What can we learn from them?
Cookbooks for me are usually either a souvenir (hereinafter called a “souvie” - preferably in a bad Vin Diesel voice in that commercial where he talked about the movies) of a place I have visited, or a statement of longing to experience a fundamental element of a place or cuisine I want to explore. And some are very happy accidents.
While souvie shopping for a copy of a recipe compilation book I had been told contained the apple pie recipe that my boss and I agreed was one of the best we had ever had, the magnificent bookstore I was led to had not only the book in question (“Calgary Cooks”, recipe is Model Milk’s deep dish cheddar-apple pie), the proprietor recommended “A Taste of Haida Gwaii: Food Gathering and Feasting at the Edge of the World”, by Susan Musgrave. I had never heard of this place, which I gather is a small island off the coast of Vancouver. It is an account by a very gifted author who has definitely lived a life (her intro begins: When applying last year to he Haida Gwaii’s new Marriage Commissioner, I was asked, “What qualifies you for the position?” I replied, honestly: “I’ve been married three times. Third time lucky because he’s spent most of our 25-year marriage in prison.”) who shares generously her experiences in buying, running and cooking for a remote B&B in a place where food and characters abound, if you know how to look for them - or know the people who know how to look for them.
She’s also hilarious, capturing herself and her surroundings with a keen eye for detail both profound and absurd - “...some of the heirloom quality furniture is too uncomfortable and has been replaced by the kind of furniture you sink INTO, not through.”
Her sourdough methods are not to be followed in a warm climate. I tried it her way with my first attempt after my starter had matured during Covid lockdown, and it resulted in what I call my lead bread - over proved, heavy and inedible to all but a single, solitary, psyched squirrel. It sank like a stone when I tried to feed some ducks at the pond.
I need to read that one again. My appetite has been whetted, and I’ve lost the plot a little.
Most recently, on my last trip back home, I always visit a used bookstore with a substantial cookbook section. I went on the cruise with “Funa Food from Africa: Roots of Traditional African Food Culture” by Renata Coetzee, gifted to a family that had visited South Africa in 1991 by the family that had hosted them (it’s inscribed with a beautiful, calligraphic hand), and it’s autographed by the author, all for ten bucks! It also seems to have been written with a more anthropological bent, with recipe names in not just English but several tribal dialects, as well as descriptions of various traditional foodways. It looks fascinating and beautiful, though that opinion may change when I actually get stuck into it. The thing was written during Apartheid, so...
￼What was the question again?
I used to be in love with cookbooks. I had such gorgeous ones. Then, when Covid arrived, I gave them all away. I think I was frustrated living in a rural area and with trying to source unusual ingredients. Now I cook with whatever is in my refrigerator and my pantry and buy the best ingredients I can locally. I have a good set of spices and I’m a good cook and I just gave up trying to recreate a recipe. It’s been unusually freeing to just do my own thing and trust that it will turn out ok.
I think you could put these lectures together into a book, they’re great …
I recommend visiting the Cookbook section of the public library wherever you live (Library of Congress classification for cookbooks = TX, Technology, Home Economics). I have discovered many wonderful cookbooks and recipes this way.
It makes me sad that Puerto Rico doesn't seem to have public libraries, though someone told me there might be one in Guaynabo.