“That which they fathers have bequeathed to thee,

earn it anew if though wouldst possess it.”

Goethe: Faust

The inscription is from the dedication page of my The Joy of Cooking. Odd as this may be, I’ve always felt some sort of kinship with this book. My parents whipped up pancakes, cookies, and biscuits from these recipes; in my Girl Scout days I carefully copied the recipes for Swedish meatballs and Crepes Suzette to earn my hospitality badge, and to boot, the author, like me, was a native St. Louisan.

The copyright date on my version is 1975 and has this inscription from my mother, “To Maggie – Happy Cooking on your 25th Birthday! Love, Mom.” This was wishful thinking on her part. I turned 25 in 1987, and I the only thing I was cooking up then was a bit of trouble. Parties and bars – 3am diners and 3pm restaurant dinners before my waitressing shift started. I wasn’t married – hadn’t yet moved to California or met my husband. I needed recipes for life, not recipes for meals.

I eventually found my way, as most of us do, and Joy followed me. I’ve found it’s usefulness as a textbook; it carefully explains how to set a table, how to knead yeast bread, and how to Know Your Ingredients. For a while I also found it highly entertaining, having giggled over the recipes for baked brains and eggs or hard-boiled eggs smothered in a mixture of white and chile sauce and gratineed, along with the instruction on cooking turtle (“Regardless of the turtle’s size, sectioning it for cooking is an irksome job, even if you overcome the worst of the opposition by instantly chopping off its head.”) and the careful drawings illustrating the skinning of a squirrel.

Blame it on a steady diet of Anthony Bourdain’s No Reservations, but I have a new respect for the book as a historical document.  Although sometimes it’s hard to imagine, there was a time – a big, long, stretch of time – before supermarkets and fast food chains existed. People did catch, raise, or purchase, a whole animal, and not so long ago: I know my husband’s grandfather raised rabbits for food, particularly during the World War II years, and my mother has memories of chasing chickens around the yard after her grandmother cut the heads off and before their blood was drained in a bucket to make soup. So if you only had a few chickens, you’d be wise to know how to make LOTS of different egg dishes to keep your family nourished. If there’s no supermarket, or no money, you’d be wise to know how to use what you find on the land, or the sea, to feed your family.

Now as a middle-aged mother, I also see Joy as a survival compendium. Recent natural disasters – earthquakes, tsunamis, hurricanes – all have affected the ability of millions of people to find and prepare food for their families in the accustomed ways. I wonder what I would do if it were me. I do know that if worse ever comes to worse, and that raccoon in my garbage is destined to be my dinner, Joy is here to show me what to do.