The inspiration for this post is credit to Rufus at Rufus’ Food and Spirits Guide and his post about his favorite cookbooks and the use thereof. It began with me going to comment on the post, and quickly realising that I’m writing an essay and that I should cut it short and go back to my own blog and write it here.
So, here I went.
In the age of the Internet, the foodies among us search its murky depths for recipes and inspiration and just to look at other people’s food photos and admire. Well, I don’t know about you, but I do. After all, the Internet offers a virtually infinite amount of recipes, pictures and people’s ideas about what something should be prepared like, and how they like to eat it. This is a very good thing, by the way – and in many ways, as it contributes to global food culture, and – hopefully! – inspires more people out there to go, buy some produce and actually cook rather than popping a frozen pizza in the oven.
Maybe I am an idealist, but I hope that food blogging does help others who wish to go down the culinary road in their own kitchen. In short, food blogging and the Internet are a Good Thing™, and I do it myself, a lot, though perhaps less often than I should.
On the other hand, a lot of people have raised the question whether cookbooks are still needed and/or wanted by foodies, with the Internet being there and all. It’s a question with a rather unilateral answer of “YES!” – at least where I am concerned, and judging from both, Rufus’ article and cookbook sales (even if they do become little more than glorified coffee table books in some cases), I am not alone in that conviction.
So, what is it that makes cookbooks so attractive to me? There are many reasons, and all of them are good ones. First of all, I love books in general. The real, hold-in-your-hand paper variety, that get worn with use, and you can scribble in the margins (or in case of some cookbooks, in thoughtfully provided blank “Notes” pages), and unlike the page you pull up on the laptop to cook with, they bear the splats and spills of book life with grace of an aging noble. (Laptop. on the other hand, just fizzles and dies in indignation.) So reason number one – they are tactile, and reason number two – they bear history and show use. I am not one of those people who try to keep their cookbooks in the pristine condition they came from the shop in.
But, an even more important reason why I love cookbooks so is that the recipes in them do not change very much. Yes, that’s right. You see, the recipes on the internet are often temporary, and they change – either due to websites having new “favorites” up, or the bloggers/posters themselves modifying them after some time, or because some disappear and others take their place. In other words, the Internet is very fluid – which is a great thing in itself, for innovation and new variations on old themes, but there is still a place for keeping and being able to refer to those old themes, un short-cutted, un-modernized, and not made more easy for the fussy and spoiled modern cook. Why would I want those? The answer should be obvious – I want those because sometimes it is important to understand what the dish came from and try to taste it as it was prepared traditionally before I try to modify it to my own taste, and it makes much more sense to do that from the original (or as original as one can get with such an evolving field as cooking) rather than from someone else’s variation on the theme. And, unlike the internet posts, cookbooks on my shelf stay where they are, and the recipes I know are there, will still be there. Not to mention that some of these cookbooks are written with a lot of peripheral information which may or may not be there on the net when you do locate the recipe.
Another point in the favour of cookbooks – though some do fall prey to it, if not nearly as much as the Internet does – is the passing influence of food fads, and the fact that not all which is fashionable, is good. There are new ways to season things, and there are new ways to combine them, but let’s face it – food wasn’t invented yesterday, and produce certainly wasn’t! So before throwing oneself headfirst into every new emerging fad, it may be a good idea to consult a cookbook from the region that the new faddy foodstuff is coming from, and learn how (since it wasn’t invented yesterday!) the traditional preparation is done. It might save me from a dish of pressed pigs’ ears or something equally revolting at a trendy restaurant – or from ruining perfectly good cut of meat I’m unfamiliar with by doing (or not doing) something to it which is essential to getting the most out of whatever it is.
The book pictured above – Margaretha Nylander’s “Handbook of New Finer Cooking” (freely translated from Swedish), and one that makes such a good illustration to the graceful aging of books, is actually my newest cookbook. Newest to me, I mean, though it is by no means the oldest cookbook I could get my hands on (there are fantastic antique book shops in Stockholm!). It was a bit of an impulse purchase, and my Swedish is still improving, but by now it is well enough that I can read this without too many problems and only occasional reference to a dictionary. I have not yet tried the recipes, and I imagine – like in case of any old cookbooks – that the meat dishes are going to be questionable at best (most old cookbooks I’ve seen suggest overcooking meat to death – likely for health reasons relevant in those times), but I do look forward to exploring the seafood (Sweden is famous for the salted and marinated fish dishes after all!), canape and salad sections, and – come Autumn – the traditional fruit and berry preserves. The fact that the book, in 1831, was at the stage of 5th edition, makes it rather convincing that at the point of 5th edition, the cookbook was already successful (why else would it have been published multiple times in the days when books were prohibitively expensive?), which – hopefully! – says something about the quality of food it was helping to produce in the well-to-do households of those days. And obviously, should any of my experiments with it prove successful, I will take the time to show them off here in all their recreated glory!
This should by no means suggest that I’m about to give up the Internet, food blogs, and the gorgeousness that is modern cuisine for the purism of learning to simmer gruel “just like they did in old times” (Pffft!) – but I imagine the comparison can and will be interesting. And, hopefully, tasty. You know, like your great-great-grandmother used to make!