No matter how you measure it, cookbooks have a lot to teach us

I learned to cook by observation and practice, without the aid of written instructions or measurements. As the oldest child in a household with several generations of women who learned the same way, I had ample opportunities for cooking lessons. I learned how to fricassee chicken from my mother, bake teacakes from my grandmother and get a good rise on dinner rolls from my great-grandmother. Additionally, my aunts taught me how to cook collard greens and macaroni and cheese. I have some of these recipes written down, but for the most part, I have my sense of taste and my memory of the finished product, along with a few instructions and list of ingredients.  

For most of my adult life, I’ve had a love-hate relationship with cookbooks. Though I bought a couple of comprehensive cookbooks as an adult—including “Betty Crocker’s New Cookbook” and Carol Gelles’ “1000 Vegetarian Recipes”—I found myself using them merely as a guide. I had learned to cook relatively quickly, tasting and checking consistencies as the meal came together. Measuring and assembling all the ingredients before cooking were foreign activities to me. And time-consuming. Our kitchen was relatively small when I was growing up, and because there were so many people in the house, holding space (anywhere) was always a challenge. And although most of the kitchens in my adult years have had plenty of space—islands or expansive countertops—taking out and measuring ingredients are two of my least favorite aspects of the cooking process.  

Over the years, as I came face-to-face with the reality that my knowledge of many cooking techniques was superficial at best, I decided that a good cookbook would enable me to build my skills. I bought an autographed copy of the 75th edition of the “Joy of Cooking” from a local bookseller and decided to delve into it. With a foreword from Julia Child that said if I wanted to master the basics, I needed to follow this “fundamental resource for any American cook,” I was sold. Not only did I learn about a variety of basic cooking techniques that I didn’t have a name for but that I had been doing for years (for example, searing, which we called browning; blanching, which we identified as parboiling; or proving, which we simply described as rising), I was able to grow my skills, confidence and patience, learning from a resource deemed one of the 150 most influential books of the 20th century by the New York Public Library. 

In reading this summer’s magazine, I hope you enjoy two of my favorite articles—one about the pandemic’s impact on cookbook sales and the article titled “10 Steps to Crafting a Family Cookbook.” I agree with Samantha Ronan, a 2010 graduate of the DU’s Denver Publishing Institute, who says, “Buying a cookbook means buying into an arc of recipes, whether that means you’re diving into a specific cuisine, learning how to better use certain equipment, exploring an approach, or seeking to improve skills that will be applicable elsewhere.” Over the last several months, I’ve enjoyed my zester as much as my stand mixer and have worked to perfect the peaks of my meringues for macaroons or banana pudding and the proving of my dough for cinnamon rolls or focaccia.  

One of the TV shows I binged during 2020 was The Great British Baking Show and have garnered two cookbooks full of recipes from the judges and contestants, including “Mary Berry Cooks to Perfection” and “The Great British Baking Show: Love to Bake.” As my daughter and I have binged and baked together, I’ve found that the experience of following a recipe is actually quite pleasant. It also helps that my daughter always prepares and measures the ingredients. 

A couple of years ago, I started gathering recipes from my mom, encouraging her to write them down and talk me through the steps for some of her dishes that I have yet to master. As an activity to involve my entire family, I’m considering compiling our own cookbook, so that generations to come won’t miss out on the secret ingredients and techniques that have made our family meals special. 

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