The Kindest Cookbook

February 26, 2012 · 35 comments

I didn’t know Sam, although I met him, once, when I was a baby; he was married to my father’s beloved cousin Josephine. Josephine was a few years older than my dad; she was on the Altman side of the family that eventually became obscured by time and a confluence of strong personalities and ancient resentments. Eventually, Sam and Josephine became little more than memory and lore, lost to the petty grievances that compel families to inevitably, sadly, prefer one side over the other.

So I don’t really know why, a few years ago, I decided to dig up Sam’s email address on the internet, and write to him. It seemed a weird, impetuous thing to do — to write to this man in his early 90s — and when he responded immediately, in a heavy, purple, gigantic san serif font that reminded me of the cover of Harold and the Purple Crayon, it made me nervous, like I was opening up a Pandora’s Box that wasn’t mine to unseal.

CALL ME INSTEAD, Sam wrote in all caps, giving me his phone number. I HATE THIS MACHINE.

So I called.

“You’re Cy’s little girl–” he asked, cautiously, his voice quivering a little bit. “I remember you. You had blonde curls—I heard he died in an accident.”

“I am … he did–” I responded. Just saying so still shook me to my core, eight years after my father’s car crash. “And you’re Josephine’s husband–”

“I am,” he answered gruffly. “And your grandmother — she liked to play cards.”

“That’s right,” I laughed. “She was very good at it—”

“Except when she wasn’t,” he barked.

There was a quick edge of anger in his voice; it was old and taut, and glazed with enmity. I had heard stories forever; I knew what was true and what wasn’t, and even after more than seventy years, it was all right there, on the tip of his tongue, dying to get out.

“We never liked each other–” he went on. “It was mutual–”

I didn’t know what to say, so I said nothing. There was silence.

“So what do you do?” he coughed, changing the subject. I was relieved.

“I cook— and I write about food.”


“In books. And on the computer.”

I said on the computer like I was speaking in some sort of geriatric dialect that I thought Sam would understand, even though he had been deft enough to respond to my email in large, purple letters. How we underestimate the elderly.

“I have something for you, then—I think you should have it. I don’t want it to get thrown away.”

It made me uncomfortable; I had last seen this man when I was possibly not yet out of diapers.

“When I married Josephine in 1938, she couldn’t cook. A regular disaster area. So as a wedding gift, I bought her a cookbook. It was the only one she ever used, and she learned from it. She loved your father, so I want you to have it.”

“But Sam—doesn’t she still need it?” I waited for the inevitable.

“No sweetheart”– he softened — “she has no memory anymore. It’s gone. So you’ll take care of her book then, if I send it to you?”

“I will Sam,” I promised.

He asked me for my address, and just like that, we said goodbye.

A few days later, an ancient Jiffy bag — it had clearly been used and reused; I remembered my grandmother’s penchant for saving plastic shopping bags just in case until they overtook her hallway coat closet like Tribbles — sat in my mailbox. He had addressed it using a thick black magic marker; the word Altman was three times the size of my first name and street address, all of which were written in giant caps, just like his email.

My father’s cousin Josephine had used The Settlement Cookbook for decades; it got stained, splattered, stuffed with other recipes for things like noodle kugel and cheese blintzes torn out of the Miami Sun-Sentinel and the Jerusalem Post. A page pulled out of a tiny spiral notebook described a recipe called EGGPLANT:

The twenty-second edition and published in 1938, Josephine’s prized cookbook had lived through World War II and Korea, the birth of children and grandchildren, and Sam’s son-in-law’s decision to move his family to Tel Aviv. When the book fell apart, which it did at least twice judging from the two layers of tape holding its spine together, Josephine and Sam simply performed surgery on it, and patched it back up. I called Sam to tell him it arrived and he told me to take good care of it; it was the one and only cookbook that Josephine had ever used, and the only one she owned. There was no reason to have another.

