Maybe writing in books is something that comes naturally to me. It didn’t feel like some big hurdle to start penning my notes in the cookbooks in my collection. Maybe I like the whole handiness of it all.
Or maybe it’s genetic.
As a child, my mother wrote her name, “Mary,” in great big crayon letters on, well, pretty much everything — at least according to my aunt (her big sister). My mom wrote her name everywhere. It was always funny to see her name written in large little kid print in the front of a book or all over a vinyl album cover as I slipped an old record from the sleeve.
I may not scrawl my name on every flat surface I see, but when it comes to reading general books I own, I leave a mark a different way: I dog-ear the pages in books that have meaning to me if the text hits a chord.
When I reread a book and go to flip down the corner (which happens a lot, as there are books I consistently reread), I love discovering the page is already dog-eared.
I crack open a cookbook, view something I made, my rating, and if I made any changes or would make an adjustment next time. It helps me better prepare the dish or bake a cake or whatever it is the next time I revisit the book.
My grandma did the same thing.
Notes Inside Cookbooks
Look inside a community cookbook or on my grandma’s recipes for brief notes like “No” or “Good!” or a star or a check-mark. What’s with the check-marks? I own multiple cookbooks with checkmarks and I have no idea what they are supposed to stand for.
Does it mean it was okay? Something to try? Or something that was fine once, but that’s it?
I remember telling my mom about one of Grandma’s notes in an old cookbook my mom helped compile back for my elementary school fundraiser: “Useless,” she wrote next to the box of raisins called for in a recipe for Holland Brown Bread.
I didn’t realize she had such strong feelings about raisins. My mom pointed out she wrote “Use less!” Ha! I still chuckle about that one.
Grandma used to complain about her handwriting, with its loops and squiggles. In that case, okay, I get it. Too bad mine is ten times worse.
No one chose me to handwrite a letter to visitors in elementary school. Rosie always got that task because she had perfect handwriting. I believe I was laughed at one year when I raised my hand to volunteer for the task.
In my defense, I am a fast reader and, wouldn’t you know, my hand can’t keep up with my thoughts. I’ve always felt the need to scramble ahead wildly, trying to capture it all before I forget.
Messy handwriting aside, that won’t keep this home cook from jotting down my cooking and baking notes. It’s for posterity, ya know?
Cookbooks as a Time Capsule
Cookbook-wise, I too believe in sticky notes and scraps of paper. You’ll never ever EVER find a dog-eared page when you need it. A few years ago, I found sticky notes that are thin and in colorful, fun animal shapes.
But, open one of my cookbooks, and you are just as likely to find a kid’s old graded homework assignment, a picture, random receipt, or shopping list serving as place-holder.
In the January/February 2021 edition of Bake from Scratch magazine (Amazon, eBay), Jocelyn Delk Adams, author of the Grandbaby Cakes cookbook and the website owner of Grandbaby Cakes, commented on how her cookbook was meant to be something passed down through the generations:
I like that idea. No, I LOVE that idea. I kind of want to go through and write my name in all of my cookbooks. And why not? As the years go by, I’ll likely pass along my cookbooks to my kids.
When they open the cover and see my name
chicken-scratched across the top written there, and my notes in the margins, it’ll help them remember happy times we spent together in the kitchen laughing, making messes, and critiquing the results.
For generations after that, whether the cookbooks stay within my family or not, future people will poke fun at my signature or chuckle at my notes, marveling at the way we share the same opinion on such things as water chestnuts (hate) and cumin, raspberry jam, or cardamom (love so hard).
Maybe these future cookbook owners will wonder about me and what my life was like, the same way I wonder about the previous owners of my cookbooks.
They will at least know we ate well for our time period.
I’m not Scrooge McDuck with my cookbooks, laying them in piles to swim through, but not using them, and snapping at others for even looking their way.
Yes, I have a cookbook collection, but it’s one I use almost daily.
I’ve loaned cookbooks. I’ve given some away, like when a friend was looking for Paleo-friendly recipes because of a dairy allergy. I let her borrow mine, and after she’d had them for awhile, I decided to just let her have them. I could always buy them again if I saw them, but at least they were going to be REALLY used (especially since I only consistently used one recipe out of them and that was easy enough to copy down).
Writing and marking in my cookbooks has another thing going for it: The ability to compare recipes. To curl up, read over notes, compare techniques and ingredients, and borrow a little from here, and a little from there. 4
It’s an on opportunity to see if I need to carry over what I had done before when trying out a new recipe or at least keep it in mind.
Sure, cookbook protectors sound great. I mean, wow — you can keep your pages in “like new” condition. What in life ever gets to stay in “like new” condition? Short answer: Nothing.
But does it matter?
Value Versus Worth
What’s the point of keeping a cookbook when it looks about the same as the day you brought it home … eight years ago. It’s kind of like the people who say they love candles, buy them often, but then the candles become dust collectors — they are never burned.
Sometimes, you have to use a thing to get the most value from it.
I suppose people who view cookbooks and cookbook collections as something worth their weight in resale value would likely prefer the books stay shop-clean.
Who wants to risk damage to an item featuring a cookbook author, food blogger, or food writer that could potentially have monetary value one day? Well, I do.
