A recent evening, after a long, lingering dinner with a friend, I came home not quite ready to turn in for the night, hopped up on soul-filling conversation and good, simple food. I pulled out a few cookbooks I hadn’t looked at in some time and started flipping through, looking for a cake recipe for an upcoming dinner party. Unwittingly, I’d chosen several cookbooks that were my staples when I was first starting to really love food and cooking, when I was 23 or so, living in Grand Rapids in an apartment all my own, single but falling for Ben, dreaming of the ways my life might unfold. That night, sitting on my couch in Oakland, California, cookbook open in my hands, I was flooded with nostalgia. Memories of food are so visceral and powerful, tied to much more than just a dish on a plate. Flipping through these cookbooks, passing recipes I recall making for the first time, others I made many times over, I was brought right back to my little orange kitchen, to my amazement at yogurt cakes and rustic tarts and diverse flours and runny yolks and creamy polenta. I was reminded how far I’ve come when it comes to my food knowledge and skill, shocked to realize that cookbooks I relied on back then don’t have weight measurements for baking, and that an olive oil cake was novel to me—and apparently many others—in 2010.
I’d forgotten how good these old books make me feel. I love them, and their recipes, for both their inherent charms and that feeling. I don’t pick them up all that often these days, too distracted by other cookbooks, but I should. It’s nice to be transported. The recipes from five or so years ago, when we moved here and everything felt topsy turvy (ricotta toast, ice cream, lemongrass cake, anything with figs, Sara Forte’s veggie burger, savory cake), are almost there but perhaps not quite; the rough edges of that season are smoother but not soft. But I’ll get there. And someday, I’ll feel this way about the recipes that are easing into our routine today, and then the ones that define the next season, and the one after that, and on and on forever. This is the power that cooking and the simple, necessary act of eating can hold. It’s amazing, and near to holy if not entirely so.
I just finished Joan Didion’s Slouching Toward Bethlehem, which closes with “Goodbye to All That,” an essay that I somehow managed to miss entirely in the course of my liberal arts education. This paragraph is the truest thing I’ve read in a long time—and, at its heart, not actually new in the slightest:
Some time later there was a song on all the jukeboxes on the upper East Side that went “but where is the schoolgirl who used to be me,” and if it was late enough at night I used to wonder that. I know now that almost everyone wonders something like that, sooner or later and no matter what he or she is doing, but one of the mixed blessings of being twenty and twenty-one and even twenty-three is the conviction that nothing like this, all evidence to the contrary notwithstanding, has ever happened to anyone before.
Do you remember that feeling? “Was anyone ever so young? I am here to tell you that someone was,” reflects Didion a paragraph on. Life felt so hard and fresh and new and strange and glorious and everything in between. I didn’t necessarily love that season back then, but recalling it is a different thing entirely.
As it turns out, I’ve already blogged about most of my favorite recipes from this particular window (age 23 through the midpoint of 25, if I am being specific). Though I could make the parallel to another season, or hypothesize about what will someday remind me of this one, it feels right to focus on the first time this ever happened to me, the time when it seemed “that nothing like this…has ever happened to anyone before.” Here are a few of the recipes that were precious to me then and have stood the test of time, from a few cookbooks that defined that season of my life.
In the Kitchen with A Good Appetite, by Melissa Clark
Cook This Now, also by Melissa Clark
Panfried Asparagus with Ramps, Lemon & Fried Eggs (wherein runny eggs were new to me)
How to Cook Everything Vegetarian, by Mark Bittman
Good to the Grain, by Kim Boyce
Olive Oil Cake with Rosemary & Chocolate (the recipe that sparked this musing, pictured above and just as good as ever)
Baking: From My Home to Yours, by Dorie Greenspan
What about you? Does this resonate? I’d love to hear about the cookbooks or recipes that defined a specific season for you.