Between us, The Writer and I own several* books, and currently two and a bit shelves either side of the fireplace are groaning under the weight of cookery books.
There’s a whole range, from old stalwarts (Delia’s How to Cook, Volume Two – the lack of volumes one and three suggest I’ve pilfered this one from the parentals) to tricksy stuff not to be attempted by the faint-hearted (Thomas Keller) and trendies (Hawksmoor, Thomas Selby, Polpo) via a host of reference books (if you’re into food and don’t already have a copy of The Flavour Thesaurus, rush out and get one now. Invaluable), food writing (including essays from the New Yorker) and Ma TW’s back catalogue of 13 books on the entire gamut of cookery. And that’s before we get to the scattered sheaves of paper tucked into books and files of recipes I’ve been given, or torn from Saturday supplements, or printed from the internet.
Few of them remain in the pristine condition in which I bought them (or in which TW was sent them. Hurrah for press review copies) – there are Post-It notes on favourite recipes; splashes of tomato sauce or chocolatey fingerprints adorn some pages; and in more than a few there are notes scribbled into the margins, where I’ve made changes to the printed recipe. I’d thought nothing of it, until I read a short piece in last week’s New York Times that was quite captivating: it seems that I’m not alone in scribbling amendments into the margins.
“Ghosts linger in old cookbooks,” the piece goes, in a phrase that gives me the shivers. “Marginalia in cookbooks can tell the story of a life and be a lasting memorial to the scribbler.”
I’d never thought of it like that. The notes I make, I make purely for me so that when I come back to a recipe in a week or a month or a year or ten, I can remember what tweak it is that made things just that little bit tastier. I know that if I’m making an orange version of Ma TW’s chocolate brownies, I need to remember to add just a little more flour to compensate for the orange juice. I’ve put extra nuts in peanut butter truffles; fiddled with the proportions of the Polpo braised lentils (because unless you’re feeding an Army regiment or want to be eating leftover for six weeks, the recipe makes TOO MUCH) and tweaking the temperature on late Granny Blonde’s almond slices to take into account the ovens that are now more powerful than when she was baking in the 70s.
But in none of the recipes have I added anything else as, apparently, is common to other people and esteemed food writers around the world. There are no notes to myself about dinner party menus concocted from recipes in several books, cross-referencing the page numbers; nothing about a wine I had that went particularly well with an octopus salad; or when and with whom and on which special occasion I shared a bowl of truffle pasta.
But maybe it’s something I should start doing. I love the thought of passing favourite, well-used and deeply-loved food books down through generations of family and friends, a catalogue of personal history scribed in the margins. As well as the fact that almond slices need 30 minutes in a moderate oven.