Breaking the Cookbook Cycle

Cookbooks have a life cycle: when a book is new, it’s exciting, it might get cover to cover, torn bits of paper sprouting up like so many shoots in the spring marking promising recipes. Then comes experimentation: making each of those recipes, seeing which work and which don’t. And finally – tragically – the third age of cookbookdom; sad years spent languishing on the shelf, ignored but for the one or two recipes that keep the book from being sent off to the big cookbook library in the sky.

Some cookbooks can avoid this fate – maybe a copy of the Joy of Cooking that gets referenced for everything (I prefer Cook’s Illustrated’s New Best Recipe) – but most are destined to become so much shelf decoration.

Take Curried Favors: Family Recipes from South India by Maya Kaimal MacMillan. When I received this book as a gift, I was into Indian food in a big way. The book was a perfect gateway into the cuisine: easy, apparently authentic recipes that produced great food. In the first months I had this book I cooked widely from it, even preparing the multi-course dinner menus suggested in the back. We had such good times, Curried Favors and I. But, eventually, my enthusiasm for Indian food was crowded out by other cuisines and Curried Favors joined the other disgraced books of yesteryear on the shelf, pulled down only when I had a craving for that one recipe; in this case cholé – a curry of chickpeas and tomatoes.

Cholé is a household favorite for Martha and me, made so many times we don’t really need to look at the recipe anymore. But for whatever reason last week I got the urge to double check the recipe – maybe just to be sure I had the spice mixture right. What page was cholé on? The paper scrap bookmark had long since fallen out. To the index! C… ch.. hey, cabbage! In all my excitement for the familiar flavors of cholé I hadn’t forgotten that we had half a cabbage sitting in the crisper drawer, on its way to being thrown out, rotten in two weeks unless fate intervened.

And as fate would have it I found myself turning not to Cholé on page 93 but to Cabbage Thoren on page 73. Scanning the list of ingredients – coconut, a green chile, garlic, cumin, coriander, cayenne, turmeric, salt, mustard seeds, dried red peppers, bay leaves, rice, the aforementioned cabbage – we had everything on hand: it was meant to be.

I had never made Cabbage Thoren before that night – in spite of having the recipe in my possession more than eight years – and it’s a shame, because it was very good. And it got me thinking, maybe it’s time to start exploring Curried Favors again. Paging through to the elaborate suggested menus at the back, I started to plan another Indian feast.

This month is replete with bloggers’ suggestions for food resolutions. Here’s mine: find a cookbook you own that you have more or less forgotten, dust it off, and see what new things it has in store.


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2 comments on “Breaking the Cookbook Cycle”

  1. Alyssa 12 January, 2011 at 2:05 pm

    Great post! I am receiving a subscription to “Cooking Light” this year, which has been really exciting because of all those shiny, new recipes beckoning to be made. But as I go to shelve them, I realize that I have issues from 2003 and 2005 that have faced the same fate as some of your cookbooks – shelf art. Shelf art with fantastic, forgotten recipes. Thanks for the reminder to make use of these gems!

  2. Tom 12 January, 2011 at 7:18 pm

    Hah, Alyssa, I’ve been a Cook’s Illustrated subscriber without interruption since 2003, and they are all neatly ordered in magazine boxes. I do actually pull them out often, but it’s so hard to remember where exactly a certain recipe is. Many times I’ve considered building a database of all of them, but that’s just too nerdy for me to undertake right now.

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