While going through some old stuff from high school and college last weekend at my dad’s, I found this book, which I thought I’d thrown out. I opened it and saw that I’d written on the inside. “This book belongs to: Lesley Téllez 6/26/91.” I was 12 years old. I loved this book. Betty Crocker's Cookbook for Boys and Girls (a 1970s/80s-era update of the original 1957 version) was my first real cookbook, and I adored the hamburgers with smiley faces on the cover, and the baked bologna-and-egg cups, and the cool picture of a star-shaped watermelon-and-cottage-cheese salad. Granted, the “crater ham loaf” never looked appetizing, but the mashed potatoes -- which I underlined and wrote “YEAH!!!” over the top -- certainly did. And, I’m going to be honest, so did the hot-dog pizza. Mostly because it was real, homemade pizza. Apparently I used to go through this book and make little check marks next to recipes I liked. Crayton said I should launch a blog and make every recipe, but I don't have time for that. (If I didn't do it when I bought the EZ-Bake Oven Gourmet cookbook, I won't do it now.) Instead I’m going to keep it on my shelf, and maybe my 9-year-old neice will cook with me when she comes to visit. I can already see myself: “Doesn’t this pink meringue pie look interesting? Let's make it!” What was your first cookbook?
One of the weird changes that's happened to me since I moved to Mexico is that I've become ravenous for books. I've always loved reading. I brought a packed bookshelf into the relationship when Crayton and I got married, then I got rid of a few dozen paperbacks, and then we slowly created another packed bookshelf, which is with us in Mexico. When I lived in the U.S., I only visited bookstores to buy gift cards for friends or if an author I liked was giving a reading there. Crayton's voice would echo in my mind every time I bought a book off Amazon: "Where are we going to put them?" Lately, though, I buy books with absolutely no regard for the future. Our Mexico bookshelves are just about packed, and I don't care. A few days ago, while purchasing a discount copy of The Best American Travel Writing 2008 -- I book I never would have bought PM (pre-Mexico), because anthologies are the types of books I breeze through, love briefly and forget about, and then give away four years later -- I actually thought a tall stack of books might be a kinda cool decorative touch. A shabby-chic intelligensia kind of thing, maybe. (Don't worry, I'm not really going to do this, it was a fleeting thought from a woman obsessed.) These are the books I'm taking back to Mexico with me, after about two-and-a-half weeks in the States. And this is just my list, mind you. Crayton has about eight more books of his own. One of them is called "Cold," and it's about cold. As you can see, we have vastly different tastes. 1. Regional Mexican Cooking by Diana Kennedy. Scored this 1984 edition at Cookin', a vintage kitchenware store in San Fran. There wasn't even a question of where or not I'd buy it. It is DK, people. 2. From My Mexican Kitchen: Techniques and Ingredients by Diana Kennedy. This is her new book, which I purchased on Amazon. It's full of the detailed information she's famous for -- the sections include "Fresh and Dried Chilies," and "Making Vinegar." Lots of beautiful photos, too. 3. Food from My Heart by Zarela Martinez. I love Zarela! She always posts interesting tidbits about Mexican food on her blog. I read about this book on Amazon, and it mixes personal stories with recipes, which is just the kind of cookbook I gravitate toward. 4. What the Dog Saw by Malcom Gladwell. It's a collection of his New Yorker essays, and the quirky, random quality of each makes it the best airplane reading ever. For example: Did you know a Catholic scientist was among the American inventors of The Pill? 5. Recipes from the Old South, by Martha L. Meade. Another treasure from the San Francisco vintage cookware store, published in 1961. The first recipe, "Bacon Biscuit Balls," won me over. I must make it for Crayton someday, followed by a gigantic salad. 6. Salsas by Ricardo Muñoz Zurita. A gift from my mother-in-law, who knows how much I love this guy. 7. The Looming Tower: The Road to 9/11 by Lawrence Wright. Been on my list for awhile. 8. One Amazing Thing by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni. An impulse buy at the bookstore, with book-jacket blurbs from Jhumpa Lahiri, Abraham Verghese and Louise Erdich. I cannot pass up a book that's recommended by those three. 9. Shark's Fin and Sichuan Pepper: A Sweet-sour Memoir of Eating in China by Fuchsia Dunlop. Recommended by a new friend. It's about a British woman who moved to China and became obsessed with the food. Truthfully, part of me hopes that someday I'll have an entire room for my books, a library of my own, with cherry wood paneling, a leather chair and a duck phone like the one from Silver Spoons. This is probably not going to happen in Mexico -- we can only afford two bedrooms tops in our neighborhood, and hubby needs somewhere to put the TV -- but a girl can dream. We've debated getting an iPad or Kindle, but haven't decided yet. It certainly would cut down on our overweight-suitcase anxiety. We'll see.
