It was a weeknight at Barnes and Noble. The lights were harsh as usual, the whole place too well lit. Or maybe it just felt that way---I wanted privacy for the deed I was there to do. I needed an off-the-beaten-carpet spot. Perhaps a corner near an under-trafficked genre . . . what about by that sale table of puppy calendars from 2011? Finding every discreet inch occupied, I gave up prowling and slumped back into the curve of a heavy wooden chair. It was the worst possible place. In the middle of the store. At the end of an aisle. I carried on my despite the indiscreet location, desperate for my ends. On my lap was a stack of newly released cookbooks. I felt like I was about to do something bad.
And I was.
But let me explain.
I am learning to cook. No one I know is going to teach me how to cook. This isn’t because I know no one who is capable in the kitchen. In fact, it’s quite the opposite. I have several friends who are culinary professionals and I have worked beside some very talented chefs. My husband, too, is a natural around food, both in terms of consumption and production. He can improvise a meal in minutes. Yet here I am, still needing inspiration and some serious planning before even boiling a some water. I try to remind myself that becoming a good cook is a process. A journey.
This journey into cooking, as with learning all new things, takes one step at a time. My kitchen’s true north, thus far, is my discovery that there exists no better culinary cartographer than a slick new cookbook. They are my collective compass with their vivid photography, exciting personal narrative, delicious recipes; my ladders for scaling walls of recipe boredom, my ships for crossing the choppy sea of a weekday dinner. Food is an adventure when presented in a beautiful book, and I hunger to be whisked away to France, Morocco, New York, the Deep South . . . They say you eat a meal first with your eyes. I would add to that the grumbling imagination we feed far before the food is on the plate. At times my mind is sated in simply reading the lyrical titles printed on a pretty cloth bound spine.
Yet here is where I hit another wall: money. That cookbook compass can be quite expensive. I try to be patient and wait for these books to come at at my local public library, seeing as my tasting menu aspirations are really on a lunch special budget. But that never works. They're always snatched up in a flash. There are, for example, twenty-six holds on Tamar Adler's "An Everlasting Meal." More like an everlasting wait . . .
Which brings me back to the bookstore.
The man sitting behind me is breathing loudly and snarfing a candy bar. (Turns out the word “snarf” is in the dictionary, by the way.) Nearby, children are arguing over a wooden train set. Then I look around, eyes darting, and . . . and . . . I do it.
I take a photo of the cookbook on my iPhone. And then another. And then another.
It’s just like sexting, except that the rump pictures happen to be of roast beef in Around my French Table.
Here’s my MO: I take a shot of the front cover so I remember the author’s name and the title. I take a shot of the index, then a shot of one recipe for a trial run. I only allow myself to poach that one recipe, as if that makes my illicit photography any less rude. This photo test shoot is my trial run. I tell myself I'll buy the book if it delivers the goods.
Later that night, when I get home, I sit on the couch with my glowing phone an inch from my nose. I peer into the images, sliding back and froth between the choice shots, zooming in on certain spots.
It feels a little dirty at first, but I’m consoled by the fact that though I won’t be taking any of these cookbooks out to dinner, at least I’ll be making it for myself.