On Cookbooks

Every now and then, I go through periods in my life when food doesn’t interest me. I suspect that this is related to a medical condition I have, judging from experiences of others with the same condition. Whatever the reason, for several days or weeks, I have a really hard time eating. I can’t remember to eat, and when I do know that I need to eat, nothing interests me. Typically, I force myself to cook something, and I choke down a few mouthfuls before pushing the rest away, feeling nauseated. Inevitably, during one of these periods my Chinese mother invites me over to dinner and I am too stupid to make up an excuse not to go, and she makes something really weird like pickled duck testicles, and I fear I may spark an international incident. The smell of food, which is normally intoxicating, becomes repulsive. Discussions about food are like torture, and photographs of food in my RSS feed cause me to feel slightly faint. (Which is a real problem, when you subscribe to numerous food related sites.)

Long time readers will know that disinterest in food is an extremely unusual state of affairs for me, and these periods tend to be distressing to friends as well, because I do uncharacteristic things like declining free food, ordering a large plate of pad thai and eating two bites, not eating sweets, and looking askance at someone who suggests going on a culinary adventure. I’m not really sure what brings these periods on, and what causes them to end. They just seem to happen with no apparent pattern, and then they stop, just like that, and it’s back to full tilt, balls to the wall eating.

I’ve spent the last week or two sinking into one of these stages, and soliciting recommendations of food from friends. Most of our conversations involve me whining about not knowing what I want to eat, and my friends throwing out perfectly good suggestions which I shoot down with comments like “it’s too green.” (Curried okra.) “There’s too much starch.” (Sushi.) “It might end up being greasy.” (Soup.) And so forth. Luckily, things haven’t reached full blown “talk about food and feel green around the gills” stage, obviously, or I wouldn’t be writing this post, but things are starting to look pretty dire. After all, it’s not every day that I turn down a meal at one of my favourite restaurants with a shudder.

So I took a radical step: I bought cookbooks.

I’m not too into cookbooks. I own The Joy of Cooking because I think it is a good reference text, especially for baking, and I own a vegetarian Indian cookbook which I have literally never used. (It was a gift.) Cookbooks and I have never really gotten along, and that’s just how it is. Even my father uses cookbooks on occasions, and he is a far more naturally gifted cook than I am (in fact, perhaps the use of cookbooks contributes to that). I just open cookbooks, stare at the contents listlessly, and then close them again. With the exception of the Joy, which I open to look for very specific things, like the recipe for the dessert I am making for my father on his birthday next week. And sometimes I look at the pictures in the butchering section because they are interesting, or I look up a substitution or a unit conversion.

At any rate, a friend called me yesterday afternoon to see if I wanted to check out the sale at the Gallery Bookshop with her. The Gallery Bookshop, incidentally, for those of you who are not local, is a supercool bookstore in Mendocino which has been in business for basically forever. And they were damaged by a fire last week, which means that they need to get rid of all their inventory so that the building can be repaired, allowing them to restock. So they threw out the stuff that was really messed up, and they’re selling everything else with a major markdown. Whatever doesn’t sell will get scooped up by the insurance company, which claims that it goes to some sort of book recycling company which presumably sells the stock elsewhere at a discount. I would like to point out that I had to be physically restrained from diving headfirst into the dumpster just outside. Anyway, book sale, good bookstore, sure why not.

Now, I have a tendency to go a bit wild in bookstores. So I made two rules: I had to either get books which I could write off for work, or I had to get books which I couldn’t get in the library. Now, I think you can get some cookbooks from the library, but cookbooks from the library just seem weird, to me. I’m a messy cook, so basically any book I borrowed would end up covered in mysterious sludge. I’m pretty sure that our library shares this concern, and that cookbooks are designated in-library use only, which is pretty reasonable if you ask me because who wants to check out a moldy cookbook with the remains of someone else’s food on it?

Therefore, I decided that maybe it was time to get some cookbooks. I also thought that perhaps I could pique my appetite with some new and interesting recipes. I ended up with Where Flavor Was Born, Mangoes and Curry Leaves, The Arab Table, Soha, and The Essence of Chocolate. I’m planning on experimenting with a few recipes from them later this week, and I’ll probably talk about them, assuming they turn out ok. I figure these books don’t merit full inclusion in the book project, since I’m not embarking on some kind of Julie/Julia project here, and I won’t really be reading them as much as eating them, but one thing I do like about all of these books is that they are fancy-pants hardcover cookbooks with lots of culinary and historical information, so I can learn while I cook.

I don’t know if these cookbooks will address the original problem of not feeling very hungry, but I think they will mark the entry of a new stage in my life: a stage where I use cookbooks. And I think that might actually be a good thing. All of us have a tendency to get stuck in a cooking rut, and I think it might be nice to try and cook something different every week. It doesn’t always have to be fancy or amazing, but by cooking something new, I might expand my palate, learn about new foods, have fun, and spur my appetite.

The real bummer, for me, is that most of these cookbooks are Southeast Asian, and they talk about all sorts of interesting spices which I can’t get here. Although it occurs to me that since I order everything from towels to binderclips on the internet, it’s a safe bet that someone, somewhere sells these spices, so maybe I should get on that. Although I think I will save the really intense, stinky stuff for after my current period of food-phobia ends. Unless I know my landlord is coming over, in which case I am busting out the big barrels because I need to convince him that a stove hood really is necessary, and if my house stinks of asafoetida and seared chilies, maybe I will be successful in the great stove hood campaign. Or even the great kitchen window that opens for ventilation campaign.

2 Replies to “On Cookbooks”

  1. You’ll find it on your own but I like to worship at the house of Penzey (www.penzeys.com). Ah food, if only I could stay away from it’s beuatiful delicious, lovely curves and flavors 🙂

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