Ever since I've been old enough to use the stove by myself -- which was probably in seventh grade, when I took my first home economics class -- I've been fascinated with old cookbooks. My mom had a small collection from the 40's and 50's, which she got from her mom. Many of them had funny covers, like this one. Checa the hair! And the cute little salt and pepper shakers that fit into the stove! As I've grown up, I've wondered what my grandmother might have cooked, and whether she enjoyed cooking like I do. (Funnily enough, this particular cookbook above wasn't even hers. That's not my grandma's name scrawled on the cover.) I don't ever recall her making muffins or cookies or meatloaf, although surely she must have. I just remember her quesadillas. They were crackly and golden-brown, and thick with Monterey Jack cheese. If my grandmother were still alive, I would have loved to ask her if she knew of Josefina Velazquez de Leon. De Leon, a home cook with no formal training, wrote an amazingly prolific series of cookbooks (140-plus titles) for middle-class Mexican housewives in the 1940's-60's. Many dispensed practical advice about how to use leftovers and cook on a budget, but the most interesting thing was that they all dealt with Mexican food. At the time, no one had collected the country's most authentic, regional recipes, and put them in one place. She also opened a cooking school to teach her recipes, making her pretty much the Betty Crocker/Julia Child of her time. I didn't know any of this until a few weeks ago, when my friend Ruth. took me to a Condesa bookfair set up on a street median. A vendor there had at least a dozen Velazquez books on display, each with colorful covers depicting women with 1950's hairstyles and aprons. After Ruth told me about Josefina's history, my heartbeat quickened. I wanted to buy all of them, but instead I picked five. I've thumbed through most of them already, and I'll probably end up making something from the antojitos book first. Although part of me really wants to put on a vintage apron and make a whole five-course meal from "Los 30 Menus." Just found one I liked, on page 23: Sopa seca de pan (a layered, buttery, bread-and-tomato soup); tortilla florentina, an rolled-up omelette kind of dish filled with chicken livers and onion; hamburguesas con ensalada de papa (hamburgers with potato salad); taquitos de crema (small tacos filled with Mexican crema, poblano peppers and queso fresco... oh god), and gelatina de jamaica. If you want to join me -- I have multiple vintage aprons in my drawer -- let me know. Also, I'm curious: Do you have a favorite old cookbook of your own, or have you secretly harbored a desire to cook like Betty Draper on Mad Men? Please tell me I'm not the only one.
If perhaps you missed this controversial blog post on a Chicago Tribune-affiliated blog a few weeks ago, let me tell you about it. Blogger Teresa Puente's point was this: Rick Bayless has lately been anointed as the father of modern Mexican cuisine. And that's a shame, because he's white. So many other Latino chefs deserve to be recognized, she says. Why doesn't the media focus on them? As soon as Puente posted it, criticism flew that she was racist and deserved to be fired. While I think that's a wee bit of an overstatement -- ignorant and angry seem like more fitting words than racist to me -- a kernel of her argument is right on. White chefs do dominate American TV. And yes, the media have a tendency to adorn one person as the holy expert on everything, just because it's easier, and we're all overworked, and some people have great PR reps who actually call you back by your deadline. But Rick Bayless deserves his accolades. He is not the new kid on the Mexican block. His first cookbook came out in the 80's, and actually had penciled drawings of dried chiles in it. And recipes for aguas frescas. Can you imagine what that must have been like back then, when "Mexican food" meant a greasy rolled-up tortilla covered in cheese? Hell, I barely looked at his first cookbook for the first time a few months ago, and it still blew my mind. Lots of people heap praise on Diana Kennedy, probably the best-known authority on Mexican cooking. I own two of her numerous cookbooks, but haven't done much beyond flip through the pages. Rick Bayless' books, on the other hand, I've devoured. It's like he really wants me to succeed and know the cuisine. Sometimes when reading Kennedy, I feel like if I don't dry and grind my own corn for tortillas, I suck as a cook. Anyway, I'm all for empowering Latinas, and newspapers creating platforms for people to subscribe to blogs with names like Chicanísima. (The blog is part of a community site owned by the Tribune Company, comprising bloggers from all over the city.) But I think Puente just set us back a few steps by embodying the stereotype of the angry minority woman throwing out baseless accusations. Wish she would have done her research before posting.