My apartment contains a painful secret. It sits on the shelf right above the stove. At first glance, you’d probably never notice—if you did, you might even make an admiring comment, not knowing the personal shame it carries. These are the cookbooks I’ve collected over the course of 10 years, from the one I got after college (Slow Cooker Revolution) to the one I got last week (Green Kitchen Stories). And even though they seem beautiful, with their full-bleed photos and heavy matte pages, my mortification builds as the stack grows. Because I almost never cook from them.
Every time I buy a new cookbook (and I do, of course, despite everything), I ask myself why this shelf remains largely untouched. I love entertaining, so why am I not a person who hosts Ottolenghi-inspired dinner parties? I eat dozens of macarons, so why have I never made a recipe from the book dedicated exclusively to crafting their tiny, perfect forms?
When I first started acquiring cookbooks, their order and authoritative tone were comforting; finally, someone to tell me how to make a sauce! But, taken in regular doses over months, then years, those rules become constricting. Just look at Margaret Atwood’s fiction. In The Handmaid’s Tale, cooking is a job for the Martha’s, synonymous with subjugation. In Atwood’s short story The Art of Cooking and Serving, cookbooks are called out specifically as a source of this control. A cookbook author imparts “strict ideas on the proper conduct of life. She had rules, she imposed order. Hot foods must be served hot, cold foods cold. … It just has to be done.”
So imagine my surprise when I learned that Atwood herself had once assumed that same role. When I found a secondhand copy of The CanLit Foodbook and saw her name on the cover, I bought it immediately. (Another one for the shelf.) I had to know: How would someone who based a career on breaking rules fare as culinary dictator?
The answer was immediately revealed in Atwood’s introduction to the book. “I’m one of those people who read cookbooks the way other people read travel writing,” she writes. “I may not ever make the recipe, but it’s fun to read about it, and speculate on what kind of people would.” She goes on to present her “recipe” collection: submissions from Canadian authors that range from poetry to meditations to more the more traditional instructions we’d expect from a cookbook … loosely defined. (Michael Ondaatje’s recipe is for grapefruit. It has one ingredient.)
As I paged through the book, I realized how Atwood approached cookbooks: like a novel, not a manual. Without any sense of obligation or expectation, cookbooks were an exercise in imagination, in becoming. Revisiting my cookbooks shelf with this perspective, I realized the opportunity to encounter not who I should be but who I could be: the one who hosts the dinner party, the one who eats her homemade macarons in bed. In learning to read a cookbook like a novel, the Atwood way, I discovered worlds where I’m free to be not-myself. And isn’t that why we read in the first place?