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The cookbook reading group. October 28, 2008

Posted by ourfriendben in recipes.
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Silence Dogood here. Last night, our friend Ben and I braved the rain to head out to the Barnes & Noble nearest us so I could attend the first meeting of the Cookbook Reading Group. This group is the brainchild of our friend Delilah, and for the first meeting, we were instructed to bring a favorite cookbook and a cookie recipe to share. (I brought my beloved Chocolate Chip-Toffee Oatmeal Cookie recipe, which you’ll find in an earlier post, “A good day for baking cookies.”)

Now, I’ll admit that the name “Cookbook Reading Group” didn’t strike me as especially inspirational, but it proved surprisingly accurate. All of us who turned up for the inaugural meeting actually loved reading cookbooks more than using them. “I read them like novels,” someone said. I myself love to read them to relax before bed, or, in the case of exotic cookbooks, sometimes I just flip through the pages, letting the fabulous photos take me to distant lands before I drift off to sleep.

Our little group was small but passionate. (It’s hard to lure people out on a cold, rainy night, and even harder when you’re in Pennsylvania and the Phillies are playing what could be their World Series Championship game that very evening.) Delilah’s partner Chaz, who also loves to cook, braved a table of women to join us, while our friend Ben, who cooks only when necessary, skulked—I mean, browsed—in the travel section of the store until the meeting was over.

After the introductions, we shared the books we’d brought. Given that we were in PennsyIvania Dutch country, I’d brought along William Woys Weaver’s gorgeous Pennsylvania Dutch Country Cooking, one of the most beautiful, interesting, and authentic cookbooks I’ve ever seen. Erin had brought Padma Lakshmi’s inspiring Tangy Tart Hot & Sweet, a book I’ve picked up many times while browsing the “International cookbook” shelves of numerous stores. Delilah brought a book that’s also in my collection, The Great American Bake Sale, and Chaz contibuted another favorite of theirs, The California Pizza Kitchen Cookbook. They’d also brought a new favorite, Southern Living Best Loved Cookies. We all spent a happy time paging through them all and drooling.

One thing that especially interested me about the meeting was that, during the introductions, people discussed the first dish they’d ever learned to cook. For Chaz, it was scrambled eggs, with fried eggs a close second. Delilah’s mother had taught her to make gravy properly when she was four years old. Even our friend Ben, when I relayed this to him on the way home, recalled that the first thing he ever learned to make was toast.

I was mesmerized by this, since I have no memory at all of the first thing I ever made. I grew up with two incredible cooks showing me how to make food. My first memory of participating in a food-making event was helping at my mother’s annual fruitcake extravaganza, where our entire dining-room table was covered with jams, jellies, marmalade, citrus, candied cherries, raisins, currants, candied pineapple, nuts, wines, brandy, port, bourbon, flour, butter, and other good things, all being painstakingly added to make a batter for what would eventually become, to me, an entirely inedible cake.

How on earth could so many good things go into something so foul?!! But of course, my mother and father loved fruitcake, so the annual ritual continued. To this day, I believe passionately in the saying “Get even, give fruitcake.” My palate is simply not wired for fruitcake, spice cake, plum pudding, mince pie, and other (to me) harshly flavored delicacies my parents and many other people love. But I digress.

Thinking hard, I’ll bet that the very first thing my beloved Mama taught me to make on my own was salad dressing. We never, ever had storebought salad dressings in the house, and we were taught early on to despise French, Russian, and Thousand Island dressing as “bourgeois” (without, of course, ever even tasting them). I eventually did taste French dressing, which of course I (secretly) loved, but to this day I’ve never ventured into the Thousand Islands, Russia, the world of the Green Goddess, or many another exotic dressing locale. I have made the acquaintance of Ranch, Parmesan Peppercorn, and Blue Cheese dressings, all of which I enjoy.

I continue to make my own salad dressing to this day. But alas, I’ve left the very specific, very careful directions Mama gave me for vinaigrette practically in the dust. These days, I almost always put the fresh herbs and other seasonings right in the salad, then dress it with a simple mix of good olive oil, salt, and balsamic vinegar. I still have vivid memories of her showing me how to add the dried herbs, Colman’s powdered mustard, and lemon juice to the oil, then just so much vinegar, then shaking like mad before pouring it over the salad, though. Those were very happy times. 

