In this series, Seattle Met staff share the cookbooks that have shaped their lives. First Betty Crocker helped arts editor Laura Dannen keep her relationship balanced. Then style editor Laura Cassidy shared some rare finds, and senior editor James Ross Gardner saw his future in a single saucepan. This week, senior writer Kathryn Robinson remembers that sometimes the cookbooks we treasure most are the ones we should cook from least.
My husband is the food savant in our family, the one who can perform a quick inventory of an empty kitchen and whip a perfect dinner out of oatmeal, almond butter, and a dash of cream of tartar.
Me, I need a cookbook.
Professionally I can identify a successful meal at 60 paces. Personally I can assemble the edible components of a swell dinner party with a little notice. But that little-of-this, little-of-that sixth sense that true cooks possess—nope. This pretender needs instructions. And so I found myself a couple of weeks ago standing in my sister’s kitchen, pawing through her cookbooks. Being in the midst of a kitchen renovation—in part to give me a place to store mine—we stayed in her empty house for a week. They were due back from vacation and I wanted to greet them with a hot, edible thank-you.
She has a tall husband and two ravenous teenage athletes for sons, so I rejected as overly foofy a number of the books I treasured from my own collection—no thanks Ina Garten, no thanks Julee and Sheila. Never mind those silver palates. (Go check how many cookbooks you have in common with family members. Go on, do it. It’s uncanny.)
And then I saw it: The Ryther Cookbook, circa 1970-something. I had the same one, of course; all we siblings did. Our mother was a member of the same Ryther Guild from the day she left the UW sorority to the day she died—into their dotage she and the sorority sisters still called themselves The Campus Unit—and occasionally produced these cookbooks as fundraisers.
I pulled it down and scrolled through its familiar pages bound in cracking red plastic, its 70s housewife aesthetic all but fragrant on the page. Four different recipes contributed by four different familiar names, all for the same overnight cream-of-mushroom soup breakfast bake. Then there was the Pumpkin Chiffon Cake. Mary Ann’s Upside-Down Tamale Pie. Mock Green Goddess Dressing. And there was the classic “recipe” from my mom’s best friend: Table for two, 8pm, Canlis.
After careful consideration of which of Mom’s friends were likely to have contributed the least inedible recipes, I chose a hearty seafood lasagna, and was only momentarily put off when confronted with the abbreviation “1 ctr cottage cheese.” Hmm…container? To hell with specificity! This was the 1970s, when a container was a container! As I stood in the dairy aisle pondering the exciting explosion 40 years have brought to the container industry, I cast myself back to those days, trying hard to remember the size of the cottage cheese containers that used to propagate like bunnies in our Frigidaire. Oh yeah, I remembered. That size.
As we did dishes later, my sister poised the half-empty pan over the garbage and blurted, “Um…would you be hurt? Because that was…just…spectacularly…bad.” We burst out laughing, and she took the cookbook and scrawled in the margin beside the recipe: “Really SUCKS!!”
Then she lovingly tucked the cookbook back into its hole on the shelf, and I realized with a pang how priceless a collection of awful recipes can be. Priceless as the dented flour sifter, or the nicked garden trowel. Or a thimble for a finger much more delicate than my own.