For someone like me who is not a very successful cook and, in truth, performs the act only under duress, a good cookbook is hard to find.
This is ironic because we live in a time when there has been an explosion of cooking titles, with whole quadrants of bookstores cordoned off to contain the glut. You name it, someone has written it. Cooking for meat lovers, meat haters, pasta aficionados, wild gamers, mushroom fanatics, seafood cravers, Francophiles, noodleheads.
I even once stumbled upon the following title: "The Best Albanian Cooking." Can there really be a supportive market of gastronomes with such an exotic palate?
The thing is, so many of these volumes are beautiful to look at: The photographs, the florid descriptions, the wears-like-iron cardstock, and the cover blurbs all are designed to seduce the browser into buying. But these glosses are often deceptive. One book I perused touted recipes that were "lusty and unpretentious," yet included this dish: Oysters With Champagne Mignonette. Lusty, yes. But unpretentious?
For me, the most daunting thing about these cookbooks is that they contain hundreds or sometimes thousands of recipes. Which raises the question: How many of those recipes will one actually use?
This brings me to the crux of my historical problem. I have never been able to find a cookbook that contained more than a few appealing and doable dishes. Even those books whose titles contain words such as "simple" or "easy" haven't delivered.
I recently took a volume titled "Polish Heritage Cookery" off a bookstore shelf. The first recipe that caught my eye was for minced boar rolls (zrazy mielone z dzika). The next was for carp in aspic (with raisins).
I grew up in a Polish-American family, and believe me, meals were a three-step dance of "meat! potatoes! and cabbage!" (repeat). I don't think my Polish grandmother, who was otherwise as tough as nails, would have known what to do with a carp, much less a wild boar.
If anything, I knew my own mind and what my culinary needs were. I didn't need to know how to prepare roast breast of hummingbird or debone an eel. I needed bedrock simplicity that the Amish would be proud of, a cookbook that would suggest the wonders that could be wrought with a minimum of ingredients and short cooking times.
I had no patience with volumes that included the author's tales of adventure or philosophical insights into the esthetics of the eggplant.
Salvation finally arrived in the form of a gift from a friend who has a love of junk shops and old books. Aware of my uneasy relationship with the kitchen, she presented me with a singular gift she had picked up at a yard sale for next to nothing: "Cooking for Young Homemakers" (copyright 1962).
Although this thousand-page book (it weighs three pounds) has its share of exotics (Paprika Cream Schnitzel), it also has exactly what I'm after: tuna salad, corn bread, baked vegetables, hot potato salad, stuffing. This was cookery's book of Genesis.
I delved into the hefty tome with the courage of a cliff diver, my eyes wide upon it, anticipating a refreshing experience.
I was not disappointed.
The first night I hearkened to my 10-year-old's call for a soft-boiled egg. Now, truth to tell, I'd never successfully soft boiled an egg. I'd tried different cooking times and had always come out of it with either a runny mess or something with the consistency of leather.
But "Cooking for Young Homemakers" parted the waters for me in language that was direct, concise, and productive: "Place eggs in cold water, heat to boiling, and remove." I did so, and voilà! – a satisfied customer. My son ate the egg with deep satisfaction and then called for more.
With this book in hand (well, on countertop; it's too big and heavy to hold in hand for long), I have at last been able to do something which had hitherto been a struggle – prepare a weekly menu in advance. And why not? The choices it offers are custom-made for those like me who are at the low end of the cooking-skill curve. Tonight it's baked fish filets with fresh peas. And if I need to filet the fish myself, the book tells me how to do that, too.
The upshot is that this book has been a lifesaver, or at least a "meal saver." I have also had fewer mishaps in the kitchen now that I have a text that guides me so unfailingly. I did drop it on my toe once, but in light of all it has given me, I'm willing to suffer for my art.