On the Internet recently I tracked down a mint copy of "The Joy Of Cooking" from the early '50s -- the edition I remember as a fixture in my family's kitchen in those times.
Its resonance as an object is oddly powerful to someone of my generation -- deeper even than reruns of "The Mickey Mouse Club" -- one of those artifacts of civilization that becomes invisible through familiarity and hard to collect because of use. You have to pay a premium for a vintage copy of the book that isn't splattered and stained with food or split open at the entry for meatloaf.
I was moved to own a copy because the title was recently included on one of those lists of the 100 most important books of the 20th century. This struck me as a brilliant insight, and a deeply logical one. This is a book that moved with women as they left their old communities, and served in loco parentis in the kitchen, as Dr. Spock served them in the nursery.
It also introduced an ambition for sophistication and a kind of defensive professionalism into domestic cooking at a time when all things domestic were being devalued in the culture at large.
In my mind now, it serves as an emblem of my mother's time in the kitchen, the unrecorded epic of her domestic labor, which in childhood was the clearest expression I knew of absolute love and absolute security. We dismiss the almost mystical reverence for such labor by the Victorians as insincere sentimentality, a sop to the oppressed, but any child knows differently.
The book remains useful. I recently consulted it for instruction on how long to boil hardboiled eggs. The awesome ignorance this revealed was touching to me, as it also revealed the awesome knowledge of those who don't need it for such things and the bewilderment of those who found that knowledge suddenly underappreciated.
The book is really about the sacredness of cooking. Not cuisine, but cooking -- the invisible work done in the kitchen on any ordinary Wednesday.