Treat Your Cookbooks Like Workbooks, Not Textbooks

Don't be afraid to scribble all over them.

collection of cookbooks
Some of my better-used cookbooks.

Katherine Martinko

Quarantine has taught us all many things, but one valuable lesson has been that recipes aren't set in stone. In a delightful article for the Wall Street Journal, food writer Bee Wilson explains how making limited trips to the grocery story meant she became a wizard at substitutions. She was forced to figure out what could replace a specific ingredient without affecting the outcome of a dish. She writes,

"For years, many of us tortured ourselves with the idea that recipes were stone-carved commandments issued from on high by godlike chefs. But a recipe is more like a never-ending kitchen conversation between writer and cook than a one-way lecture. Recipes were originally designed to help people remember how to cook something rather than to give them exact blueprints. When something in a recipe doesn’t work for you, for whatever reason, you are free to say so and make it your own."

When a substitution is made, Wilson thinks it should be written in the margins of the cookbook. She's a big fan of marginalia, this scribbling to provide context, background information, observations, and advice. Not only is it a good way for cooks to remember what they made in past years, but future users of the same cookbook can benefit from this insider knowledge of what works and what doesn't – a perfect example of how that "never-ending kitchen conversation" can go on.

Our cookbooks should be viewed as workbooks, not as untouchable treasures. The sign of a good cookbook is when it has become stained and splattered, dog-eared and thin; or, as cookbook historian Barbara Ketcham Wheaton told Wilson, when it has "so many food stains it could probably be boiled and served as soup," like her own 60-year-old copy of "The Joy of Cooking."

This makes me think of my mother's 1987 copy of "The Canadian Living Cookbook" that she used all throughout my childhood. The original binding and covers wore out completely, so she punched holes in all the individual sheets and put them in a three-ring binder, which she then gave to me when she found a copy in better condition at a thrift store. Now, whenever I flip through that binder, I can see the actual food stains from my numerous childhood meals, dating back to the early 1990s. It's simultaneously gross and fascinating. 

old Canadian living cookbook
My mother's old cookbook that's about as old as I am. K Martinko 

Quarantine certainly revealed to me which of my cookbooks are most useful. Some have a bad habit of calling for obscure ingredients that I can't be bothered sourcing, or have sub-par recipes that continually fail to impress. Some just don't call to me because they look and feel boring. The books that I never touched during these recent months of more involved cooking and more thoughtful meal prep will be purged, donated to a thrift store because they haven't earned their spot. Just like clothes in a jam-packed closet that should be weeded out to reflect one's personal style, there is little point hanging on to cookbooks that may look beautiful on a shelf but do not fulfill a practical purpose.

I like what one commenter on Wilson's article said, when he compared cooking to playing music. "Once you learn to play an instrument, you may try your hand at a whole world of music [and] explore different genres and styles. Once you learn to cook ... well, think of recipes like sheet music." Cookbooks should be read occasionally for inspiration, rather than direction. Allow the books to give you ideas for what to do with the fresh, seasonal ingredients you encounter at the store or farmer's market, but do not be constrained by them.

Let the kitchen conversation continue...