Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Why I Write in my Cookbooks

How did I know that I had cooked 66 recipes from Mastering the Art of French Cooking? (See August 15, 2009 blog on the movie Julie and Julia.) Actually all I had to do was flip through the pages and count up every recipe that had my penciled notes in the margins. They were the sure give-away that I had cooked it. And I could give you a count for every one of the more than 500 cookbooks that I have amassed over the past 43 years of cooking. I have written in them all. I owe this habit to my mom whose battered and speckled Better Homes and Gardens was sprinkled with her black ball point notes. How useful, I thought.

But why, you might ask? Here are my thoughts.

1. I make notes because I want to remember that I’ve cooked a particular recipe. I want to record whether we liked it or not. God forbid that I should cook a recipe again if we hated it. But other comments are useful too like “too weird for my taste” or “just great” or “too much trouble for the end result” or “the best.” I also note any changes I might have made, like adding less olive oil or more salt or making a substitution, like red onions for shallots, or if some procedure simply didn’t work and what to do about it.

2. I make notes because my cookbooks have been my cooking teachers from the very beginning. Like notes from a good lecture, the recipe notes help cement the learning and help me remember the experience. I want to record what I have learned so I won’t forget.

3. I make notes because I am an historian (BA in History, University of Michigan, 1965 after all), recording/archiving my cooking history. Flipping through a well-used cookbook is a trip down memory lane. The notes reveal the likes and dislikes of my sons Franz and Ben through the years. They reveal how our tastes have expanded. They reveal that at one period we were eating chicken livers, salmon cheeks, and finnan haddie. They tell me what I ate for Thanksgiving dinner in Japan in 1972. Ah yes, jujubes in the stuffing. Might future historians enjoy looking through my cookbooks and seeing what I was cooking and eating in the late 20th and early 21st centuries? Without the notes, how could they tell?

4. I make notes so that as my memory gets increasingly sketchy, I don’t accidentally cook the same dish for guests that I made for them on another occasion or serve bread salad to a treasured guest who hates it. So on each recipe I write the month and year I made it and for whom, including any relevant comments.

5. Most of all, I write notes because I am making these recipes my own. Over the years some recipes, especially “the keepers,” have a vast array of notes scribbled all over the page. The dish that results is still recognizable as being Chicken Marbella, for example. But it has become “my” Chicken Marbella. Isn’t that the whole point? To make the dish our own?

So you, my dears, are the beneficiaries of my learning and my note-making. I have taken these scribbled up recipes, typed them up fresh and clean, including helpful notes and worthy changes, and put them on this blog. Now I turn them over to you so that you too can write on them, change them to suit your tastes, and make your own.


Anonymous said...

i love the cookbook notes! that's the best thing ever!
my parents never let me write in books as a child, and i really struggle with this one. i've graduated to light pencil, thanks to this encouragement.

Anonymous said...

I write in cookbooks, too. Mostly it's to incorporate variants. For instance, I like the Joy of Cooking Bourride, but I like to add chopped green peppercorns.

I keep a "pantry book" with the dates of every dinner party, with guestlist and what we ate. That's how I avoid redundancy, and I also record people's preferences: (Susan likes cream in her coffee, Letitia won't eat oysters, etc.)

- Bill C.