The Cookbook Collector

About this time in Advent, the pressure of Christmas shopping starts to depress me. I positively hate wandering through Target in hopes that the merchandise itself will speak to me and suggest what to buy for someone on my list.  It seems sullying just to grab a DVD or book or kitchen gadget or sweater or seasonal promotion item off a shelf simply because time is getting short and I need something to give.

I intentionally limit the number of people I shop for, so I really want to give genuine gifts.  Every year I vow to avoid the desperation scenario by starting early, but time inevitably slips away.

Surprisingly perhaps, grounding perspective for this matter came from a novel called The Cookbook Collector by Allegra Goodman, which I read with two of my sisters-in-law for our informal book club. At the center of one of the book’s several plot lines is a valuable collection of historical cookbooks that a woman named Janet inherited from her uncle.  He had told her not to sell it, but Janet needs money to help her daughter regain custody of her children.  Ultimately, a young woman named Jess, assistant to one of the potential buyers, helps her realize that the uncle would understand the gravity of the situation, because “children shouldn’t have to remember their mothers.”

The cookbooks themselves become a source of fascination for Jess and her employer, George, because as Jess begins to catalogue them, she discovers sheets with sketches and writings stashed within the pages that suggest an unrequited love interest of the uncle’s.  The author notes on her website that a jumping off point for writing the novel was awareness of her own habit of reading cookbooks rather than cooking, which led her to wonder “What would it be like to write a book about hunger?”  The many characters all manifest different hungers – for security, acceptance, purpose in life, to be loved, but also to give love.

The holiday season fundamentally is about hunger too.  Our Advent longing for the messiah gets translated into Christmas shopping for material items as expressions of affection.  We hunger to receive and give. This book reminded me that while “things” ultimately fall short, some objects can provide spiritual sustenance.  George, who acquires the cookbook collection, also collects other antique items, like clocks and typewriters, almost as a substitute for relationships.  After falling in love with Jess, he becomes generous toward others and uses his wealth for larger purposes than his own acquisitions.

For our book discussion get-together, I invited Tracie and Kathleen for a meal comprised of foods mentioned in the book.  Setting the table that morning, I noticed my own “collections” – silverplated flatware from my great-grandmother, crystal stemware received as wedding gifts, china from my husband’s aunt, painted pottery bowls bought on a long-ago trip to France.  Yes, they are “things,” but they also connect me with people and events of the past, conveying meaning beyond their material existence.

Copyright Peg Conway 2010

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