I have a lot of cookbooks on my shelves; hundreds, perhaps. Some have come from tag sales, others from remarkable stores like Celia Sack‘s Omnivore Books in San Francisco, and Nach Waxman‘s Kitchen Arts and Letters in Manhattan. Some I bought when I was in cooking school, or with my discount when I worked at Dean & Deluca; some were sent to me by authors, and others came from the years I spent as an editor at Random House and Harper Collins. They clog up my office, my living room, my den; they sit on a special shelf in the kitchen, and in boxes in the basement. I have a stack of them on my nightstand and a few in both bathrooms. And still, whenever I talk to other food writers or editors, or I participate in a panel discussion somewhere, invariably the conversation turns to whether or not the digital world will kill cookbooks. Do we still need them. Do we still want them. Are we getting all of our recipes from the internet, or via 140 word snippets on Twitter.

Do they still matter. 

And I look at this battered, beloved, dribbled-upon cookbook sitting on my desk tonight, that fed a hungry husband — and eventually, children and grandchildren — for 69 years, until Josephine lost her memory, and the book went unused in her kitchen while Sam took care of her for as long as he could.

Cookbooks tell us who we are, what we’ve done, and how we’ve lived. We’d do well to remember that, to hang on to them like family bibles, and to pass them on to others who’ll cherish them.

Yes, I think.

They still matter. 




{ 32 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Vanessa February 26, 2012 at 6:25 pm

I love this. I can’t wait to hear what treasures you find tucked in the pages.

2 June Jacobs February 26, 2012 at 6:55 pm

I’m going to make that eggplant.

Oh how I wish I had my mom’s Settlement Cookbook. Grandma gave it to her when she married Daddy. When I cleaned out the cookbooks after she died, it just wasn’t there. I don’t know how much she really cooked from it, because Gram taught her how to make all Daddy’s favorite foods, and Mom, though not Jewish, made them all far better than Gram ever had.

What a fabulous keepsake! I know you’ll love it forever.


3 naomi duguid February 26, 2012 at 7:00 pm

lovely Elissa. No extra words, just exactly right in all ways. xo n

4 Elissa February 26, 2012 at 7:02 pm

That means the world coming from you, Naomi. Safe travels—Hope to see you soon.

5 Kelly February 26, 2012 at 7:02 pm

What a wonderful post. It is amazing how deeply meaningful a cookbook or a hand written recipe can be. They seem to embody times, memories, struggles, joys, and lives, like few other treasures do. And, at the point that they become meaningful they have practically lost any economic value and are pure sentiment…pure love, and pure connection.

I recently picked up a copy of the Settlement Cookbook at a garage sale. It was in much the same condition. I couldn’t just let it sit there, unloved, because I just had this nagging sensation that somebody out there, some grandkid or niece or nephew, would be devastated if they only knew it was headed for the heap. After holding onto it for several years, I recently sent it to Half Price books. I have “adopted” too many of these old books over the years. I hope some other sentimental person will adopt it for a while and look at all the clippings and time worn pages. I really enjoyed this post. Thank you.

6 Nancie McDermott February 26, 2012 at 10:18 pm

This makes me very happy, and very sad, and very pensive, and very grateful. Thank you for writing this.

7 MommaMary February 27, 2012 at 1:36 am

What a truly beautiful story and what a special gift/

8 Anita February 27, 2012 at 9:02 am

Ive only recently found your blog, and just wanted to say how much I love your writing. Thanks for sharing. Looking forward to more!

9 Carol February 27, 2012 at 9:10 am

Beautiful, just beautiful

10 Victoria February 27, 2012 at 10:04 am

My cookbook collection is too large, but I haven’t had the mettle you did to do a purge. I have not had the time. But eventually I will, and it is a task, once started, I will embrace enthusiastically – even though I am not looking forward to it. One thing I know in advance, every Nigel Slater book I have will make the cut.

