Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Cookbooks & memories: Bushfires 2009

The tragic events of the last few days in Victoria have reminded me that what is precious and irreplaceable to the individual is always just that: individual.

Many of my customers come to me looking for cookbooks which have been lost in a variety of ways - through divorce, moving house, immigration, flood and sometimes fire. A lady rang me last year looking for the excellent "Allegro Al Dente" by Jill Dupleix and Terry Durack - one of the first 'food & music' compilations which came with a book of great Italian recipes and a cd of opera. It's not an expensive book - perhaps $10 in good condition - but she wanted a copy to give to a friend who had lost her house in a fire - this had been her friend's favourite cookbook and was one of the things whose loss she mourned along with her precious photos and jewellery. When I first opened my shopfront Willie, another local bookseller sent a lady down to me because she was looking for a cookbook called 'The Playboy Gourmet'. When I walked over to the shelf to get it she said 'Look at me I've got goosebumps - I thought I'd never find that book again'.

More than most books, cookbooks carry with them not just recipes, but memories: of the people you cooked for, where you were when you cooked, of the wonderful (and even not-so-wonderful) times when that food was a background to your life. When I open up my very battered copy of the Chef oven cookbook and the page falls open to a recipe for Anzacs I am taken back 18 years to when, as a young mum with 3 kids under 5 and not a lot of money, I would make big batches of Anzacs with the kids for afternoon teas and playlunches. When I found the book at the back of my bookcase recently and made another batch of those Anzacs my now 23 year-old daughter came into the kitchen, took a bite of one and exclaimed - "It tastes like my childhood". That book, more than any photo, brings back to life those times and that kitchen and my children when they were little and as such will never be thrown away.

Every day someone rings me or walks into my shop looking for those kind of memories, and they are not in the expensive Mrs Beeton's or the first edition Elizabeth David, but in the 'Cookery the Australian Way' they had at school; the Australian Meat Cook Book that was a staple in every Australian kitchen in the 1970s and 80s; the McAlpin advertising pamphlet from which their gran made 'the best scones ever'. No matter how humble the cookbook, when someone asks me to track it down, I do so with as much attention as I do an expensive first edition - because often what I'm helping them find is not 'just a cookbook' but the memories it holds inside it.

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