Monday, January 21, 2013

Reading Cooking, Cooking Writing

It takes a strange person, like me, to actually read cookbooks.  No plot, no story, no characters, just a series of directions, and then you turn the page and encounter a new series of directions that might build on, but just as possibly might be completely unrelated to, the previous series of directions.  Page after page after page of someone telling you what to do and how to do it.  Who would actually read such a thing, or, who would read such a thing cover to cover?

But there must be more of us out there, based on the fact that writers have made cookbooks so much more readable.  That may be convoluted logic, but then, reading cookbooks is pretty convoluted in and of itself.  It's like the cookbook authors suddenly realized that people might actually read a cookbook, as in read it.

Narcissistically, I would like to believe that I started the trend.  Six years and a half years ago, in advance of my 50th birthday, I started working on a cookbook that would become a door prize for that event.  As I spent night after night, after work, culling through the recipes of families and friends and myself, I started doing a strange thing:  I started telling the stories behind where the recipes had come from.  Each recipe had a short, italicized paragraph at the start that gave some context to the recipe, either where it had come from or why it had become important to us or why I had "created" it, created being a relative term, since I am an obedient learner but a cautious inventer, primarily due to a lack of funds, I like to think.

Every person who came to my 50th celebration was surprised, I hope, by a copy of a cookbook that pulled together both a life and a group of friends.  The book contained recipes that I had tricked friends into divulging and recipes that had occured at key social events like the Y2K party.  And if it had stopped there, with the attendees at my 50th birthday party, that would have been pretty cool.

But it didn't.  People heard about the cookbook and wanted copies.  I'm not talking hundreds or thousands of people, mind you.  I'm talking dozens.

The cool thing was, as the book got passed around, especially in my wife's hometown in rural western Kentucky, that people, while they may have enjoyed the recipes, talked about the stories.  They knew my wife and they enjoyed hearing about patterns in our early marriage or how I characterized them (the women from her church are, hands down, the finest batch of cooks I have ever encountered) or, amazingly, my laconic, ironic persona.

It has probably been the greatest writing achievement of my life.  At no other time and with no other piece of writing have I connected so completely with an audience who "got" what I was trying to do.  Not only that, it was a long-term writing project that I actually finished, with relatively-few mistakes and with a clear sense of vision.

It was after that that the connection between cooking and autobiography became so strong, I like to tell myself, in the national publishing world.  I have to change chronology and to revise history in order to make that claim, but nevertheless.  Little did I know that at the same time I was working on my project, The Lee Bros. (sounds more like hip-hop producers to me) of Charleston, South Carolina were doing the exact same thing--working with classic recipes and telling stories about them.  That I didn't hear about them until a couple of years later strengthens my narrative but ignores reality.

And, I must confess, the basic idea was inspired by a Marion Cunningham book called Lost Recipes, I think.

After that, it seemed like others figured it out.  I received, for example, New Orleans chef John Besh's My Family Table for Christmas, where, in addition to the great recipes, he takes the time to include family narratives about family meals, narratives that sound strikingly similar to my own, but only because stories of meals and of family members no longer living are bound to have a striking similarity.  Other New Orleans cookbook authors aka chefs took similar approaches, infusing their litany of recipes with tales of post-Katrina group meals and other powerful stories.

Not that any of them read my book, of course.  I do get that.  But I also celebrate the fact that cookbooks have changed—from recipes without context except that they come from a particular chef or restaurant, to recipes that have the meaning of human relationships and actual settings/meals.

So, yeah, I like to read cookbooks and it seems like maybe a lot of other people do, too.  We have become such a food culture that it isn’t surprising, is it?  As much as we obsess these days about the latest restaurant or the latest trend or a food scare or the next of many renamings of the same diet, why should I wonder that people want to know the stories behind their food, even if those stories are nostalgic and personal, rather than clinical?

Everything comes from somewhere, and very little of that has been invented out of nothing this year.  Food, in recipes and cookbooks, is one way of telling us where we have come from.


troutking said...

I think you should continue to say you started this trend. My sister at age 12 or so claimed that she started the trend of people listening to Mariah Carey, though Mariah had had many hits before my sister started listening to music. My sister also claimed that she started the trend of people wearing Adidas clothing, though Adidas was a multi million dollar company for a couple decades before she was even born. So facts have nothing to do with it. I have harassed my sister about these claims for years and would like to apply the same treatment to you. Your post also gets to the heart of why I like 500 Things to Eat before It's too Late and other such guides to local food specialties---all of those dishes come with origin stories that don't involve a lab at McDonalds or some snooty chef in NYC.

Sara said...

I'm pretty sure I want a copy. Ummm......thanks.