Appetite for action? The wise writer turns to her cookbooks

Bon appetit! As the harvest peaks, riffling through cookbooks and recipe files is a daily duty. What to do with all those tomatoes?Truth be told, I’m apt to do my recipe scanning on the computer. Earlier this summer I donated a sack of cookbooks to Goodwill. “Quick Hamburger Casseroles,” “Microwave Cookery” and several other titles are no longer germane to my life.

But oh, how a writer loves her books! I couldn’t get rid of all of them, nor purge the files of recipes written in mother, aunt, grandmother and mother-in-law’s script. Those aren’t just preparation instructions, they’re memories.

Some cookbooks are as captivating as any literary adventure and for the writer a means to explore character development in her own work. Food, after all, is a basic need. What our characters consume and how they procure and prepare it is an important element in telling their story.

Classic cookbooks also provide history lessons. A prime example from my shelf is “Leone’s Italian Cookbook” by Gene Leone with a foreword by Dwight D. Eisenhower, Harper & Rowe, 1967. The richness of the New York restaurateur’s family story in a bygone era is as delicious and timeless as the recipes.

“Trader Vic’s Pacific Island Cookbook,” Doubleday & Company Inc., 1968, takes the reader from suckling pig in Hawaii to Sonofabitch Stew in Texas, along with tips on sight-seeing in Tahiti and how to throw a party in Bangkok. I’ve never attempted any of the recipes, I just like reading it! Ditto “Ship to Shore,” featuring Virgin Islands charter-yacht recipes published by Capt. Jan Robinson, copyright 1983. Chartering fascinates me; if I ever had to feed a hungry crew and guests sailing the islands, I’d whip this spiral-bound primer out in a hot minute.

A sense of taste always adds more to the story: think of John Irving’s Garp, simmering fresh tomato sauce and composing a salad. Patricia Cornwell‘s Kay Scarpetta reveals herself as she revels in her gourmet kitchen. Two of the tastiest books ever written are linked by recipes: Laura Esquivel’s lusty fairy tale

Cover of

Cover of An Embarrassment of Mangoes

Like Water for Chocolate,” and “An Embarrassment of Mangoes,” by Ann Vanderhoof. Food flavors both the novel and the traveling sailor’s memoir, illustrating how appetizing images nourish readers. Frank McCourt’s poverty-and-starvation memoir “Angela’s Ashes” carries an equal-but-opposite effect. Every time I read it I’m hungry for bacon and bread or better yet, fish and chips on grease-soaked paper.

My most-cherished cookbooks are a motley, thumb-smeared and dog-eared assortment that started with mom’s red-and-white checked “Better Homes & Gardens New Cookbook.” She knew I needed it. The circa 1960s edition got a lot of use when my children were little and I was learning to put together nutritious and delicious meals without burning anything, including myself. But one oldie-but-goodie remains in pristine condition; I never make it past that first, ultimate recipe. Here it is, from “Temptations,” an ethnic cookbook by the congregation of St. Paul the Apostle Church of Calumet, Michigan, copyright 1989 by Morris Press:

Recipe for Happiness


2 Heaping cups of Patience                              

English: St. Paul the Apostle Church

English: St. Paul the Apostle Church (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

1 Heartful of Love

2 Handfuls of Generosity

Dash of Laughter

1 Headful of Understanding

Sprinkle generously with Kindness. Add plenty of Faith and Hope. Mix well. Spread over a period of a lifetime. Serve generously to everyone you meet.

Ralph Berger

I’m currently awaiting the latest addition to the cookbook shelf, the hot- off-the-presses “Cooking with the Trop Rock Stars” by John and Kim Buskell,

It showcases the recipes and music of notable performers in sandy places where palm trees wave in the breeze and dolphins play in the water as people on vacation gather at the Tiki hut. My sailing, songwriting, guitarist and harbormaster husband Scott Perkins contributed some tunes to the Trop Rock cookbook as well as “Jo’s Potato Salad” and his favorite Upper Peninsula “fast food,” the meat-and-potato pie known as a Pasty. There’s a cheerful trailer promoting the cookbook that may prompt you to dance around your kitchen:

When I viewed the cookbook sampler on Amazon, I was dismayed by the use of “weather” for “whether,” (is there an editor in the house?) but appreciated the clean, colorful layout and the linking of music and food. I wrote Captain Scott’s bio; it’s a kick to see my prose in an unexpected genre. When it comes to being published, do you ever get over the thrill? I don’t think so!

Speaking of thrills, football season is upon us. The new, cooler season brings chili, soup, stews and casseroles to the forefront of the menu. My cookbooks are going to continue to get a lot of use, when, that is, I’m not surfing

In a world where recipes are a click away, what’s your favorite site? What’s the best cookbook you ever read? How do you blend the sense of taste into your writing?

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