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.”

“Where?”

“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.