Mom’s red and white checked cookbook was falling apart even when I was a child. Every time she pulled it off the shelf, which was nearly every day, tattered pages would spill out, their binder holes torn, and she’d shove the sheets back in before thumbing to the recipe she wanted. The gingham cover was spattered with brown stains, the once-white checks were now yellowed, and the corners of the book were split and frayed like the corners of a burst couch cushion. She pulled one of my favorite childhood dinners, Chicken Divan, from that cookbook’s pages, along with all of our Christmas confections: fudge, divinity, peanut butter blossoms, and bourbon balls.
When I married, Mom gave me my own copy of that cookbook. The white checks were pristine, like fresh milk, and the red were bright and cheery like cherries. It was one of my first cookbooks, and its gingham cover, like a hopeful picnic cloth, was a happy addition to our kitchen.
Until my mom gave me that cookbook, I didn’t realize how ubiquitous it is. But once I had my own, on my own kitchen shelf, I started noticing it at others’ houses. The shelves of my mother’s generation all held tattered stained copies like Mom’s, pages dog-eared and stuck together, ripped or falling out, while the copies on their daughter’s shelves were fresh, neatly shellacked, and bright red-and-white like mine.
That was fifteen years ago, when my copy was smooth and unblemished, the lone reference in our newlywed kitchen. Now, we have two rows of instructionals, and that red and white checked volume occupies the most accessible spot on the shelves: the top left corner, first of all the cookbooks. The muffin page is spattered with batter, the frosting page is sticky with sugar, and the praline page is building up its own layer of history, including notes on past failures flecked with specks of caramel candy. When my husband craves his mom’s bread stuffing from Thanksgiving, I find it in my book. When I want my mom’s biscuits, I look them up in my book.
It is not the most sophisticated of foodie references. It does not have the name recognition of The Joy of Cooking. But it has the basics, the classics, the food from our childhoods. It is the quiet cookbook that nobody makes a fuss over, but nearly every family owns. And it has that cover, that red and white checked cover, that we all recognize, even if we don’t know the book’s name. That cover that evokes cozy kitchens, and home cooking, and tradition that can be thumbed through the generations, whether on tattered yellow or crisp white pages.
This is my entry for the photo challenge: community, for our community of cookbooks that began with our red and white checked copy of the Better Homes and Gardens New Cook Book.