My first cookbook was the 1964 edition of Joy of Cooking. It was sent to me by a college friend when I was the first from my class to get engaged, at age 19. I read it, and used it, and splattered all over it. There are still two recipes from it that are part of my repertoire – a lamb curry specifically for using up leftovers and Cecily Brownstone’s original Chicken Country Captain. When a new edition of Joy came out in the 70’s, a friend of mine asked if she could have my original one since she knew I got the new one, and I happily gave it to her.

That is an act I might regret but for the fact that I believe her daughter has it, and I like to think she uses it too – a book that has notations both from me and from her lovely mother, who died way too young.

This is a lovely post. You must be a lovely person.

11 WInnie February 27, 2012 at 10:34 am

Truly a lovely post.

12 Hillary Davis February 27, 2012 at 11:18 am

What a beautiful story! I, too, have a love for out-of-print cookbooks, ones I find at tag sales, ones that have drifted out of sight….I adore my Dinah Shore Cookbook, my Oscar of the Waldorf….all bring me great joy. Happy to meet a kindred soul!

13 Lynda Peterson February 27, 2012 at 12:12 pm

This is a lovely post. Thank you for sharing.

14 Alice Bollaci February 27, 2012 at 12:24 pm

I have collected cookbooks from the time I was a teenager and cherish books always. I lost my lifetime collection a few years ago in a fire and I still cry over it. I have owned restaurants in Australia and have just written my first cookbook with my nephew and it will be out in the autumn. Some of the recipes have become second nature and instinctual and that is what I hope for my readers. Go to your Farmer’s Markets! Local and sustainable is so important. Grow your own!! Currently I am rereading the Gastronomic Me by MFK Fisher….in it a young married and learning how to appreciate quality food makes her a marvelous read. Enjoy! Buon Appetito!!

15 Nancy February 27, 2012 at 2:41 pm

I am going to make that eggplant too!

16 Stefanie February 27, 2012 at 10:09 pm

I have a copy of the Settlement Cookbook too, from 1921. So many neat recipes and techniques lost to time. It also is a family heirloom, although I’m not sure what family or how it made its way to my mother (and so to me, when I, uh, “borrowed” it). My version is the 1997 edition of the Joy of Cooking. It is taped up and stained (but no writing, I’ve never been able to bring myself to write in a book) and it is what taught me to cook when I moved in with my boyfriend (now my husband). And seven years later I went to culinary school and am now a pastry chef. I hope to send my daughter off with it when she is of age, and I hope she’ll glean the same value from it that I did, in her age of iPads and the who-knows-whats of 15 years in the future.

17 Barbara Wasser February 27, 2012 at 10:14 pm

Thanks for sharing that lovely story. I have and treasure my mother’s copy of The Settlement Cookbook 1928 which has a couple of missing pages in the front and is taped together, grease splattered and used with love. I am the co-author of Divine Kosher Cuisine that won the Tabasco McIlhenny Community Cookbook Regional Award in 2006. This was only the second time a Jewish/Kosher Cookbook was so honored. Even though The Settlement Cookbook was not a kosher cookbook, it really had much that appealed to the Jewish cook.

18 Ilana Simon February 28, 2012 at 11:17 pm

Thank you for a perfect”ode to the cookbok.” As a cokbook author and former food writer/columnist, I have a massive collection of cookbooks! And like you. I never tire of reading them…I love the cookbooks published by the synagogues, Haddassah, ORT and my modern go-to cookbooks are Mark Bittman’s tomes among others like Joan Nathan and ourCanadian healthy cooking stalwarts. I pull cookbooks from my shelves to flip through, get inspired or just to read and enjoy! Long live cookbooks!

19 Sarah Brooker March 3, 2012 at 6:39 pm

This story made me feel like crying. It is beautiful and deeply sad. You are so right that cookbooks still matter. I cannot put into words how deeply I agree with you.

