In the late 1980s a friend commented that I didn’t collect anything. He said that everyone collects something. I was in my mid-twenties and hadn’t heard this bit of grown-up wisdom. Maybe it had been a subplot on Dallas or a topic on Donahue; I didn’t watch those. I started looking around me and noticed that people were collecting things: beer steins, cordial glasses, ceramic figurines of cute little animals, salt and pepper shakers, usually of cute little animals. I heard of one woman who had decorated her house with antique rug beaters. What kind of message was she sending?
When I left my parent’s house in the late ‘70s I received a gift box from some friends that contained a coffee mug, kitchen towels, oven mitts and a cookbook on preparing meals for one and two people. I cooked up every recipe in that thin volume during that first year on my own. If Al Gore had invented the internet sooner I may have blogged about it and gotten Meryl Streep to portray me in a movie. I thought about that particular book a decade later and the solace it had provided me and I convinced myself that I wanted, no, needed more. I was sure other, similar books would satisfy my desires and bring me to the same level of pleasure and gratification. A passion I had kept hidden within burst into flames and I was off and running, or should I say, cooking. I started to collect cookbooks. I visited used book dealers throughout New York and New England, these purveyors, pushers and pimps of published prose. I was quite indiscriminate in the beginning; I didn’t care about quality, only quantity. I was only interested in cheap text. Virginal first editions and finery like colorful dust jackets didn’t turn my head. I didn’t care if The Mistress Cook Book was in its eighth printing, I needed it and it looked so lonely and unloved on that shelf. I was doing it a favor.
Through the years I went through the inevitable phases of experimentation. First I stayed close to home with regional cook books. I was living in the Berkshires at the time and I explored what the housewives of New England had to offer. I learned the art of taking my time, applying a low, slow heat, maintaining a simmer for hours until the saucy dish lustily whispered, “I’m ready.” It didn’t take long to learn that despite their religiosity the Puritans and the Shakers knew their way around the bread room. By the mid-90s I was ready to move on and I turned my attention to the melting pot of American cookery. I was an eager student, a sponge, and fell into that pot eagerly sopping up the tastes of the Italians, Greeks, Lebanese. OK, I had a thing for Mediterraneans. I was heady from the essence and earthy fragrances of oregano, thyme, saffron, and za’atar. Did someone say, cumin? I went through a lot of oil during that period.
I don’t know how it happened but I got bored again and I needed more spice and more heat. I turned to the Asians for a few mouth-tingling months. Yes, I got Thai’d up and I liked it. It took a toll on my tongue and tastebuds though and by the time the new millennium rolled around I needed a break; I wanted something else, something less. I explored monastic and Zen cooking and vegetarian wholesomeness. I suckled at the bosom of Moosewood, Kripalu, and Chez Panisse. There was an unabashed simplicity and joy here that all the others that came before couldn’t begin to understand. I explored less complex yet hardier fare: grains, beans, pulses. I spread my hummus all over the place.
I find myself full circle now back to homegrown pride, the locavore next door. I have a garden and sow my seed in my own backyard. I’ve taken to savoring the fresh, sassy and oh so ripe domestic goodness of things close to me. I can grab a verdant zucchini and a luscious tomato in season and have my way with them, on their terms now. I have become a slave to kale.
My dalliances have taken me around the world and given me 2000 conquests, er…cookbooks, to look back and smile upon. I peruse them, fondle them and am reminded of all the pleasure they’ve given me. I was a willing participant; I have no regrets.