As a teenager, I worked at Waldenbooks, and on September 8, 1978—I dated the bookplate—I used my employee discount on The Vegetarian Epicure, Book Two. The author, Anna Thomas, traveled widely in Europe and beyond, then created vegetarian versions of favorite dishes. Opened up my little palate, I’ll guarantee you! We still adore the salad torcoloti, and I used her curry and garam masala blends as the starting point for my own, in the Spice Shop Mysteries.
A few months later, I picked up Laurel’s Kitchen, the first cookbook to delve into the science and nutrition of vegetarian cooking. I still consult the tables of cooking times for grains and beans, and make the vegetarian chili often. Now I wish I’d sprung for the hardcover, but at the time, the 3.95 paperback was all I could manage!
Actually, the first cookbook I ever bought was probably this copy of Betty Crocker’s Cookbook, my mother’s Christmas wish. There’s no inscription or, oddly, a publication date, but I’m guessing 1976. It lives in my kitchen now, and while I don’t use it much, it isn’t going anywhere for a long time.
|One small selection of my collection|
As for cookbooks in general - they are the reason I decided to write the Cookbook Nook Mysteries. When I stepped into a culinary bookstore and drank in the wondrous array of cookbooks at my fingertips, I fell in lust. That's the moment I knew I had to immerse myself in that world for one of my mysteries.
SHEILA: My mother was a good plain cook--meat, starch and veg, plus dessert--so I grew up knowing the basics, like how to boil water. But my mother's idea of creative cooking was to add Vermouth to whatever meat dish she was making. Her cookbook collection was kind of pitiful: it might have filled one bookshelf. I still have the copy of The Joy of Cooking that she must have gotten when she married.
That was fine, because when I was a child, I was not a courageous eater. I had to separate each of the components of my dinner and consume each of them one at a time. I hated onions and mushrooms, and I never knew what garlic was (although I was fond of artichokes and asparagus, mostly because they were fun to eat). My grandmother, who lived in Manhattan, sometimes took me and my younger sister to lunch in what must have been some nice restaurants, but I have no memories of what I ate there.
It wasn't until I discovered Julia Child and Mastering the Art of French Cooking (whose co-author Simone Beck is often forgotten) that I realized what "real" cooking could be like. It was the first cookbook I bought, as a gift to myself when I graduated from college and moved into a small apartment with a kitchen that could fit in a closet. I still say, if you have only one cookbook, get this one. The recipes may have French names, but they work. Julia had a sense of humor and would insert comments like, "this may look curdled, but don't worry--it will smooth out later." Her ingredient proportions were generous, she used herbs liberally, and when she said a dish would serve four or six people, she was right--and they were for normal people with healthy appetites.
I still have that copy, and you can tell which are my favorite recipes by how greasy the pages are. When I married, my husband adopted some of the recipes as well, and still makes them. I even bought two copies (on sale) so I'd have back-up if the first one disintegrated into shreds. I don't know if I would have fallen in love with both cooking and eating if I hadn't found Julia Child.
BTW, we named our daughter Julia. Okay, maybe not solely for The French Chef, but that first Julia was in the back of my mind. And now my daughter makes croissants for a chain of coffee shops, and is learning to bake bread in large quantities. So maybe it rubbed off.
MARY JANE MAFFINI/VICTORIA ABBOTTt When I got married, I was able to make tuna fish sandwiches (white bread only, no crusts) and I could fry chicken, with some singeing. My mother-in-law was a wonderful cook and so was my mother so the time had come to pull up my socks. Things did not go well with the sock pulling.
I quickly came to hate cooking but I did like to laugh and was good at that. Eventually I turned to Peg Bracken's popular (at the time) I Hate to Cook Book, a small and hilarious volume published in 1960. There were enough 'keepers' in those pages to save me from daily mortification. Bracken was like having a friend in the kitchen: she didn't mind a trick or two and she was always ready for a joke. The I Hate to Cook Book is still going strong and was reissued for its 50th Anniversary: it even has a Facebook Page!
After nearly fifty years, I still have my original I Hate to Cook and still make a few of the recipes. Unfortunately, in the process I began to like cooking and then was forced to invest in more ambitious and heavier cookbooks like Mastering the Art of French Cooking. I never did master the art of French cooking, but thanks to the wit of Peg Bracken I learned to find the fun in the kitchen. I did not name my daughter Peg, but you will notice I am still hanging around with another Peg who can be very funny.
A few years back, I decided to include the battered little blue book in a box headed for Goodwill. But at the last minute, I realized there would never be a good reason to get rid of it. We keep our friends!
PEG: Looks like Sheila and I both learned to cook from Julia Child and Simone Beck! I got a cookbook for a wedding present (1974) called Make It Now, Bake It Later. One recipe was for a casserole that included white bread and tiny canned shrimp. Enough said!
KRISTA: Mary Jane, that's such a cute story. I never heard of that cookbook! My first cookbooks were from a collection that my mom bought at the grocery store. They came out one at a time, and she bought one every month. She had all of Julia Child's books, but they didn't have many pictures, which was very important to me as a kid. I read cookbooks by photo, not by recipe. I looked for those old cookbooks in my mom's house the other day but I fear they're long gone so I don't even know who published them.
LINDA: I love to laugh when I cook, Mary Jane. Helps get me through some dicey situations, so to speak. My first cookbook was a gift from my sister when I got married. She knows me so well! It's Craig Claiborne's Kitchen Basics. Up to this point, I hadn't cooked often at home and my roommate, when I'd moved out, was so good, I gladly left it up to her. So, having married another good cook, I felt the challenge to up my game. Craig helped me through it all...and still does. I can never remember equivalents when it comes to measurements, so I let Craig Claiborne handle that.
LUCY: Your stories are so much fun ladies! Sheila, my mother cooked like yours, only not well. She didn't like desserts either--her idea of a company dessert recipe was red grapes in sour cream! Cooking for 6 after working all day was a chore, and kids underfoot did not help. So I didn't learn much about cooking growing up. But I did inherit her copy of The Joy of Cooking, and I would still have it if a puppy hadn't eaten the cover off. And then some Florida roaches began to nibble the pages, and that book became history. I still love the cookbook, though, and use it as a starting point for lots of recipes. Thanks, Mom!
CLEO: Like some of you out there, I come from a tradition of a little bit of this, a pinch of that--and a whole lot of garlic! My mom and her sister (who lived with us) were born in Italy and learned to cook from the women in their family. They had 3 x 5 cards with their handwritten notes, clipped items from newspapers, and tried out recipes printed on food packaging, but there were no cookbooks that I can recall.
And you, readers?
Do you remember your first cookbook?
Is it still in your collection?