Food for Thought


Our Daily Correspondent


From the UK National Archives, 1939

When you’re traveling, you understand what you really need, or want, or find comforting—what you can do without and what’s essential. In my case, traveling illuminates an addiction to cookbooks.

People have written beautifully about their love of recipe reading. Laurie Colwin’s “Why I Love Cookbooks” is a classic explanation of the genre’s comforting appeal. Writing in The New Yorker, Adam Gopnik explains it differently:

A kind of primal scene of eating hovers over every cookbook, just as a primal scene of sex lurks behind every love story. In cooking, the primal scene, or substance, is salt, sugar, and fat held in maximum solution with starch; add protein as necessary, and finish with caffeine (coffee or chocolate) as desired. That’s what, suitably disguised in some decent dimension of dressup, we always end up making. We make béarnaise sauce by whisking a stick of melted butter into a couple of eggs, and, now that we no longer make béarnaise sauce, we make salsa verde by beating a cup of olive oil into a fistful of anchovies. The herbs change; the hope does not.

Whether the goal is comfort, aspiration, association, curiosity, research, it’s clear; people love to read cookbooks. Even Gwyneth Paltrow has claimed to be a bedtime cookbook-reader; of this, make what you will.

I have hundreds of cookbooks, and I love to read them. I especially enjoy reading about food while I eat, and keep a large stack of varied cookbooks on every surface where I might happen to set my plate. Some meals might call for Marcella Hazan, or Claudia Roden; other times you just want pretty pictures, or the American comforts of Lee Bailey. But all of this seems to me normal enough.

I began to be worried by this habit a few months ago. I decided to tidy my apartment before a houseguest’s arrival, and shelved all the many books I had lying around. For the first time in memory, my home was visibly cookbook-less; they were all tucked away in their boxes and cupboards in the kitchen. The sense of panic I experienced was visceral and immediate. I felt a real physical anxiety such as I have never known. Calm down! I told myself. They’re just under the counter! You can grab one the moment you want to—Edna Lewis or Nigel Slater or one of your old ones, or maybe some John Thorne, if you feel like essays! It’s okay!

And yet it didn’t feel right. I was upset, restless. I remembered something my mother had once said. For years, the sound track of my childhood was the slap of cards on the Formica kitchen tabletop as my mother played game after game of solitaire, from dawn to late and night. And then, one day, she stopped cold turkey. “Nothing done out of compulsion is healthy,” she said. I knew this to be true, and yet, I also remember the relief I felt when I pulled The Nantucket Open-House Cookbook off the shelf and laid it on the coffee table, telling myself with an addict’s dishonesty that it was just to get ideas for dinner.

As habits go, this one seems fairly harmless. But it’s also clear that the pleasures these other writers describe—that of vicarious gratification, and imagination—have morphed for me into something more. Simply put, I am not comfortable unless there are cookbooks around me, readily accessible. At the moment, I am in another country, beautiful and interesting, surrounded by good books. To stave off my rising anxiety, I have been surfing food websites and blogs. It will do, for the moment. And yet, I plan to run to the nearest bookstore as soon as possible and get a fix. It doesn’t need to be good. It doesn’t even need to be in English. That really isn’t the point.