To most people, it looked like an ordinary, if especially delicious, corn pudding, its golden yellow goodness bubbling up in my oven and blossoming ever so slightly over my good shiny white casserole dish. But to me, it symbolized the end of a long journey I embarked on just about a year ago: to use at least one recipe a day from each of the 45 cookbooks crammed into the corner shelf in my little kitchen.
This particular section of the calendar seems equally focused on consumption and resolution as we acquire material stuff as well as perspective on the choices we made over the last 12 months and what must change in the ones to come. My resolve to crack open those cookbooks came last December as I was looking for space to wedge in my newly purchased copy of Baltimore native Pinky Cole’s “Eat Plants, B*tch” and realized there wasn’t any. Huh.
What’s more, the space was being taken up by volumes I had mostly never used. Many of the underloved titles were ones I’d inherited from my mom’s stash when she moved out to get married, or things I’d picked up from past newspaper jobs. I am both a cooking and history dork, so I suddenly felt very guilty for continuing to spend money on new books when there was a potential treasure trove of culinary discovery sitting in my house, abandoned.
It was either get rid of the lot of them or let them do what they were printed to do: provide new ideas of what to eat. I endeavored to use every one of them at least once in 2023, and put myself on a cookbook-buying ban until I was done. I wrote about the project last January and immediately got bemused emails and even some coverage in other media. Most of the response was from people curious about how one acquires 45 cookbooks and those wanting revisit their own collections.
My kitchen quest gave me the immediate New Year’s charge I was searching for. Every day, I would pull out a new cookbook and flip through its previously ignored pages, looking for entries that might match ingredients I already had in my kitchen and keeping a running shopping list on the Notes app on my phone.
It was thrilling to discover new recipes for old favorites like risotto, or new dishes I’d never made like the za’taar spice blend from Bryant Terry’s brilliant “Afro Vegan” book. Dedicating myself to stick to my daily rotation made me less compelled to add to my library, so I added less clutter to my life. (If you have ever seen the backseat of my car, you know this should be a priority.)
The project also challenged my creativity in both substitutions and a tendency to not really measure anything. My late Grandma Streeter’s relaying of her famous and deeply fattening macaroni and cheese recipe went something like “Cheese? You’ll know how much to use. Butter? Just use enough.” We kind of operate on experience and vibes, which is lovely and instinctual. I’m proud of my MacGyver-like ability to do that.
But as I dove into my cookbooks this year, I found that the less familiar I was with a dish, the more I paid closer attention to details. It felt like I was honoring the work of the cooks and writers who composed these recipes by at least trying to recreate their vision as best I could. Also, I could figure out what these unfamiliar things were supposed to taste like before I changed them to suit my own tastes.
I was working along at an admirable clip, making something from a different book every day that I was home and not traveling, with all but three titles left to go. And then, in March, the cold winds of reality slapped me in the face like a blast of air from the freezer: I was prediabetic. I actually already knew that, but hadn’t done much about it. Suddenly, I was facing the very real possibility of a debilitating disorder, requiring me to immediately change how I moved, ate and cooked.
Which meant pressing pause on those last three cookbooks. Two of them were kids’ books about baking, which I was no longer supposed to be doing — at least if I was eating what I baked — and the other was a collection of natural beauty remedies that I’d planned to buy the uncommon ingredients for, but never did. I went back to the tried-and-true volumes I’d used before, as well as healthy recipes from New York Times Cooking and Pinterest.
It’s worked: I’ve lost about 12 pounds this year, slowly and surely. I’m running some again, and I’m feeling better about my health. But every once in a while, reaching for one of my well-read cookbooks like “Veganomicon: The Ultimate Vegan Cookbook” by Isa Chandra Moskowitz and Terry Hope Romero, or “Plenty” by acoustic goddess Sarah McLachlan from my Lilith Fair-going days, I’d glance at those three little neglected titles and feel bad. Hadn’t I made a promise to the world and to NPR that I’d use them all?
This is where I found myself at the start of the holidays, where those old regrets and resolutions usually come to light on our shoulders. There’s a lot of uncertainty happening in the world, much of it frightening and out of our control. The only things we can take charge of are our habits and the standards we set for ourselves. My parents did not raise a quitter, my friends, and so I grabbed those cookbooks ― “Fresh And Pure: Organically Crafted Beauty Balms and Cleansers” by Jules Aron, “My First Baking Book” by Cico Kidz and Susan Akass and Sesame Street’s “B is For Baking” by Susan McQuillan — and started exploring.
By focusing on healthy, or at least not dastardly foods I had most of the ingredients for, what I came up with was delicious. I started by making my own chai from “Fresh and Pure” (most of the spices were ground, so even after straining, it was aromatic but a wee … chunky), then did a baked risotto from “My First Baking Book,” substituting brown rice to eliminate the white carbs. The savory, fluffy ending of my journey was Ernie’s Corny Corn Pudding from the Sesame Street book, which substitutes olive oil for the usual sugar. (I sprinkled stevia on mine so it was yummier.)
As I cracked the crust on that creation, inspired by a very goofy orange Muppet, I felt a sense of both relief and accomplishment. I’d done it! It was not only an act of sustainability, using existing resources before buying new ones, but a test of my imagination: the creation of art in a bowl, a baking dish or the air fryer. I’d defied the existential dread that my aging brain could never master anything new nor discover fresh talents and tastes. I kept it moving, messily dabbling and cooking and learning.
Just in time to start all over again. Happy New Year. May it be yummy.