorn and olives, can be reached at email@example.com.