Marginalia in Cookbooks

The very act of writing, of committing language to paper, is social. If we write something down, we really have no expectation of privacy; after all, how many mediums are truly private? When we were children, there were of course those little decorated diaries, covered with pink unicorns and butterflies, glitter, and a little faux fur to boot, that locked. A little padlock in the shape of a heart kept all of the secrets of an eight-year-old sacred, at least until she either lost the key and broke the lock or her brother did it for her. Of course, looking back, the secrets of eight-year-olds seem trivial. Yet, to the eight-year-old, they are very important. It’s not so much the content for them, I think, as it is the space. It’s very ironic, though; they write something down they want kept private, but by writing it down, they also ensure it will (or should be) read again, whether by them or someone else. After all, if it isn’t to be read, why write it down? This, I think, makes reading a far more social act than we tend to think of it. I think most people assume it’s a very solitary thing, as is writing. It’s something you do on your own, closed up in a bedroom. However, writing was intended to share thoughts and ideas. As a language medium (is that an appropriate moniker?), it is  meant to be social. As we read, we interact with someone else’s words and thoughts. As we write, we record things for others to read. It is at once both solitary and social. Obviously, there can be no discussion with a book, which is where book clubs and English classes and friends come in. Yet, there is still power in the one-directional discourse.Marginalia 3

I popped over to Sweet Amandine the other day, and I love her site. I don’t visit often enough. She has simple photographs that are beautiful and quiet, that always leave me feeling calm, and she has great thoughts. About a month ago, she wrote about an editorial in the New York Times Magazine that appeared a couple of years ago, and it touched on the idea of marginalia, which evidently peaked as a social media in the 1700s. The writer of the editorial goes on to compare it to Twitter and Google chat, but what interested me most was how it was used in a social way, and as a gift. He claims that people would annotate novels or books and give them as gifts which to me seems just marvelous and frightening at the same time.

Most of the marginalia I write anymore, though, appears in cookbooks. When I left home for the first time, I had just one cookbook in hand: a paperback copy of the Betty Crocker cookbook. I had watched my mom make simple notes on recipes in cookbooks, and determined that this was a wise practice. She would write short notes, often something like, “Good, do again.” Or, “Good, but Rebecca didn’t eat it.” (Gee, thanks Mom). That’s how things started for me, until I realized that notes like that really weren’t all that helpful. After I got married and started cooking more, I needed notes that would help me define my recipe repertoire. I became more elaborate, and included notes about which flavors worked, what substitutions I had made and if they had worked, and other things that I had noticed while cooking, such as if it took much longer to cook than the recipe indicated. I always dated it, and if I made it again and had different notes, these, too, got added with their own date. Some of my recipes have as many as 4 or 5 notes. Which is not, by the way, because I only made them 4 or 5 times; it’s because I ran out of important notes to make. My notes fill the side margin and are laced between paragraphs if I really like a recipe or have made several changes. I’ve found it really helpful, particularly if a recipe sounds like something I would really like, but misses the mark. Have you ever made a recipe and found that it was at all what you expected and not at all delicious, only to make it again and remember that you had already made it and didn’t like it? I’ve been saved more than once by my notes (and burned more than once by my lack of notes).

Marginalia 1

Sous Chef is already practicing making marginalia, much to my chagrin sometimes.

However, what I didn’t expect was other peoples’ reactions to my notes. I made the notes for myself, not for anyone else (there’s that silly expectation of privacy of the written word again…), and yet, when other people see my cookbooks and recipes full of notes, they comment, often laughing or snickering at what I wrote. I may be misinterpreting their reaction as mocking when in reality it is nothing of the sort; but because of how personal the notes are–journalistic in the most private sense–I feel exposed when others read them and interpret their laughing as laughing at me rather than a more convivial joyful laugh. I’m sure it’s a laugh of discovery; after all, knowing how a recipe will turn out for an average cook (like me…) is helpful. Ever the self-conscious one, I am shy of notice. (Why am I blogging, then? Indeed…)

One particular instance was particularly gut-wrenching. I was a graduate student and in the midst of preparing my prospectus for my thesis, which I wrote on cookbooks as autobiography. My committee and I were having trouble nailing down a good focus; we all seemed to know what my project was going to be and what it should be, but we were having trouble communicating that to each other and particularly in my prospectus. Exasperated, one of my committee members suggested a meeting where we could discuss (which in professor-ese means grill the student) my project. To help the discussion along, I brought the stack of cookbooks I planned to use so that we could discuss them specifically rather than trying to describe them to each other. As we gathered and before we started formally talking about the my project, my professors slowly leafed through my books, and one, the autobiography scholar, commented on my marginalia, chuckling to himself as he read the note aloud. I realized how personal those notes were to me, and felt my cheeks turn red as I grinned, trying hide my surprise that he would notice them and actually mention them. He was well meaning, of course, and brought them up later as we discussed as an additional layer to consider in my project, but I still found myself being very protective and shy of my simple notes. There was absolutely nothing in them to be ashamed of, except perhaps my candor in describing the finished dish, but still, I was shy.Marginalia 2

I wish I didn’t feel so protective of my “private” marginalia; yet, I think I feel that way because I do recognize how personal it is, just as those people who gave books filled with marginalia as gifts 200 years ago did. Marginalia is intensely personal and would make for a very meaningful and personal gift. It’s a gift of the heart, it’s a way of sharing one’s innermost thoughts and feelings. I’m sure that was the real issue at the time: as much as I admire and like my professors, we were not close friends. Had we been close friends, I’m sure my professor would not have found my marginalia so novel. I’m also sure I wouldn’t have been so protective of it had it not been in something that to me is so autobiographical: the food we cook, the way we eat, conveys who we are as almost nothing else can. As social and as pedestrian as eating can be, it’s also an intensely personal and meaningful thing. The way we fill our bodies, the way we choose to nourish our family, can be incredibly intimate. That is nothing to be ashamed of.

After all, everybody does it.


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