My mom’s copy of The Joy of Cooking is spineless. Most of the pages are an impressive shade of brown, and several corners are singed and torn. It’s more a collection of papers now; various sections sticking together with vestiges of ancient glue. You have to learn your way around it. For example, Chocolate Chip Drop Cookies are on page 705, which is usually sandwiched somewhere between the index and page 120. I never bothered to look at any other page growing up, satisfied with the task of baking cookies, too lazy even to cream the butter (I melted it).
I used to sit on a stool at the kitchen counter and leaf through my mom’s more glamorous cookbooks, like Nigella Lawson’s The Domestic Goddess, as one might peruse the glossy pages of a coffee table book on British manor houses of the 1800’s. I never read the recipes.
These days, I can’t decide if a recipe is more like a poem, a short story, a painting, or an opera.
Just like you don’t have to be Jan Van Eyck to appreciate the rich intricate beauty of a Renaissance painting, or Itzhak Perlman to revel in the cadenza of a Tchaikovsky concerto, you don’t have to actually cook or bake something to appreciate a recipe.
I always read slowly, envisioning the act of cooking in my head, imagining each ingredient. Orange zest: how it will stain my fingertips with its bright, heady scent, or the way finely ground almonds will become a paste between my thumb and forefinger. The sound the knife makes breaking through chocolate—that insatiably satisfying crack and thud. I imagine butter and sugar and eggs, beaten together into a light, pale frenzy or the smell of toasting pine nuts.
In Eat, Memory, a collection of food writing edited by Amanda Hesser, each essay concludes with a recipe. After reading about one writer’s expatriate Parisian life, in which friends gather around the late night table of a tempestuous and brilliant chef, you get to immerse yourself in the candle-lit “drafty artist’s studio off the Rue du Temple” with a recipe for a Frangipane Pear Tart. It begins:
FOR THE PEARS
2 cups sugar
3 strips lemon peel
9 firm-ripe small pears, such as Seckel
…which, if you ask me, is a poem in itself.
I immediately wonder how the lemon peel will interact with the sugar. How will the pears transform? Will they soften with heat or blend into a dough so that only their light, heady perfume remains?
Sugar, lemon peel, and pears. Somehow, I like to imagine, these three simple elements will transform in small ways to create a tart that smells of romance and tastes like the slanting light of an August evening.