On the promise and joy found in the cookbook section of used bookstores

When you inherit someone else’s cookbook, there are stories contained within it beyond the author’s words

By Ashlie D. Stevens

Food Editor

Published February 20, 2022 4:30PM (EST)

Stack Of Books With Rolling Pin (Getty Images)
Stack Of Books With Rolling Pin (Getty Images)

There's something really special about the promise found in the cookbook section of a used bookstore. I love trawling through the shelves and pulling out random titles. Some are busts, while some are absolute hidden gems, indicative of a particular time and place. 

For instance, my family and I vacation in Hilton Head, South Carolina, every year and there is an antique and used bookstore on the island. At least once during the summer, I would lose myself in the aisles and pull out locally-published community center and church cookbooks centered on lowcountry and Gullah-Geechee cuisine. 

From them, I was introduced to Sallie Ann Robinson, a cookbook author who writes about West African-influenced Gullah cooking and whose recipe for "Ol' 'Fuskie fried crab rice" is life-changing. I also found a story of dueling blackberry dumplings buried within the laminated pages of a Presbyterian women's group cookbook. 

When you inherit someone else's cookbook, there are stories contained within it beyond the author's words; there are stained pages, dog-eared recipes and notes in the margins that point to family dinners, special occasions and, occasionally, a disastrous night thanks to an unedited recipe (I once found a cookbook where someone had used Sharpie marker to "X" out a recipe for oven-baked macaroni and cheese — which called for a shocking 6 tablespoons of salt —  and written "Utter Trash!!!" in all-caps). 

A few nights ago, I wandered into The Gallery Bookstore, a Chicago institution that's a few train stops from my apartment and has a few simple rules: Check your bag at the front, turn your phone on silent and, if you opt to keep it on your person while browsing the very crowded shelves, don't use it to take any photos. The owner, a burly man with a sizable beard and fingerless gloves, patiently delivers these directives to every single person who enters the door.  

Immediately, I loved it. 

The section names are hand-scrawled and slightly esoteric ("women's mythology" and "herb books" were two of my favorites), but I quickly found my way back to the cookbooks and was immediately greeted with dozens of titles I had never seen. A slim paperback edition immediately caught my eye: "Café Mima: Cocina Cubana" by Yoly N. Perez. 

On the back, there is a small inscription: Mi abuela Dorinda abrió el restaurante Café Mima en Cuba en el 1931. He reunido algunas de sus recetas y con gusto las compartos con ustedes. Espero que este libro enriquesca su conocimiento de las tradiciones y comida Cubana. 

Perez has collected the recipes that his grandmother, Dorinda, had pioneered in her restaurant Cafe Míma, which she opened in Cuba in 1931. The cookbook is packed with descriptions of the tiny cafe Perez's grandmother had built. It had green park benches out front, several tables in the back and an eat-in bar counter at the front. 

"The café's large garage-like front doors opened for breakfast and lunch — allowing the aroma to seep out onto the streets," Perez wrote. 

Perez continues to write that while he had never been back to Cuba after immigrating with his parents when he was three years old, but thanks to his grandmother's recipes, he understood what his roots taste like. It's a beautiful encapsulation of the power of culinary histories and what we gain when we share and seek them out — something that I'm sure I'll ruminate on further when I start working my way through Perez's cookbook, starting with the seasonally-appropriate potaje de garbanzo, a chickpea stew. 

This writing originally appeared in The Bite, Salon's food newsletter. Each weekend, we publish unique stories, essays and recipes, as well as beautiful pieces from our archive. This week, here are some of our favorites that center on using food as a way to understand or explore a place.

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Essays and Recipes 

My pasta, myself: Forging a home in New Mexico through Hatch green chile pasta

Last fall, writer Maggie Hennessey and her husband  packed up all the movable parts of their 15-year life in Chicago and uprooted to Southern New Mexico. 

"Moving is a disorienting business; we are after all, creatures of habit," she writes. "I was thus entirely unsurprised that I craved my creature food, pasta, above all else as I uneasily navigated my new environs in a perennially dusty green pickup truck." 

While exploring her new home, Hennessy, of course, comes into contact with Hatch-grown green chiles; the state is known for them and you can find them on everything from greasy cheeseburgers to hominy-dotted pozole. Inspired by this ingredient, Hennessy went on to create a recipe that's the perfect bridge between her old and new homes. 

Why stand in line for TikTok famous cookie pies when you can bake them yourself?

As Salon's Mary Elizabeth Williams wrote, there is a long lineage of foods that become cultural obsessions: cronuts, cruffins, cereal milk soft serve, unbaked cookie dough. Now, there is a new kid on the block — anything from Crumbl, a new TikTok-famous bakery. 

"Perusing the Crumbl menu this week, I was intrigued by the banana cream pie cookie," she wrote. "The thought of 'creamy, smooth banana pudding stuffed into a buttery pie crust and topped with a vanilla wafer'  really called to me."

Interview with Vivian Aronson (Yuan Qian Yi 袁倩祎), author of "The Asian Market Cookbook: How to Find Superior Ingredients to Elevate Your Asian Home Cooking"

A few weeks ago, I spoke with chef Vivian Aronson. She was born and raised in Chendgu, China, and knows that within the aisles of American Asian markets, there are ingredients that often serve as the keys to making better, more authentic dishes. However, navigating these markets can come with a steep learning curve, especially for novices who may not know where to begin. 

In her new cookbook, she makes sense of her life in America, how it differs from China and how shopping at local Asian markets enables her — much like Yoly N. Perez — to taste her roots. 



By Ashlie D. Stevens

Ashlie D. Stevens is Salon's food editor. She is also an award-winning radio producer, editor and features writer — with a special emphasis on food, culture and subculture. Her writing has appeared in and on The Atlantic, National Geographic’s “The Plate,” Eater, VICE, Slate, Salon, The Bitter Southerner and Chicago Magazine, while her audio work has appeared on NPR’s All Things Considered and Here & Now, as well as APM’s Marketplace. She is based in Chicago.

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