Cookbook Therapy, I highly recommend it- all year round, though most especially when it’s cold and dreary. Most southerners put up with chilly days in a good natured way, some even going so far as to say- they love cold weather or that frost is a ‘good thing because it’ll kill off the bugs’. More than a few days? The novelty of wearing wool, goose down or cashmere has worn off- we put on Bermuda shorts with heavy socks and fake fur lined boots as if to defy the unwelcome visit of Jack Frost.
I admit it, I take cold weather as a personal insult, even blaming the Devil for a few days and for me that’s extreme. Okay, I said- ‘It’s as cold as the Devil’s Heart.’ Extreme weather calls for extreme blame. Fed up, I refuse to go out in it, settle down to soothe my nerves. Bundled up in socks, covered with a throw, I surround myself with highly prized books, especially southern ring bound cookbooks. You know the ones- that real folks in real communities have tested and written. I take perverse pleasure in finding the most difficult, unusual or even grotesque recipes with no intention of cooking any of it. Well, maybe the sugar laden ones. Still. I need the therapy of reading cookbooks. Let me explain. These old cookbooks are story books to me. I’m a descendant of grandparents who loved crossword puzzles, folks who were readers and amazing story tellers- one was an amazing cook who clipped recipes from her beloved newspaper. Thus, I am a collector of words, sentences, phrases, stories and recipes. I want the cooks who tell a real story, these are my therapists!
Cookbooks give me a window into other kitchens, other times and in most regional cookbooks there are stories, methods, hints and tips that are priceless. I do not buy these cookbooks new, oh no, I want the recipes with stars beside favorites, a note to improve it- even the ones who say- ‘This one isn’t worth the time to make it’ There’s something therapeutic about reading those notes. Here’s what I’ve found:
- Mostly mathematicians are in the Baking Sections, the insistent precise folks.
- Happy Socialites populate the Beverage and Appetizer Sections, though I do have to wonder about a non-alcoholic punch…the recipe called for a whole bottle of Almond Extract! Maybe she was in a 12 step program or belonged to a group of teetotalers and had found a way around it.
- The Casserole Ladies are my favorites, they improvise, aren’t precise, give lots of options and also remind the reader that the recipe can be stretched to feed a crowd. Yes, they are a bighearted generous group. No doubt about it.
Hovering over the Soups and Stews Section- are southern cooks whom I fear share my disdain for cold weather. When I find one of those cooks on a cold dreary day- Cookbook Therapy begins to kick in.
One fine example made me laugh, just at the title- NO PEEP STEW written in all caps. After a sketchy mixture of ingredients are put in a Dutch Oven, the recipe writer instructed- ‘Bake 5 hours at 250 degrees. DO NOT PEEP, REPEAT, DO NOT PEEP.’
- I had to wonder, what would happen if some scalawag decided to go rogue and PEEP?
- Who in the world wrote this recipe?
- A former Drill Sargent?
- Apparently, after that direction she decided to calm down and adds… ‘Serve with wedges of your favorite cornbread and a green salad.’
In another cookbook, there was a recipe for this same stew written by a real comedian- she had a fun and much nicer title for hers. It was called- ‘No Peekie Beef Stewie’ … you have to love her! Then there was another sweet lady who got a bit bossy about when to add egg yolk and vinegar to Pig Stew… yes, you read that right! She did regain her composure at the end and said- ‘My grandmother’s cook made this every Christmas and it was served on the sideboard with the Turkey and Dressing. It’s very rich and not too good in warm weather, but it wouldn’t be Christmas without it at my home in New Orleans.’ Bless. Her. Heart. * If this has made you hungry for a wonderful beef recipe, using leftover roast beef- we’ve got one you can peep at called- Boeuf en Daube…
Some recipes assume you know how to cook. One recipe I’m particularly fond of has simple instructions, yet no quantities-
- Cook Chicken, cool and shred.
- Save broth, Blanche Broccoli.
- Make a White Sauce. Add white wine and Grated Parmesan Cheese.
- Brown Cracker Crumbs in Butter.
- Bake at 350 until bubbly. Serve with Rice.
That’s it. I made one recently. Sometimes, I need no nonsense and no mathematics cluttering up my mind- just clear directions – especially when it’s cold weather.
Now, any recipe that starts with frying bacon can’t be bad, in fact- these are the recipes you know are winners! I found one recipe- no doubt submitted by a beautiful and fragile Southern Cook- it was so well written, I fell in love with her on the spot.
I’m not sure about her recipe, though her gentle ways soothed me. Her southern charm, her impeccable manners won me over. She started out the recipe in such a precise and charming way…
- Fry bacon in a heavy cast iron Dutch Oven until crisp- set aside. Pour off almost all of the fat leaving just enough to leave a thin film on the bottom. *Please note there are no upper case letters shouting at you- implied was this- ‘Now darling, you better save that bacon fat, you may need it later!’ Then..
- She gets fired up… ‘Heat fat to smoking hot, brown meat a few pieces at a time… if needed, add a little more bacon fat.’
- Later on, when she finally finishes browning all of that meat and has removed it to a platter, she goes on…’add butter to the pot…onions.. then says- ‘You may need more bacon fat.’ I’m calming down already.
- Alright, now she wants us to add Beef Stock, Spices and Beer. Yep, it’s winter stew for sure. Listen to how nicely she writes the last suggestion…
- ‘Return browned meat to pot. There should be enough sauce to cover, but if you’re a little short, add beer.’ Do you not love this woman???
Please note how polite she is the whole way through! That alone settles my nerves. She says- ‘You may need more bacon fat… if you’re running a little short, you may need more beer!’ No unreasonable demands, just reasonable suggestions. This lady may be almost as nice as the lady who is making Beef Roulade Sandwiches… who says from the outset.
‘Be nice to the butcher. Smile.’
Both of these ladies put me in a better frame of mind, it’s like they’re saying- ‘Bon Appetit, y’all.’
Cookbook Therapy works! If you’re chilled, it’s dreary and damp- peruse the recipes in good Junior League or Church Ladies’ Cookbooks. What you’ll find are stories of real people making really good food. It’s the best therapy I know of…you don’t have to cook a single recipe- however, what’s better than a collection of stories that could end up as a feast on your very own table? The next time you need a lift- Read Cookbooks as Literature.
Love, y’all! Camellia
*This is an updated and ‘not as long winded’ version as the first which was published in January 2018. All photographs are obviously mine.
*Bon Appetit, Y’all, also happens to be the title of one of my favorite cookbooks by a French trained Southern Chef! Virginia Willis.
Tips for Writers: I write best when I’m reading. My writing and cadence is better when I’m reading. Reading can relieve writer’s block. Pat Conroy had a goal of reading 200 pages per day and to write 5 legal pad pages per day! Now, that’s a lot of reading and writing yet no one can dispute his success!