One of my favorite things to do in the whole world is to curl up on my sofa and get comfortable with a mug of hot tea and a plethora of cookbooks and food magazines. Ranging from classic New Orleans-style cooking to Moroccan cuisine, serious chocolate lover’s bibles to Vegetarian Times, these books and periodicals make my mouth water and send me into a faux-calorie-laden sensory overload.
Glossy photographs depicting painstakingly pretty food hold my attention for aeons. I could swear there are secret spellbinding scratch-and-sniff-type food molecules wafting from those pages because I feel enveloped in the scents of these delicious-looking dishes just by staring at them on paper. This inevitably leads me to salivate over what I’ll fantasize as the next few meals on our table:
A decadent Southern breakfast with a twist: Eggs Sardou smothered in an extra helping of hollandaise sauce, pain perdu with fresh fruit drenched with maple syrup and fresh watermelon and lime juice. Lunch, an impromptu Caribbean excursion: shrimp, mango and jicama salad with pineapple vinaigrette, jerk chicken and a slice of coconut cake with coconut icing and tons of shaved coconut. Dinner, nouveau vegetarian:lemon potato latkes with gingered avocado crème, wild rice and butternut squash medley and organic blueberry cobbler. Mmm … let the feasting begin!
In reality, a typical breakfast consists of the magical pink hearts and blue diamonds of Lucky Charms; a “gourmet” lunch is crunchy peanut butter on toasted whole wheat with a piece of fruit (usually something exotic like an apple); and turkey burgers four nights in a row isn’t that uncommon.
I do have some mad skills in the kitchen, though. When I find the time to cook, I love making my favorites: Crawfish Monica, grilled salmon with honey and soy, lemon ice cream, hot crabmeat dip, red velvet cake casserole and Vietnamese hot-and-sour soup. But I’m not an extraordinary chef, like my friend Jennifer, who makes the best eggplant parmigiana and Thai food known to mankind. My sister-in-law Monica has the gift of making beautiful, inventive magazine food hop right off the page and onto her table (and she makes it taste even better at the gracious dinner parties she often hosts).
Alas, I remain obsessed with recipes, even though I never seem to have as much time as I’d like to use them. I’m even fixated on cookbooks that lack actual photos, and even recipes in newsprint—I just pore over ingredients and methods and dream of the succulent outcomes the recipes promise.
Then there are the best recipes of all, the ones that are lovingly handwritten, passed through the generations and usually found on index cards, all yellow and brown with age and food stains, tattered andtaped a hundred times. Although severely lacking in glitz and glamour, you know that any dish prepared from these ancient jewels will be downright killah.
A few years ago at my lovely wedding shower, I got some great, meaningful gifts. My mother put together a personalized spiral-bound book for me called “Mom’s Favorite Recipes for Her Favorite Girl,” chock-full of all the best xeroxed recipes, many handwritten from family and friends: MeMere’s Gumbo, MaMaw’s Gumbo, Mrs. Lena’s Olive Salad, Cheryl’s Marinated Mushrooms, Martha’s Jambalaya, Mrs. Harriet’s Old Fashioned Oatmeal Cookies, Dianne’s Crab Soup, Mary’s Cheese Ball, Mom’s Artichoke Soup … I can’t even begin to explain how valuable this thoughtful gem has been to me in my kitchen and in my life. My Aunt Dianne wrote this treasured sentiment in the cover of the Better Homes and Gardens Cookbook she gave me:
Many, many happy days cooking! Take time to cook and share meals together with Paul, family and friends. Love, Aunt Dianne As we head toward the holiday season, remember that many people lost their cherished recipes to Katrina’s hideous floodwaters, a heartbreaking experience similar to losing precious photos. But here’s the good news: So many raveworthy recipes have been passed between us through the years (because we aren’t shy to demand recipes upon the first bite of something that knocks our socks off!) that a copy of a particular favorite lurks in someone’s little metal index card box somewhere. Reach out to your friends and family and shower them with some of your favorite recipes and ask them to share some of their kitchen home runs. Soon the rebuilding of recipe collections will make lots of seasoned and novice cooks very happy campers.
And like Aunt Dianne says, take time to cook and share meals together with your loved ones. Invite them over for no particular reason except for good times and a great homemade meal prepared from that raggedy, dirtyold index card. And if that recipe is in the form of a high-tech e-mail, well, all the better. It just proves that cooking at home is cooking again in New Orleans.