So thank you, Delilah dear, for reviving happy memories for me and doubtless the entire group. Thank you for setting up the meetings and coming up with your bazillionth brilliant idea. Readers, if you love cookbooks and cooking, it’s worth thinking about setting up your own group in a bookstore near you. By the time our meeting reluctantly drew to a close, we were already discussing the possibility of taking a group trip to Maine next August for their blueberry festival. Good times!

Meanwhile, can you remember the first thing you learned to cook? Do you have a favorite cookbook or recipe to share? I’d love to hear about them! In return, I’ll leave you with the recipe for Delilah’s Mother’s Magic Cookies.

     ‘Til next time,



   Delilah’s Mother’s Magic Cookies

1 stick butter, softened

1 cup Graham cracker crumbs

6-ounce package semisweet chocolate chips

6-ounce package butterscotch chips

1 cup flaked coconut

1 can (14 ounces) sweetened condensed milk

1/2 cup chopped pecans

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F (175 degrees C). Melt butter in a 9-by-13-inch pan. Sprinkle Graham cracker crumbs evenly over melted butter. Layer chcolate chips, butterscotch chips, and coconut over crumbs. Drizzle condensed milk evenly over top. Sprinkle with pecans. Bake 30 minutes. Cool completely, then cut into bars. Makes 12 to 16.



1. Alan - October 28, 2008

I misread “exotic” as “erotic” LOL, and had to wonder briefly what kind of group this was. Can’t say I understand reading cookbooks for fun. We have a pretty good collection and we use them a lot, but I can’t think of one (except a bread book, the title of which I will have to go digging for) that I have come close to reading cover to cover. I love food and cooking, and I read almost everything that comes through the door, but I don’t get it.

Ha!!! There are plenty of erotic cookbooks out there, Alan, but you’ll have to find them on your own. As for reading cookbooks for pleasure instead of simply searching them for recipes, I thought I was the only one who did that until last night. If they’re well written and beautifully photographed, or even just entertainingly written (The Tasha Tudor Cookbook, the original Laurel’s Kitchen, and Helen Nearing’s Simple Food for the Good Life come to mind), a cookbook can take you somewhere else as effectively as any work of fiction, and without the emotional distress most novels find indispensable to their plots. Look at a few with this in mind and see what you think!

2. Daphne Gould - October 28, 2008

Wow what was the first thing I ever cooked? I haven’t a clue. I do have cooking memories from growing up, but is my earliest memory my first experience. Probably not. The earliest cooking memory I have is making blackberry pie when I was about 5 or 6 maybe. My mother had a very small pie dish which was maybe 6″ in diameter. But the memory is vague. I remember picking the blackberries (that grew wild) more than I remember making the pie. I do however remember when I was a teenager, cooking crepes for about 30 people. It was a party with just crepes and I made a million of them. I don’t think I’ve made them since. The memory of making them all was just too painful.

I don’t read a lot of cookbooks. I did read one this spring entitled “Greens, Glorious Greens”. But that book was made to be read. It had sections on how to pick out and store the greens, and sometimes a little cultural blurb about them.

Picking blackberries would definitely be more fun than cooking them, Daphne! As for crepes, I love them, but have never dared even attempt to make them. You were brave! The best cookbooks are all stories enriched by recipes, I think. (Unless I’m REALLY tired. Then I just like the pictures… )

3. jen - October 28, 2008

Tasha Tudor has a cookbook? I have to check it out! I recently read Country Commune Cooking by Lucy Horton. A great read and definitely a cultural document about how the “freaks and longhairs” of the 70s lived. Oh yeah – lots of good recipes too! They were before their time when it came to cutting down on processed foods, eating less meat, etc.

Those cookies look decadent!

Oh, Jen, you have such a treat in store. You MUST find The Tasha Tudor Cookbook and read it immediately! What a delight!!! I’ll keep an eye peeled for the Country Commune Cookbook. I love those ’70s nostalgia-fests. I found one a few years ago called Vegetarian Gothic that was just priceless!

4. vegplotting - October 28, 2008

Standing on a chair in my grandmother’s kitchen, stirring the cake mixture and being allowed to ‘lick’ the bowl as my reward. I was about 3 years old at the time.

In case that British term doesn’t travel well over the pond, it means scraping the bowl clean with a spoon, trying to get every last scrap of cake mixture out.

It was fruitcake BTW. A family favourite to this day.