20 Sarah @ studiofood March 4, 2012 at 6:10 pm

What a poignant post, and a reminder for all of us about the things we can learn from the older generations before it is too late. Have you seen the 90 year old lady whose grandson films her conducting Depression era cooking classes on You Tube? This post reminded me of her. I think her name is Clara.

21 tara March 7, 2012 at 9:57 am

I’m so glad to have found your blog. So much of what you write resonates with me, especially this post. In fact, I recently posted my own essay on why cookbooks still matter, precisely because of all the technological advances we live with these days. I am happy to read that so many others are firmly on board, as well.

22 Faith Kramer March 7, 2012 at 3:59 pm

I was lucky enough to have passed on to me my husband’s aunt’s treasured cookbooks,so I really related to your beautifully written story.

I hope to pass my own collection on someday but I doubt it will have the impact of your cousin’s single book.

23 Annika March 7, 2012 at 4:25 pm

This is wonderful. Sad and poignant and wonderful.

When I got married, my grandmother sent me a set of cookbooks. She’d searched used bookstore for years to find them. They are the same books she used when my mother, aunt, and uncles were children–she called them her “bathroom books,” because when the children were driving her crazy she’d lock herself in the bathroom, alone, and read the recipes.

(She also cooked from them. My grammy is a wonderful cook.)

24 Alison@Mama Wants This March 7, 2012 at 6:12 pm

Gorgeous, gorgeous post. Both your writing and the story. Loved it.

25 LJacoby714 March 7, 2012 at 8:07 pm

My best friend, Annie, gave me a Settlement House Cookbook (15th ed.) in 1975, long before I had any interest in cooking, so I have no idea what inspired that gift. However, when I did begin cooking, I discovered that, if I wanted to cook meals that tasted like my grandma’s did, Settlement House had the recipes I needed. So, every time I use Settlement House, I have Edme and Annie in the kitchen with me—and everything turns out just right! It’s the one cookbook I will always keep on my shelves.

26 Trina March 7, 2012 at 8:12 pm

I love old cookbooks. The stories they tell by which pages are the most worn, splattered, or dog-eared. You can tell which recipe was the favorite by which page the book naturally falls open to. I have my grandmother’s cookbooks (Practical Cooking & Serving, Janet McKenzie Hill, 1915; June Platt’s Party Cook Book, June Platt, 1936; and The Joy of Cooking, Irma Rombauer, 1936). I’ve also started writing down her “memory” recipes to test and then compile into a cookbook for my family. She was an amazing cook and an even more amazing baker. Everything was made from scratch from ingredients we grew on the farm. I love sharing family stories with my children over a meal I made using one of my grandmother’s recipes.

And, yes, they do still matter.

27 ronnie March 7, 2012 at 10:16 pm

This is simply a beautiful story. thank you for sharing…. and yes, that cookbook was meant to be with you. you will cherish it and use it for the next generation.

28 Elissa March 8, 2012 at 12:24 am

Thank you so much for your kind words—-

29 Elissa March 8, 2012 at 12:25 am

Thanks so very much Alison.

30 Rocky Mountain Woman March 9, 2012 at 1:45 pm

When my mom passed away, my sisters and I were going through her jewelry and picking out pieces to remember her by. I don’t care much for jewelry, so I traded for her green recipe box and it came home in my suitcase on the plane. I can’t tell you how much I love seeing it on my counter. I found recipes in there that I had given her over the years in my handwriting. It’s a treasure beyond anything else she could have given me…

31 Lady Jennie March 12, 2012 at 11:47 am

I’m visiting here from Mama Wants This.

In ten short years I ruined my copy of Joy of Cooking, so I can only imagine what several decades will do. What a treasure. I hope you unearth some culinary treasures in there.

32 Linda March 19, 2012 at 6:59 pm

Your post touched my heart in so many ways….thank you. I treasure all of the old recipes I have tucked away in my Mother’s hand, relatives handwriting, old friends….some so old and delicate they might turn to dust if handled to harshly…the stories of life for me.

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