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Published: Tuesday, 3/15/2005

The life of a cookbook

Doris and Tom Meek of Toledo married March 17, 1951 and moved to Pasadena, Calif. She didn't have a cookbook and when her mother-in-law visited, she asked the young bride, "where's your cookbook?" The two women went out to buy a cookbook and came home with The Fireside Cook Book by James A. Beard with illustrations by Alice and Martin Provensen, printed by Simon and Schuster, N.Y. in 1949. Not only was it a cookbook, it was a book of illustrations.

Doris was born in Toledo, but her parents were from Germany. "The first recipe I used was how to make homemade noodles," says Mrs. Meek who has used the cookbook for 54 years and has put the pages in a new binder. "In German cookbooks I couldn't understand (the recipes). The recipes were mostly in my mother's German handwriting."

In The Fireside Cook Book "I was more intrigued with the artwork, but everything is in here," she says about the artistic descriptions of salad greens, sauces, how to cook eggs, and even a chapter on pheasant.

It's a cookbook classic destined to be a family treasure for the couple's three sons and five grandchildren. She intends to give it to her 12-year-old granddaughter, Lauren, who is interested in art.

Most cooks have a favorite "first" cookbook. Maybe it was the Joy of Cooking that became your kitchen road map. Or you were inspired by James Beard, or Julia Child demystified French cooking for you. Perhaps it was the fictional Betty Crocker who led you to culinary success.

Among my first and favorite cookbooks was the 12 volume Woman's Day Encyclopedia of Cookery with plenty of excellent photographs and literally alphabetical descriptions of foods around the world. When I look at it now, I am amazed at just how advanced the editors of that cookbook set were considering how basic American food was in the 1960s when it was written.

My mother collected the set each week at the A&P grocery in the town where I grew up. I've used it for years. Not only are many of my favorite Christmas cookie recipes from these books, it has been a great resource as a food writer.

In fact, the encyclopedia with 2,000 pages and 1,500 illustrations (mostly photos) was number 2 among the top 100 favorites listed in Saveur magazine's January/February 2004 issue.

Today, the pages of my cookbook set are yellowing. Plenty are spattered by counter-top cooking. I've got recipes and magazine clippings tucked in certain pages.

Though it's still a standard that I pull first from the shelf, it's beginning to show its age in other ways. Recent recipes have not had the flavor impact that we expect of our recipes today which shows you just how much our recipes and American food is changing.

Among hundreds of cookbooks at home and in my office collection, I measure the worth of a cookbook by the recipes I actually use it in my kitchen. I'll always have a soft spot in my heart for those 12 volumes, even if I reach for newer cookbooks. Everything changes.



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