Between the recipes, scribbles speak volumes

The New York TimesFebruary 12, 2013 

When her mother died three years ago, Lynell George, a writer and assistant professor of journalism at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles, assumed the responsibility of making the family’s traditional New Year’s Day gumbo. Leafing through her mother’s cookbooks, she heard her mother’s Creole-inflected voice in the margins.

“Things were crossed out, and she had left notes like ‘needs more crab’, ‘go Monday for Andouille’ and ‘no okra in this,’ ” George said. “It was very emotional, like she was standing behind me.”

Ghosts linger in old cookbooks, possibly the most annotated form of literature. People who wouldn’t dream of writing in other books don’t hesitate to edit (“add 1/2 t. cayenne”), write reviews (“never again”) and even note special occasions (“anniversary party ’84”) next to recipes. Whether practical, historical, sentimental or smudged with chocolate ganache, marginalia in cookbooks can tell the story of a life and be a lasting memorial to the scribbler.

For Beth Ann Fennelly, a poet and associate professor of English at the University of Mississippi in Oxford, reading her mother’s cookbooks is like reading her diary.

“She would write not just the things you would expect next to a recipe, like ‘raise the heat to 375 for the last 15 minutes,’ but she would write down the guests who came to the dinner party, and the side dishes,” Fennelly said. Moreover, her mother, a lifelong homemaker, had a curiously haiku-ish way of noting how things were served: “The asparagus soup on the yellow linen napkins with the crocus in the Wedgewood.”

Fennelly has similarly annotated her own cookbooks to indicate which recipes are her children’s favorites and the meal she made for her husband when she told him they were expecting their second child.

“It was a roasted duck with port sauce that took eight hours to make,” she said. “Dessert was him opening the little box that he thought was a pen but contained the positive pregnancy test.”

“When I think of things one would grab in a fire, I think of my cookbooks,” she said. “They are my treasures.”

Though Fennelly is unlikely to part with her cookbooks, booksellers said her annotations might be a selling point. “There are collectors who think marginalia is more valuable and interesting than the recipes,” said Bonnie Slotnick, the eponymous owner of a Greenwich Village bookstore that specializes in vintage cookbooks. “I used to apologize when there was writing in books, but I have people who tell me, ‘No, that’s the best part!’ ”


The jottings of culinary legends are particularly prized. Julia Child prominently wrote her name in many of her cookbooks, as well as the date she acquired them and which kitchen she used them in – she had homes in Cambridge, Mass., and Provence in France. Her cookbook collection is now housed at Harvard, in the Schlesinger Library at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study.

Child’s most extensive notations, tellingly, are next to entries concerning tripe and organ meats. But perhaps even more interesting are the additions written by whoever gave her the book. One example is Nina Simonds, whom Child encouraged to pursue her interest in Chinese cuisine by traveling to that country, where she ultimately translated and wrote Chinese cookbooks.

“Nina Simonds sent a copy of one of her books to Julia and wrote a warm full-page letter on the front flyleaf, because Chinese postal regulations forbade the inclusion of a separate letter with a book,” said Marylene Altieri, a curator at the Schlesinger Library. The chatty note describes her apprenticeship in a small restaurant in China that was “generous with the samples.”

The cutting wit of the renowned British food writer Elizabeth David is evident in the marginalia of her cookbooks, now kept at the Guildhall Library in London. Her scribbles are on bits of paper (grocery receipts, bus tickets, postcards, Post-it notes) distributed throughout the texts. In her copy of “The Cooking of Italy” (1969) by the American food writer Waverley Root, she wrote, “Waverley Root is a pitiful phony.” Referring to a recipe for cold macaroni salad involving “tinned pears” in “Ulster Fare” (1945) by the Belfast Women’s Institute Club, David wrote, “Sounds just about the most revolting dish ever devised.”


Whether famous chefs or ordinary home cooks, cookbook users tend to be ready collaborators and critics, said Heather Jackson, professor of English at the University of Toronto and the author of “Marginalia: Readers Writing in Books.” Though they wouldn’t presume to delete characters or suggest an alternate ending to, say, a work of fiction, they’ll do the equivalent in a cookbook. In the course of her research, Jackson said, she often found changed recipes or entirely new ones written or pasted into cookbooks.

“People might abhor notes or highlighting in other books, but no one really minds seeing a cookbook get marked up,” she said. “What happens over time is these notes that seem practical and peripheral take on historical value, and within a family or among friends they may take on sentimental value.”

Recipe reviews and comments on websites like and just aren’t the same, said Laura Petelle, a lawyer in Peoria, Ill., who marks up her own cookbooks and enjoys borrowing friends’ to look at their notations. “Reading actual handwritten notes in a cookbook with all the stains and the wrinkles, you come away with a personality, and you’re learning what they make for their family and how they make it,” she said. Besides, “People online are crazy, you know, suggesting you substitute ketchup for tomatoes.”

As for cookbook authors, Anthony Bourdain, for one, said he would not be the least offended to learn that copies of his popular “Les Halles Cookbook” were filled with users’ smears and suggestions. “It would please me very much to think of someone scrawling in it,” he said, “or spilling sauce on it, getting crushed pepper in the binding.”

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