PERSONAL ESSAY

From the ambitious to the everyday, cookbooks are a magical portal to our culinary futures

"The Joy of Cooking" was my first introduction to the kind of dinner parties I wanted to hold as an adult

By Ashlie D. Stevens

Published November 2, 2021 5:15PM (EDT)

Overhead view of friends eating dinner outdoors (Getty Images/The Good Brigade)
Overhead view of friends eating dinner outdoors (Getty Images/The Good Brigade)

Thirteen wasn't a great age for me. (That being said, I'm not exactly sure it's a great age for anyone.) I was deep into puberty, which came with both aesthetic challenges — I had yet to discover contacts and frizz-taming curl cream — and general existential angst about where I was in life. 

The best summation of that period of my life that I've ever witnessed comes from the 1938 film "Love Finds Andy Hardy." Mickey Rooney is the titular star; he's in high school and consumed with trying to buy a car as a means to woo a girl for the upcoming Christmas Eve dance. Judy Garland co-stars as Betsy Booth, the 12-year-old daughter of a famed singer, who is staying with her grandparents for the holiday season. 

Betsy's grandparents live right next to the Hardys, and she inevitably becomes enamored with Andy. (Andy only views her as a kid in this movie, but there are two more films in the series in which their relationship unfolds.) As Betsy sighs, pines and looks out of the window, she (of course!) sings about her lot in life.

"I'm past the stage of doll and carriage," she bemoans. "I'm not the age to think of marriage / I'm too old for toys, and I'm too young for boys / I'm just an-in between." 

RELATED: Good coffee has become my go-to gift: I want you to have something delicious to start your day

The song continues, "l'll be glad when mama lets me go to dances and have romances / I'll be glad to have a party dress that boys will adore, a dress that touches the floor." 

Whereas Betsy looks forward to going to country club parties (which honestly felt a little antiquated to me as a suburban child of the '90s), I wanted to host parties — dinner parties, to be specific. 

I've loved cooking ever since I was a kid. In large part, I think my love stems from growing up during the era of peak Food Network programming. I'm talking about "Barefoot Contessa," "Emeril Live!" and "Good Eats." As a result, I frequently experimented in the kitchen. Early on, I started getting cookbooks as gifts for birthdays or the holidays. 

Most of these cookbooks were kid-focused, like Rachael Ray's "Cooking Rocks: 30 Minute Meals for Kids," which I dog-eared and stained in no time. I vividly remember a Disney cookbook that had a smoothie section decorated with illustrations of "Jungle Book" characters and a dessert section covered in the pawprints of the "101 Dalmatians." 


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When I was 13, my mother gave me her old copy of "Joy of Cooking," a hefty tome with a white cover and bold red lettering. I distinctly remember thinking it was a cookbook for adults — grown women who effortlessly held brunches and dinner parties. I pored over the suggestions for table settings and studied the proposed menus. 

The appetizers and hors d'oeuvres section, in particular, captivated me because many of the (decidedly retro) dishes seemed so fancy. You know, cheese puff canapes, clams casino and salmon pâté. 

That was my first real lesson that cookbooks, in addition to being legitimate culinary tools, also have aspirational and transportive powers. That cookbook was my weird little portal to envisioning my life as a grown-up. I wanted to be this glamorous woman whose friends came around for a flawlessly thrown cocktail hour on Friday nights à la "Auntie Mame." 

These days, I'd like to think the free-spirited Mame would get a kick out of how I've managed dinner parties in a cramped apartment by using my freshly scrubbed bathtub as a giant ice bucket for bottles of wine and champagne (though I'm sure 13-year-old me would be mortified). 

RELATED: From dinner parties to "thanks for helping me move" pizza, I grieve for communal food experiences

The dual nature of cookbooks — serving as both a guide and a point of ambition — is one of my favorite things about them. There are a number of beautiful ones on my shelf that I use on a weekly basis. Others contain my "someday" recipes, which are the dishes I know I want to make eventually. For one reason or another, though, I haven't yet mustered up the courage. Either I haven't found that one hard-to-find ingredient, or I haven't decided with whom I want to share the final result. 

From the Salon Food archives, here's some writing that focuses on recipes, cookbooks and ways of cooking that fall on both sides of that spectrum. If you like this collection of writing, do sign up to receive "The Bite," Salon's food newsletter — which is where this essay originated and subscribers receive recommendations of what to read, watch and eat every week. 

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A pasta a decade in the making

A story that beautifully highlights the sometimes tricky dichotomy between "everyday foods" and special occasion dining is "My 10-year carbonara journey" from Salon Food contributor Maggie Hennessy. Here, Maggie reveals that her first time trying carbonara was in a high-end Italian restaurant in Chicago as a young culinary student. It was luscious, with velvety yolk-based sauce and almost toothsome pasta, though deceptively simple (since the ingredient list is so short). 

Maggie then set out on a journey to make the perfect at-home version, which spanned a decade. 

"Because my first taste of carbonara was so cheffy, my early experiments came with absurdly high price tags as I sought those same elusive ingredients, from imported guanciale to duck eggs to $9 bucatini," she writes. "Ingredient abasement is a dangerous business for home cooks; we face enough obstacles to getting dinner on the table. And while I'll stop short of using desiccated parmesan from a can, I've made plenty of tasty carbonara using convenience-store bacon and eggs." 

Read the full story here.

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Dissecting the "angel in the kitchen" trope

A couple of years ago, I took a deep dive into a common TV trope that exists across the broadcasting spectrum, from prestige shows to sitcoms. 

"The inept female home cook is a common trope on TV — from Lucy Ricardo to Lorelai Gilmore," I wrote. "It's one that has signaled both societal shifts and stagnations in how we view traditional femininity throughout the decades and recently has made it even onto reality food TV." 

On programs like "Worst Cooks in America," it's apparent that the concept of becoming an adept home cook is aspirational for so many people. For the women contestants on that show, in particular, there are often additional layers of motivation for becoming a good cook steeped in long-standing societal views on domesticity and motherhood

One 2017 contestant named Brittany confides to the camera, "How am I going to get a husband if I don't know how to cook? I wanna cook for my boo." Another named Mandy shows a photo of her 19-month-old daughter, Ryland. "Everything I serve Ryland is prepackaged and pre-made," she says, a fact that Mandy is not proud of.

It's interesting to consider who these home cooks thought they would become once their prowess in the kitchen improved. Give the show another watch — there are full seasons streaming now on Hulu — and listen to the contestant interviews with this context in mind. 

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Your weekend dinner plans 

It's just starting to get cool enough here in Kentucky for me to consider flipping my oven on for prolonged periods of time — which means it's officially braising seasonThis oxtail ragu with buttered orzo is a dish that I took a long time to perfect. It's definitely a "project recipe," as it takes a couple of hours to make, from start to finish. 

Get that oxtail in the oven, then pour yourself a glass of wine and queue up some good TV while you wait for it to become fall-off-the-bone tender. (Maybe "The Many Saints of Newark?" Or "Only Murders in the Building?") Once completed, this recipe is a stunner.

Also from Salon Food contributor La Corte, this recipe for chicken piccata — with a rich, velvety and slightly briny sauce — is a low-stakes but thoughtful dinner dish. Pair it with a side of hearty pasta.

If dessert is on the table, make it our Mary Elizabeth Williams' extra dark sheet pan brownies. They're perfect for sharing — and also for making ice cream sandwiches!

 

Read more great food writing: 


Ashlie D. Stevens

Ashlie D. Stevens is Salon's deputy food editor.

MORE FROM Ashlie D. Stevens


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