The Trials of a Would-Be Cook

I'VE often thought I'd love to be a librarian and see the titles people check out. I could learn as much about what people might want to be as about what they are.

Recently our library closed while it moved from one location to another. The librarians offered patrons an extended checkout time and the opportunity to borrow unlimited numbers of books. This did something to me. I scoured the shelves looking for the volumes I'd always wanted to read but felt as though I might be ``stealing'' from someone who really had need of them.

My children and I had three satchels to fill with books that would be ``ours'' for two months. My daughter and son checked out more of the kinds of books and magazines they usually do. Hallie borrowed the past issues of Audubon and National Wildlife. Dylan had a towering pillar of science-fiction and computer books.

I passed by my usual selections. I walked confidently beyond the poetry section, the new nonfiction titles, the collections of humor and essays, and found myself in what was for me an unlikely section - the cookbooks.

I had only visited these shelves peripherally when I wanted a book from the adjacent areas. I found it mildly amusing that a subject I found so uninspiring took up more space than several of ``my'' sections combined. But the freedom the librarians offered me pulled with a force that I could neither define nor understand. I was suddenly overcome by a yearning to read these books.

I told the librarians, faced with my teetering stack of books, that I was going to learn to cook while they were closed. I think it must be a requirement of a library employee never to register shock or disbelief in a way that might make a patron slink away from the counter in embarrassment. I never noticed as much as a raised eyebrow when the librarian stamped the due dates in at least 15 cookbooks ranging from foreign cooking to what to cook ``on the trail.'' Moreover, the women behind the counter appeared to believe me.

I took the books home, and the first night I got lost in Mexican cooking. I still had Italian, Greek, Cajun, Chinese, and a book on the basics (at the bottom of the pile) stacked on one of the kitchen counters.

Our house is a series of book ``piles.'' A person could easily tell the climate and even activity of our family by the books piled by the bed, on the stairs, or on the arms of the old brown sofa. I felt a certain pride in my pile of cookbooks. For the time they were mine, I fully intended to sample a recipe from each one.

I carefully put slips of paper in the Mexican cookbook. In this way, I marked recipes that looked simple enough to follow, but rich enough to taste good. The pictures were wonderful.

I went on to the book on crock-pot cooking. This was the ultimate to me: Just put everything in one pot and turn it on. As much as I wanted to produce the Oriental dishes on the cover of the next cookbook, I knew intuitively that the crock-pot and I were destined for sure success. I have burned so many dinners, not to mention breakfasts, lunches, and snacks, that a cookbook written for a utensil almost guaranteed not to burn anything looked perfect. But beware of something that looks too good.

In the five years since my mother, knowing my propensity for distraction, gave me my crock-pot, I have made one meal. It's a lentil soup recipe that a friend, a kindred spirit in cooking skills, or the lack thereof, gave me. ``It's guaranteed,'' she said ``not to burn.''

Her promise carried weight because her son is the one who replied to my offer of a grilled cheese sandwich with the question, ``Is it burnt?''

According to the library's cookbook, though, you could make anything in a crock-pot: bread, dessert, main meals, drinks. I tempered my enthusiasm with the knowledge of my cooking history and chose a chicken recipe that looked easy.

The freedom I felt the morning I stuffed in dinner and turned the button on ``low'' is yet to be equaled. I could barely keep the excitement from my children, who were experienced enough to feel a vague unease when I spoke of a ``new dinner.'

That night I pulled out the chicken. The meat fell off handily to reveal a skeleton of hot bones. I had a new experience - overcooking instead of burning.

The dinner had no flavor - texture, yes - but nothing that resembled a taste.

Hallie quietly went to the refrigerator to open a yogurt, and Dylan slid the remainders of his dinner to the poor dog.

When I returned the books to the library, a different lady was at the desk. Gratefully, I saw how busy she was. She looked at the pile and smiled.

``The pictures,'' I said ``are great in these books.''

I went to the poetry section and checked out a few new titles. It's good to try new things, but it's also good to accept who you are. There are observers and doers, and some people, I suspect, are fortunate enough to be both. There are people who will whip up those recipes and barely glance at the pictures of the finished products. The resulting fare is a delight to eat and to look at.

Then there are the cooks who get so lost in the colors of a baked apple or a fresh salad, or even a butterfly in the garden, that they lose track of how much they're measuring, never mind what they measure. The result is something even an amateur photographer would turn away from.

I have a bookshelf where I keep titles I want to read again and again in the same way a night sky might be read in May, then in June, then in the cold clear evening of a winter day. There are just a few thin volumes of poetry and essays - my favorites. I am only a bit wistful that there is not a cookbook among them.

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