My most-used cookbooks have broken bindings, notes along the margins, Post-It notes, and random slips of paper sticking up out of my books marking family favorites or things I really want to try.
That’s something I value in a cookbook I’m considering buying.
If I’m torn between buying two different cookbooks, I’ll always reach for the cookbook that’s been used, loved, and is covered in notes. I enjoy seeing a well-loved book. It’s why I still don’t have some “classic” cookbooks like the French cooking classic, “Mastering the Art of French Cooking.”
I’m waiting to find copies with notes scribbled in the margins. It’s why I held off on a copy of The Joy of Cooking for so long.
Cookbooks that have been written in and loved offer a kind of a starting place, don’t they? If you are lucky, the previous owner left notes other than “Very good,” or “Excellent,” and gave you something to work with.
You might get to read how the person tweaked their favorite recipe, the modifications they made regarding pan size or bake time, and if you are extra super lucky, there may be a note sharing how such an item was prepared for someone’s birthday, event, or other celebration.
It’s part of what makes reading cookbooks so much fun. The notes can be so small or blend in so well, you don’t always catch them on a flip-through.
What’s another wonderful thing? The inscriptions on the inside of a favorite cookbook.
I’ve seen some of the nicest inscriptions inside of these books. Sometimes the text is simple, with someone’s name and, even better, a date. Other times, the cookbook is a gift, including why the person thought it was a good choice.
Some of the inscriptions are simply wonderful, as you can see above. If you want to do the same, you can read all about what to write in a cookbook gift.
I always wonder why the cookbook ended up where it did: A yard sale, an antique shop, a flea market, at a Goodwill. Not every cookbook with an inscription is an old one. I mean, in many cases, these were used cookbooks.
Harry’s gift to Judy was used. She has her notes down on a bunch of recipes. So, why did it end up at a thrift store? These are things I’d like to know.
Some of my cookbooks feel a little fragile, so I am more careful with them. Delicate paper and broken bindings on old editions do give me pause. I feel more protective of them and handle them with care.
How To Write in Your Cookbooks
Like just about everything else, there is a right way and a wrong way to approach writing in your cookbooks. Of course, there is the time I forgot I was using a library book and wrote the dates and my notes in the thing. I still can’t believe I did that.
It’s one of those things you’ll need to be mindful of as well, if you are an avid cookbook library check-er-out-er too.
I know I need to up my handwriting game by making sure it’s legible. But at this stage in the game, I think my handwriting is what it is. I suppose I mimic my grandma in that too.
A Word on Ink
I, too, set my cookbook (and sometimes multiple cookbooks) aside until after I’ve finishing the cooking and baking and can better assess the recipe and how it worked.
If you move ahead too fast, you run the risk of skipping important additions like, “Bake 30 minutes next time — NOT 45 minutes in the case of a cake recipe from a trusted cookbook author (should have gone with my gut on that one).
I have a long flat desk area running the length of the built-in shelving I use for cookbooks that’s perfect for that purpose. It’s out of the way, since it’s not even in the kitchen, and lets me get to it when I can, after I’ve had time to “mule things over.”
Like the quote above, I am also picky about how I make notes. At least, I have been the last few years. Never use pencil.
Look, pencils are my favorite things ever. I dislike pens (I’m left-handed and have to work harder to avoid smearing the ink with the side of my hand) and I ALWAYS write in pencil when I can.
However: Pencil won’t last. It smudges, erases, and completely defeats the purpose of writing in your cookbooks. This is to help future you.
Get over your fear of writing in a book. I use an archival-quality black ink pen. I know that ink isn’t going to fade out on me or bleed through the page.
I occasionally use fine-point, fade-resistant Sharpie pens but my favorite are Sakura pens — those are harder to find in our house. Everyone squirrels those away when they find one, the punks. I keep one in the kitchen. I prefer a thicker line.
Sometimes, I cross-out an original ingredient if the text is large enough to still appear through the line of my archival pen. Otherwise, I’ll jot down my additions, substitutions, or other tips off to the side, and draw in arrows to show what I’m referring to.
What’s that old quotation about doing something today to benefit your future self? This certainly qualifies.
Step Into the Past
It’s fun to flip through my cookbooks and discover recipes I made years ago. I like seeing what I was making at the time and what we thought about it. Sometimes, I am shocked at how long time passes before I rediscover a recipe again.
Writing in my cookbooks, and reading the writing of others, is fun, interesting, and a mini snapshot of my life then (or a peek into the life of someone else).
Once I only had to feed myself. Now, two teen boys later, life keeps changing. In 2024, things will change again when my oldest scampers off to college.
Cookbooks will be a kind of food-related album of times we shared, catching me off-guard and drawing me into memories when I least expect it.
I wrote down the dates the first time the oldest made waffles, roasted a chicken, and prepared a shrimp marinade solo.
When the youngest made his first roast chicken and chocolate chip pancakes, I jotted that down too, just like when my sons and I made our favorite pretzel recipe together. It’s all in there, spanning across different books, saved forever (at least my forever).
Someday I will look back and have these wonderful memory jogs of times I may not remember otherwise. For that I will always be grateful.
So, I’ll keep picking up a pen, peppering pages with my notes, and holding onto our time together as we are right now. For help organizing your cookbook collection, you know where to go.