Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Cooking by the Book

Just one cookbook. That's all I own. Until recently I had none, but as a close family member works at the Good Housekeeping Research Institute and is privy to such things as free cookbooks my first one, a vegan dessert cookbook, arrived in the mail last year. The design is sleek, the pictures are lovely but I cannot vouch for the recipes. I have yet to try one. I'm not used to cookbooks. Growing up the only recipes I used were on the sides of boxes. My mother owned a few cookbooks which came out on special occasions and had the expected food stains and crumbs on the frequently referenced pages but I never used them, had little attachment to them and never bothered to get any of my own. By the time I was interested in recipes there were plenty available (free!) online and cookbooks were beginning to seem unnecessary. And all that was before the iPad, the take it anywhere and everywhere, use it for everything better than a Kindle iPad. This week The New York Times asked the very question I've secretly wondered for years: are cookbooks obsolete?   While this extends far beyond cookbooks - the future of print books has certainly been in question for years - there has always been a certain weight given to cookbooks, precisely because they often bear the stains and the crumbs, the remembrance of meals past, with notes and scribbles added in the margins for slight tweaks, adjustments and personal preferences. I've kept quiet my disinterest in cookbooks because I do have an appreciation for what it means to save cookbooks, to pass them on from one generation to the next and to do what other foodies freely admit to doing - reading them in bed.  

Earlier this fall I spent time at the Jan Bluestein Longone Culinary Archive during which time I began to fully recognize the historic value of collecting cookbooks, how much they can tell us about popular notions on food and health and diet at a given time.  Just a quick glance at the covers of some cookbooks from the archive, which date from 1868-1950, gives a sense of the social and economic context in which they were published. 

Reprinted with permission of the William L. Clements Library, University of Michigan
Reprinted with permission of the William L. Clements Library, University of Michigan

Reprinted with permission of the William L. Clements Library, University of Michigan

Reprinted with permission of the William L. Clements Library, University of Michigan

Reprinted with permission of the William L. Clements Library, University of Michigan
I happened to read the NYTimes piece about iPads replacing cookbooks everywhere from home kitchens to culinary schools just as I finished reading Ruth Reichl's memoir Tender at the Bone, the first  book I've read for pleasure in recent memory. And a pleasure it was! The former editor-in-chief of Gourmet magazine can string together sentences with the same seeming ease with which she whips up gourmet meals and punctuates each vignette with a related recipe. I came across a comment from a woman who took the time to cook each recipe after she reading the corresponding chapter and found it added another layer of sensory stimulation to the experience. So is it a memoir? A cookbook? Reichl's food writing certainly blurs the lines between the two, and a good cookbook does the same. It not only offers recipes but insights into the writer's approach to the kitchen, views on food and taste and life. Many food blogs now follow suit - 101 Cookbooks is certainly one that comes to mind as does local Seattle favorite, Orangette.  Notably, these blogs were then published and went on to be award-winning books and bestsellers, underscoring the print book as the superior form, the measure of success. And despite the increase in iPad app users, the rise of food writing, interest in cooking and kitchen culture is not slowing. Or perhaps someone failed to mention the proposed moratorium on cookbooks to Seattle small business owner Lara Hamilton who left Microsoft to open Book Larder, a community cookbook store and culinary-events space which opened just last month. 

For those who are comfortable bringing iPads into the kitchen, subjecting them to the whims of flying flour, sticky fingers and dripping sauces, there is certainly great appeal to the consolidated convenience of culinary apps. But for those interested in more than just the recipes, the list of ingredients, measurements and cooking directions, looking for greater literary pleasure and kitchen wisdom, I have yet to find an app that offers the same satisfaction as a well-written, well-used, well-stained cookbook. 

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Mommies and Me

I'm spending this last rotation before Thanksgiving at WIC, a federally mandated supplemental food program for women, infants and children who meet certain income guidelines determined by the number of household members living at 185% of the federal poverty guidelines. Housed in the county's public health department, there are certain perks to the job. Election day is one. Veteran's Day is another. Which is not to say that the best things about my job are the two days off this week, but after five months I'm feeling ready for vacation. I'd assume that many of the new moms I'm working with would say the same.

Working at WIC has forced me to face the obvious: I'm a women of childbearing age - perhaps closer at this point to the end of my childbearing years than to the beginning - and I know nothing about motherhood. Sure, I studied the nutritional needs of expecting and lactating moms and have memorized the stages of feeding for children but some parts of it are foreign simply because I have not experienced it myself. I keep having to check when it is that most kids start to roll over or crawl or speak or walk so I can reassure women that their children are early geniuses, very advanced, right on schedule or taking their time progressing from one stage of development to the next. As part of WIC's big push for exclusive breastfeeding (BF) I congratulate nursing moms. I also encourage moms to make sure their kids get more activity and less television time, though I understand little of the demands on their time and energy that inevitably lead them to fail in this regard. I see the looks of fear, concern and guilt on their faces when they learn that their child has jumped percentiles and is showing early signs of childhood obesity when they promise that their child eats well, no juice, no junk food, no television, has a healthy appetite and healthy level of activity. I sympathize with them, comfort them and mostly (at least during my first week) I just smile at them, wondering if they'll see right through my overeducated childless facade.  

Holding a friend's baby in Kerry Park
There's an unspoken divide between women who have children and women who do not. Greater, it seems to me, than the gulf between women who are single and those in relationships. I expect this is because having a child entails a combined physical, emotional and spiritual transformation that only those who have gone through it can understand. And while I expect that one day I will cross the threshold and enter this exclusive club, right now I can only guess what it really means. I face this reality every day working at WIC. 

Many of my friends are now parents and they too ask me questions about feeding their kids. While I've certainly read a lot about it I can only rely on my hypothetical bag of tricks, the ways I might sneak more vegetables into their meals, offer fruit as snacks, minimize their exposure to television commercials and give them flavored seltzer instead of soda. I might focus on fostering family meal time, teaching cooking skills and building a healthy relationship with food by listening to hunger cues rather than external stimuli. I might do all of that or I might be really really tired, stressed out and hanging on by my last nerve, in dire need of a vacation. I hope to one day find out. Right now, mom or not, I'm just grateful for the day off.