My grandmother worked from home as a seamstress in the 1950s and ’60s in Royal Oak, Mich. She enjoyed listening to the radio while her hands were busy sewing, and one of her favorite daily programs was called Ask Your Neighbor, in which housewives would call in to share their household tips and recipes. At least once a day, she would set down her sewing and write down a recipe as it was being dictated over the airwaves. Sounds like a heartwarming homemaker story—except these were recipes that she would never end up making. My grandpa was a picky eater, so Grandma cooked his same small handful of favorites over and over. But she loved imagining the exotic concoctions she might make in another life.
I inherited my grandma’s love of recipe hoarding, which is considerably easier to do in the age of Pinterest (my online recipe folder count tops 150). Not that I limit myself to digital storage space. Food magazines, cookbooks, and recipes printed out from the internet cover every horizontal surface in my kitchen not occupied by a Dutch oven, food processor, mortar and pestle, or immersion blender. On my list of favorite leisure activities, the imaginary cooking that I do on the couch, lazily paging through the latest issue of Bon Appétit, is neck and neck with the actual act.
What is it that makes recipes such pleasing literary nuggets? While there’s no narrative, per se, there is a definite beginning (the ingredients assemble), middle (pots are steaming as your imagined self masterfully wields a slotted spoon in one hand and butcher knife in the other) and an end (voilà: perfect ricotta gnocchi with lobster, truffle butter, and orange is served). The cast of characters can be as colorful as in any Dickens novel (gochujang, bone-in Boston butt, dry orange curaçao), and half the fun is in imagining the unique alchemy that will come from each new combination of their personalities.
Cookbooks can transport us to alternate worlds as luscious and seductive as any good work of fiction. Pick up Beth Dooley’s Minnesota Bounty: The Farmers Market Cookbook when there’s still snow on the ground, and leap forward in time to dewy spring with her recipe for pasta with ramps and morels. Or flip through Stephanie Meyer’s Twin Cities Chef’s Table and enter the rabbit-leg and melted-duck-fat big leagues with the chefs at La Belle Vie and Haute Dish.
Those pages of handwritten recipes my grandma copied and never made have now been passed on to my mother, who also has never cooked a single one. But she treasures them, remembering so vividly the pleasure it gave her mother just to write them down and inhabit them, however briefly, within the parallel, imaginary life in which she would make them real.