Photo by Emilie Dayan Hill.
Photo by Emilie Dayan Hill.

This article first appeared in issue #49 of our Gravy quarterly. You can read previous issues of Gravy here. Do you want Gravy delivered to your mailbox? (No spills, we promise.) Become an SFA member!

The Art of Cookbook Marginalia

A family history in shorthand and scribbles

by Sarah Baird

“A few greasy looking smears 

and next to them, written in soft pencil-

by a beautiful girl,  I could tell, 

whom I would never meet-

‘Pardon the egg salad stains, but I’m in love.’”

From Marginalia by Billy Collins

I am the daughter of a librarian. Growing up, the leaning stacks of novels and winding shelves of yellowing flea-market hardbacks were like siblings. Each work of fiction, every biography, held a charming origin story or anecdote about just how it came to occupy its current place next to the living room ficus tree.

As with any relative, I treated these books with a reverent courtesy. No dog-earing pages. No using The Great Santini as a coaster. And absolutely no writing, highlighting, or foreign script penciled inside even the most frayed dust jackets.

Cookbooks, though, were a different story.

Across the South—and in my Kentucky home—the marginalia bordering recipes that filled the white spaces of tattered cookbook pages are as much a part of those texts as the recipes themselves: miniature vignettes of familial life. Culinary love letters passed down through generations, cookbook marginalia tell the tales of the perfect punch for sweltering June weddings, that Aunt Ruby loves extra raisins in her oatmeal cookies, and just how much bourbon a ham marinade really needs.

Recipe changes, trial-and-error additions, and ratio shifts fussily marked in diagonal pencil swaths stripe the most notable cookbook of my childhood: Talk About Good! (1967 edition). No one is quite sure how this recipe collection found its way to our family’s culinary library. Neither my grandmother, the cookbook’s original owner, nor my mother had ever visited Lafayette. Yet its fade-resistant, fluorescent yellow jacket and cracked and creviced spine became the backbone of simple weeknight dinners and hallmark meals.

My maternal grandmother’s lithe, delicate notations about half-cups of cake flour and my mother’s bold directives on service make the cookbook a character study. (Like all Southern families, we’re full of characters.) It’s also an unexpected time capsule: the opportunity for a journey through sensory memory. Running my fingers over the mahogany-stained pages, I can hear my grandfather let out a string of creative invective as his sweet tea accidentally sloshes out of the glass and on to the page. The presence of receipts-as-bookmarks, paper scraps, and additional food marketing paraphernalia that become trapped inside these family cookbooks only adds to the charm they possess. For several years, a particularly flimsy cookbook in our kitchen was held together with promotional Martha White packing tape.

Today, yard sales are a prime hunting ground for those of us who enjoy finding these note-covered cookbooks. Reading them, I feel like an eavesdropper on a multigenerational conversation, thumbing through to see what life in the kitchen was like for another family in another time. While I’m usually proud to play interloper on these raw presentations of personal style and kinsfolk interplay, I occasionally blush at the intimacy that radiates from the pages, as if someone has accidentally laid out her diary alongside all the typical rummage-sale knickknacks.

Our family’s heirloom Lafayette cookbook now occupies a shelf in my New Orleans kitchen, slightly closer to its Acadiana origins and with an owner now properly schooled on the finer points of boudin and cracklings. My own tentative notes (and appropriately placed grease stains) are slowly taking their place within its pages, as I write the newest chapters of our family’s culinary history.

Sarah Baird is a New Orleans–based writer and editor whose book on Kentucky sweets will be published in January 2014.