Maybe it’s because I’m approaching a somewhat noteworthy age, but I choose to believe that perhaps the most significant of all my birthdays was my fifth. Why? My fifth birthday marked the day that my obsession with food (and food as an artform) was born when my mother gave me my first cookbook.
I was in the kitchen, watching my mother fuss with something in a drawer, when she gave me a copy of Betty Crocker’s Cookbook for Boys and Girls.
“Go sit at the table and look through the pictures,” she said. “Figure out what kind of cake you want for your birthday. Draw it for me.” I took to the challenge right away. I sped to the kitchen table, grabbed paper and wax crayons, and went to work. In between pages of subtle advertising, black print, and Gloria Kamen’s clever illustrations, I found vibrant color photos of party foods and ornate party cakes.
Even then I was a fool for clever food styling.
I studied the photos of pastel-colored kiddie cocktails with exotic names like eggnog and red rouser. I scrutinized a photo of a sheet cake with a shallow border framed with roaming candy tigers and bars of gum drops. I didn’t care how the cake tasted. What interested me were the candy lions and shiny gum drops. I wanted them.
But it was the picture of “the Drum Cake,” a Betty Crocker Devils Food cake covered in a fluffy white frosting with a lattice of candy canes and maraschino cherries, that offered me a lifetime of sugary daydreams. The image of peppermint swirls agains creamy white frosting was seared in my memory. Thanks to that cookbook’s influence, I asked for cakes with ornate decorations for years and begged for the kid-proof oven that baked mini cakes with the heat of a lightbulb.
Now that it is my birthday week all over again I return to that dog-eared children’s cookbook. According to a little research, it turns out that my beloved cookbook is the most requested title in the Betty Crocker archives (and is available in reprint form or via the Open Library). Though the cookbook is lacking in true recipes (many are simply instructions to follow the directions from a box of a Betty Crocker cake mix), reading through the popular 1957 cookbook reminds me of the importance of early influences. I love this book. If not for recipes, but for a reminder of how far I’ve come. (And no. I was not born in 1957)
Over the years I’ve been given cookbooks that influenced my life in and out of the kitchen. What are some of your favorite touchstone cookbooks you’ve been given?
*One year I asked for a birthday cake with the image of Jesus on it. An odd request, considering that we were not what you would call a religious family rarely went to church.