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Armchair Cookbooks

February 2, 2016 | by

Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Artistin, 1910.

I’m changing. I have the right, don’t I? People are changing all the time. I have to think about my future. What’s it to you? —The Room

Lisa’s right: you’re never too old to change. When I think that, a year ago, I had never heard the term armchair cookbook … and now I use it at least once a week! What a drab, colorless existence I’d led!

Armchair cookbook: the words are delightfully contradictory, with their warring suggestions of action and relaxation, that cozy mix of nouns. I first encountered the term in reference to The Barbara Pym Cookbook. It seems clear that the term is an Anglicism, more in use north of the border than in the U.S. But it doesn’t refer merely to those books—like the Pym, from which I have never cooked—that combine recipes with straight reading material. At any rate, I use it rather more liberally. 

While there are clearly shelves of books as suited to good reading as meal preparation—think Nigel Slater’s bracingly cozy kitchen diaries or the culinary essays of Laurie Colwin—it is equally true that some books simply lend themselves to curling up and approaching like novels. There’s little more tiresome than people prosing on about their supposedly eccentric penchants for reading cookbooks in bed, but it’s simply true that some are better suited to it than others, and the reasons are somewhat mysterious. 

It’s also a highly personal matter. There are cookbooks I use a lot—say, The Craft of Baking, by Karen DeMasco—that I never remove from the kitchen. Meanwhile, I often reach for Sarah Leah Chase’s Nantucket Open-House Cookbook before bed, but almost never use the recipes verbatim. Tamasin Day-Lewis’s books make great reading; Pierre Franey is only for kitchen use. Sometime it’s just a question of conversion (metric books usually jump the line to the bedside table) but not always. Likewise, photos: they’re less of a factor in the equation than you might think. The New York Cookbook is for reading; Patricia Wells is not. Edna Lewis is the rare letter y who can do either, depending on mood.

Do you want to be transported or dictated to? Do you want to be hungry or imagine a different life or feel nostalgia? What sort of mental effort do you feel like making—that of conjuring tastes, or that of picturing the way something looks, or feels? Or do you merely crave entertainment? I don’t imagine any of this would be pleasurable if you could not, in fact, cook—but when you can, the actual cooking is besides the point. You dwell in potential.

Sadie Stein is contributing editor of The Paris Review, and the Daily’s correspondent.