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. My mom wrote her name everywhere. It was always funny to see her name written in little kid print in the front of a book or all over an 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 somehow. 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 when the page is already dog-eared.
Maybe writing in books in just something that comes naturally to me then. It didn’t feel like some big hurdle to start penning my notes in my cookbooks. Maybe it’s genetic. Or maybe I like the whole handiness of it all. 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 cake or whatever it is the next time I revisit the book.
My grandma did the same thing.
Notes Inside Cookbooks
Inside a community cookbook and on my grandma’s handwritten recipes are 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 write a letter to visitors in elementary school. Rosie always got that task because she had perfect handwriting. 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 me from jotting down my cooking and baking notes. It’s for posterity, ya know?
Cookbooks as a Time Capsule
Cookbooks should be messy (and tattered, and splattered, and maybe even a little smelly from one too many rounds near the garlic sautéing). They should also be thoroughly marked as your territory with plenty of dog-eared pages.Maria Ribas, 7 Insider Tips for Getting More Out of Your Cookbooks, The Kitchn, June 9, 2019.
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, as she says:
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 our 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 make 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, like 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. 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.
The other day, going off-piste for the first time in three weeks, I made a lemon cake from a recipe by Arabella Boxer. It was damp, it was delicious, it looked exactly like the one in the picture. But still, I felt restless… Perhaps there exists an even better lemon cake than this one, I thought, forking it into my mouth. Cookbooks are a repository for such restlessness because only they can deliver the next lemon cake, and the one after that. Like a boyfriend who blows hot and cold, they encourage the chase even as they purport to be able to end it for ever (consider how many cookbooks aim for Bible-status, to be the “only one you’ll ever need”).Rachel Cooke, Why There’s More to Cookbooks than Recipes, The Guardian, August 15, 2010.
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 as something worth their weight in resale value would likely prefer the book stays shop-clean. Who wants to risk damage to an item 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 Mastering the Art of French Cooking. I’m waiting to find copies with notes scribbled in the margins.
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 the recipe, any modifications they made, and if you are extra super lucky, there may be a note sharing how such an item was baked for someone’s birthday or other event, or 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.
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.
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?
Some of my cookbook 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 about them.
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.
If you want to start making notations, some recommendations from me: I never cross out anything in the original recipe, I just make a note in the margin, or at the top or bottom of the page. I keep fine-tipped Sharpie permanent markers in a variety of colors to help with this, so that even if the page gets wet, they won’t run. I don’t use pencil, because it can rub off the pages, or in the case of glossy books, can rub off on your fingers which is not great when you are cooking. My grandmother used red ballpoint pen, which fades faster than black or blue, so in some books, I have mostly just the indentation of the notes she made instead of the ink markings themselves.
I make these little notes as clearly as I can as reminders to myself of where I have been and what I have done, but also as a bit of something to leave behind.Stacey Ballis, Why You Should Write In Your Cookbooks, MyRecipes, Updated September 9, 2019.
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” in the case of a cake recipe (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, archival Sharpie pens or the Sakura pens, but those are harder to find in our house. Everyone squirrels those away when they find one, the punks.
I do make a cross-out over an original ingredient if the text is large enough to still appear through the fine 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 admit 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.
Once I only had to feed myself. Now, a husband and two kids later, life changed and kept changing. In a couple years, things will change again when the 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, I jotted that down too, just like when the boys 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.