There’s something really special about the promise you find in the cookbook section of a used bookstore. I love browsing the shelves and pulling out random titles. Some are busts, while others are absolute hidden gems indicative of a particular time and place.
For example, my family and I vacation in Hilton Head, SC every year and there is an antique and used bookstore on the island. At least once during the summer, I would get lost in the aisles and pull out locally published community center and church cookbooks that focused on Low Country and Gullah-Geechee cuisine.
From them, I was introduced to Sallie Ann Robinson, a cookbook author who writes about West African-influenced Gullah cuisine and whose recipe for “Ol’ Fuskie Fried Crab Rice” life changing. I also found a story of dueling blackberry dumplings buried in the laminated pages of a Presbyterian women’s group cookbook.
When you inherit someone else’s cookbook, it contains stories beyond the words of the author; there are stained pages, dog-eared recipes, and notes in the margins that point to family dinners, special occasions, and, sometimes, a disastrous night thanks to a never-before-seen recipe (I once found a cookbook where someone had used Sharpie marker on “X” a baked mac and cheese recipe – which called for 6 tablespoons of salt – and wrote “Utter Trash!!!” in all caps).
A few nights ago, I wandered into The Gallery Bookstore, a Chicago institution that’s a few train stops from my apartment and has a few simple rules: check your bag in front, put your phone on quiet and, if you choose to carry it with you when browsing the very crowded shelves, don’t use it to take pictures. The owner, a burly man with a large beard and fingerless gloves, patiently gives these directions to everyone who walks through the door.
Immediately I loved it.
The section names are hand-scribbled and slightly esoteric (“female mythology” and “herb books” were two of my favorites), but I quickly found my way back to the cookbooks and was immediately greeted with dozens of titles I had never seen. A thin paperback edition immediately caught my eye: “Café Mima: Cocina Cubana” by Yoly N. Perez.
On the back, a small inscription: Mi abuela Dorinda opened the Café Mima restaurant in Cuba in 1931. He brought together algunas de sus recetas y con gusto las compartos con ustedes. Hope that this book enriques su conocimiento de las tradiciones y comida Cubana.
Perez collected the recipes that his grandmother, Dorinda, had developed in her restaurant Cafe Míma, which she opened in Cuba in 1931. The cookbook is full of descriptions of the small cafe that Perez’s grandmother had built. There were green park benches in the front, several tables in the back, and a bar counter in the front.
“The cafe’s large, garage-like entrance doors opened for breakfast and lunch, allowing the aroma to seep into the streets,” Perez wrote.
Perez goes on to write that if he had never returned to Cuba after immigrating with his parents when he was three years old, but thanks to his grandmother’s recipes, he understood the taste of his roots. It’s a beautiful encapsulation of the power of food stories and what we gain when we share and seek them out – something I’m sure I’ll ruminate on more when I start perusing Perez’s cookbook, in starting with the seasonally appropriate potaje de garbanzo, a chickpea stew.
This writing originally appeared in The Bite, Salon’s food newsletter. Every weekend we post unique stories, essays and recipes, as well as beautiful pieces from our archive. This week, here are some of our favorites that focus on using food as a way to understand or explore a place.
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Tests and recipes
My Pasta, Me: Forging a Home in New Mexico with Hatch Green Chili Pasta
Last fall, writer Maggie Hennessey and her husband packed up all the moving parts of their 15-year life in Chicago and uprooted themselves in southern New Mexico.
“Moving is a disorienting business; we are creatures of habit after all,” she wrote. “So I was completely unsurprised that I was craving my creature food, pasta, above all else as I worriedly navigated my new surroundings in an eternally dusty green van.”
While exploring her new home, Hennessy, of course, comes into contact with green chili peppers grown at Hatch; the state is known for them and you can find them on everything from greasy cheeseburgers to hominy spotted pozole. Inspired by this ingredient, Hennessy then created a recipe that is the perfect bridge between her old and her new home.
Why queue for TikTok’s famous cookie pies when you can bake them yourself?
As Salon’s Mary Elizabeth Williams wrote, there’s a long line of foods that become cultural obsessions: cronuts, cruffins, cereal milk, unbaked cookie dough. Now there’s a new kid on the block – anything from Crumbl, a famous new bakery from TikTok.
“While browsing the Crumbl menu this week, I was intrigued by the banana cream pie cookie,” she wrote. “The idea of ’a creamy, smooth banana pudding stuffed into a buttery pie crust and topped with a vanilla wafer’ really appealed to me.”
Interview with Vivian Aronson (Yuan Qian Yi 袁倩祎), author of “The Asian Market Cookbook: How to Find Superior Ingredients to Elevate Your Asian Home Cooking”
A few weeks ago, I spoke with Chef Vivian Aronson. She was born and raised in Chendgu, China, and knows that in the aisles of Asian American markets there are ingredients that often serve as keys to making better, more authentic dishes. However, navigating these markets can come with a steep learning curve, especially for novices who may not know where to start.
In her new cookbook, she makes sense of her life in America, how it differs from China, and how shopping in local Asian markets gives her — and Yoly N. Perez — a taste of her roots.