I am a passionate collector of cookbooks. This is probably due in no small part to the fact that I love cooking and eating. Cookbooks are not just guides for preparing food. To me, cookbooks are like coffee table books or picture books. I very often take one of my cookbooks off the shelf and settle down on the couch to browse through it. I look at the pictures, imagine the tastes on my tongue, ponder the ingredients, wonder what I would do differently if I were cooking the recipe…
I don’t need to be hungry to want to look through a cookbook, and it doesn’t even necessarily make me hungry to look through one - it just makes me happy. Cookbooks are books of possibilities, of things to look forward to, of exciting new things and comforting old ones.
I love big, glossy cookbooks with pictures of every recipe. The look of such a book doesn’t guarantee that the recipes are any good, but at least they’re a feast for the eyes. I also like slightly unusual or off-the-wall cookbooks, cookbooks that you have to search out or that not everyone has. Prime examples of these types of cookbooks are my Hare Krishna cookbook (with a great recipe for chapatis), my Hopi cookbook (with an as-yet untried recipe for baked prairie dog - “Kill the prairie dogs and immediately singe the fur completely, to get rid of fleas.”), and, what is perhaps my favorite cookbook of all, my Mormon cookbook.
The Mormon cookbook that I own - aptly titled Mormon Cooking-Authentic Recipes - is a book that I think you can only get at gas stations and hotel lobbies throughout Utah (alternatively, you can order it directly from Great Mountain West Supply in Salt Lake City - email me if you want the address). Its comparative rarity is a big part of what makes it so special to me. It was intended to be a fairly wacky present from the wilds of Utah, but it has since left the realm of “novelty item” and has become probably the most-used cookbook that I own.
The Mormon Cookbook is divided into 8 “chapters” ranging from “Breads” through “Casseroles” to “Desserts”. The short book (32 pages long) is interspersed with bits of Mormon wisdom. The inside front cover gives us a blurb about who the Mormons are and why their recipes are unique (because they are a “harmonious collection” from around the world).
In the “Breads” section, we find out why the Mormons say “wheat for man.” Under “Meats,” we are advised to do all things in moderation and to eat meat sparingly - though it is, apparently, “an essential part of the diet.” The “Canning” section informs us that many Mormons set aside a year’s supply of food in case of hardship (they’re set for Y2K). And finally, the back of the book tells us that Mormons live longer, and it lets us know why.
I don’t doubt that avoiding caffeine, alcohol, tobacco and any other drugs makes the Mormon lifestyle healthier. I do, however, have to wonder if anyone can really consider Hamburger Stroganoff or Bacon-Draped Venison to be health food. “Wholesome” yes, but good for you…?
Obvious or not-so-obvious health benefits aside, what makes this cookbook great is that the recipes are good. Everything I have ever made from the book - including the Hamburger Stroganoff - has turned out just right. The Old Fashioned Beef Stew is the quintessential beef stew. The Baking Powder Biscuits are positive archetypes of biscuits. The Buttermilk Pancakes are little flapjacks from Heaven. Whoever came up with these recipes knew what they were doing, and their recipes have now entered my oeuvre. I habitually make Mormon Pie Crust, Mormon Gravy, Mormon Zucchini Loaf and the aforementioned biscuits and pancakes. Everything turns out perfectly.
The Mormon Cookbook is a little mystery. I have no idea who compiled it or where the recipes come from. When I look at the names of the recipes and how they’re written out, I imagine that it is some sort of compilation of recipes from various families in some community or another. Grandma’s White Bread and Grandma’s Spice Cake, Mom’s Cole Slaw and Dad’s Barbecued Spare Ribs, Mom’s Apple Crumble and Dad’s Divinity, Yummy Yams and Apples, Delicious Beef and Rice - they’re the types of things that deck the tables at potlucks, the recipes that people write down for each other after get-togethers (“I simply must have the recipe for your Sunshine Glazed Carrots”).
It is pure Americana, and I find that endearing. It’s homey food, comfort food, meatloaf and macaroni and turkey pot pie. It’s food that people today buy frozen, or in cans, or in tubs, or in bags - which is a pity, because when I stand in the kitchen and stir the homemade Mormon Split Pea Soup, I get some sense of pride and comfort, some sense of carrying on a tradition. Even though it’s not my tradition, per se, it still makes me feel as though I somehow belong to something bigger. My Mormon Cheesy Potato Casserole would be welcome at any potluck.