Julie Powell hit the nail on the head with her essay in the December 10th issue of the New York Times Magazine. In “File of Dreams” she advances the theory that if you flip through someone’s recipe file, you see the person they want to be, rather than the person they are. The recipes they choose to save reflect how they perceive themselves. I have always felt this was true, although for myself the reflection can be seen more in cookbooks purchased, versus recipes clipped, because I really don’t clip recipes anymore (it just got too unwieldy).
I used to clip recipes, and in reviewing them I realize that they reflect less how I saw myself, and more where I was in the process of learning to cook. Sometimes they were recipes clipped directly from a magazine, or even a catalog (Williams-Sonoma, mostly), and taped onto index cards. These recipes are for not very exciting things, like pork roast braised in beer. I have no idea what I was thinking when I clipped them. I suspect the thought was more “That sounds pretty good” than “That would be a good thing to make for…” which is more where I am today.
Other times I copied recipes out onto the index cards and saved them, or photocopied recipes from cookbooks. Again, there appears not to be much of a pattern beyond what may have looked good at the time. Nothing is terribly complicated. I think because I was just learning, it was all new to me, so anything I chose was bound to be somewhat novel and exciting. I even copied a set of instructions on how to make a basic salad that included the “tip” to put the salad greens in a pillowcase and swing them over your head to get them to dry. What they neglected to say was that the pillowcase should be brand new (washed once, perhaps), and then devoted to drying greens. Otherwise you run the risk of serving lettuce with hair on it (this happened to me, only I didn’t actually serve the lettuce; I realized the problem in time and was able to rewash it and dry it in a salad spinner, like a normal person).
At the same time I was doing all this clipping and copying, I discovered the pleasure of simply reading cookbooks. I started with the Silver Palate Cookbook, and read it page by page. I was a college student at the time, and I can remember seeing the beginnings of what Julie Powell calls in her article “[the] mirror image…of who [I] wish[ed] [I] could be.” I read recipes for appetizers, salads, entrees and desserts and fantasized, in the way of young people with their lives ahead of them, about the events and occasions for which they would be appropriate. I read the sidebars (of which the Silver Palate cookbooks have a tremendous number) and pictured myself in the situations they describe—picnics at the beach, dinners in front of the fire, etc. I was the Hostess with the Mostess in my Silver Palate-inspired daydreams.
I began buying cookbooks, and my cookbooks show distinct trends in my cooking styles over the years. Some of them are clearly “entertaining” books, with recipes that don’t take under an hour to make, and involve all sorts of complicated ingredients and techniques. There are cookbooks that represent a trend of mine toward eating fancier meals, but that didn’t take as long to prepare—the title of one of the cookbooks, “Gourmet Meals in Minutes,” best sums up that phase. There are eating style trends—French, Italian, low fat. But always my musings were of what to serve in what setting, and to whom.
The Crabtree & Evelyn Cookbook is the one in my collection that is the most fantasy-generating. It has sections of menus for breakfast, brunch, lunch, tea, supper, and dinner. Each “chapter” is a different series of recipes for different occasions—tea after croquet, a post-theater supper, Christmas dinner (featuring roast goose), Dinner for a Favorite Uncle, etc. These are all unrealistically styled (no one serves slices of cake on little plates that they then balance on top of a small glass of port or something), and provide fuel for any number of entertaining fantasies. I’ve actually made a number of the recipes in this book, most memorably one of the picnic menus for my future husband when we were going to a concert at a local outdoor venue. But mostly this is a book to page through, and look at the pictures, and consider when corn and crab chowder might be most appropriate, or how the country breakfast menu with the ham frittata would be great to serve on a crisp fall Sunday morning.
I’ll probably never hostess enough events to use all of the recipes in all of the cookbooks I have. What’s more, we all seem to have a habit of serving the same things over and over. The old rule, of course, is never serve anything to guests you haven’t already tried out. But there are things I’d make for company that I’d never make for my family (because my family, consisting mostly of small children, wouldn’t eat it, whereas my company, which generally consists of adults, would). Besides, I think I’d have to entertain every night for the next ten years to make all the things I’ve fantasized about making. Maybe I need to make a New Year’s resolution to make one new entertaining-type meal per month, just to keep in practice. At the end of the New York Times article, Julie Powell does make one of those recipes she clipped out so long ago to fuel her entertaining dreams. It turns out well, actually. Maybe I should try that myself.