We lick the bowl (or at least the spoon), too, VP. It’s a sin to wash good batter down the sink! But, gasp, fruitcake?!! Er. Maybe the batter’s better than my memory of the finished cakes!

5. nancybond - October 28, 2008

I truly cannot remember the very first thing I ever cooked (doubtless, my mother can!) but I do share your love of cookbooks. I can happily entertain myself by pouring over a stack of cookbooks for an afternoon. 🙂 However, I come from a long line of fruitcake and mincemeat lovers (it stops with me as my kids hate both) — my mother’s fruitcake making ritual used to be the signal that it was time to start getting excited for Christmas! Her recipe yields a huge, heavy, buttery rich white cake — fudge-like, almost. No gritty currants or bitter peels, but POUNDS of candied fruit, nuts and raisins. Mmmm. And mince pies are another holiday favorite. I used to make my own mincemeat when venison was in good supply and it was heavenly. 🙂 When I dig it out, I’ll post the fruitcake recipe…just for you. Hee!

Actually, I’d love to see it (and maybe even try it), Nancy! A rich, buttery, fudgelike white cake doesn’t sound anything like the dense, dark, bitter fruitcakes of my childhood, with their complex but unpalatable flavors. Can’t wait to see your mother’s version! I think a lot of people around these parts still do make (and sell) their own mincemeat, especially with deerhunting as popular as it is!

6. Curmudgeon - October 28, 2008

First memory I have of cooking involved my easy-bake oven and making instant mash potatoes when I was 6 or 7. First memory involving a real stove was at age 13 when I tried to make bacon. It was so not pretty. The bacon grease got too hot and burst into flames. I decided to move the flaming frying pan to the sink–I did know enough not to pour water on the whole mess. But unfortunately the spider plant hanging in the window over the sink caught on fire too and well, from there things didn’t get any better. The frilly curtains over the window caught on fire next. All in all the bacon was inedible, the spider plant was crispy fried and the curtains were definitely not made of flame retardant fabric.

Ack!!!! The inedible bacon was the least of that story! I just hope the spider plant wasn’t in a plastic hanging basket. The melted plastic really wouldn’t have been pretty! Eeeewww. As for the easy-bake oven, I’d completely forgotten about those. I’m not sure we actually had one—I was always baking up goo in molds into creepy crawlies in some other gizmo, seems to me. Talk about a memorable smell! I’m not sure what the goo was, but the stench of baking creepy crawlies was really something else!

7. deb - October 28, 2008

First thing I cooked on my own was a birthday cake for my dad. It was awful with blue icing. He was sweet and ate two pieces. The first book I read every year is my Southern Living Annual Recipes

I think Curmudgeon’s comment deserves it’s own blog post. Yikes.

That’s what I thought, too, Debbi (re: Curmudgeon’s post). And I didn’t try to make a from-scratch cake until I went to college. It looked like a giant toad that had fallen in a mudhole.

8. linda - October 29, 2008

Like you I can’t remember the first thing I ever cooked. With 5 kids in our family, not to the mention the strays our big-hearted mom was famous for ‘adopting,’ all of us kids were on KP duty as soon as we were coordinated enough to peel carrots and potatoes. Helping prepare meals and clean up afterwards was a daily experience for my siblings and I. To Mom’s credit, the boys were expected to help too, and all three of them learned to cook. I suspect the first thing I ever made by myself was probably cookies, could have been oatmeal raisin, chocolate chip, or maybe peanut butter.

My mom’s Pennsylvania Dutch cookbook was my favorite of all the cookbooks she had, and the cookie section was my favorite part.

You stirred up so many memories with this post, most notably fruitcake, which we were all called upon to assist with around this time of year, since, as you know, fruitcake must age for a while in order to be at its gifting best at Christmastime. Fruitcake – yuk! Awful stuff! (I do like plum pudding though, with hard sauce!)

Good for your mom for putting all of you to work, Linda! I’ll bet your brothers are really glad now. As the oldest child, I was the one who set and cleared the table and helped serve, and I’m the only one who I can remember actually helping with the cooking. (Admittedly, we had a VERY small kitchen.) My sister made up for lost time the second she had her own place and loves to cook, but I’d be surprised to learn that my brother can boil water to this day. Ah, yes, the ritual aging of the fruitcake! As for plum pudding, pass the hard sauce, hold the pudding, please!

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