DEBBIE ELLIOTT, host:
This is ALL THING CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Debbie Elliott. Do you remember your mother's favorite cookbook? Mine was a battered, ring-bound copy of the Better Homes and Gardens Cookbook, the one with the red and white checked cover. But for some people, the name of that beloved old cookbook faded with their childhood.
Ms. BONNIE SLOTNICK (Cookbook Sleuth): It's usually a book that their mother had that she used to the point where the covers fell off, the first five pages are gone. They don't know the title, the author, the date.
ELLIOTT: Cookbook sleuth Bonnie Slotnick.
Ms. SLOTNICK: They kind of remember that the cover was gray, maybe, and then I just draw them out, and they say a picture of a booted foot standing on a squirrel on page 513, and I go, oh, 1975 Joy of Cooking.
ELLIOTT: Bonnie Slotnick helps reunite people with their long-lost cookbooks from her Greenwich Village storefront in New York City. This tiny hallway of a shop is a sanctuary of rare and out-of-print cookbooks.
Ms. SLOTNICK: You can have everything if you have books. You can have anything and everything. You can have anything you want to eat in here. I always say reading M.F.K. Fisher while you're eating a peanut butter sandwich does wonders for the peanut butter sandwich.
ELLIOTT: Shelves of peanut-butter-enhancing books reach, literally, to the ceiling. And the door swings open. A woman of a certain age enters.
Ms. IRENE SAX(ph) (Food Critic): Hi, Bonnie.
ELLIOTT: Very New York. She arrives practically in mid-monologue, announcing she's just had lunch with two Buddhists.
Ms. SAX: A Buddhist chef I know and a Buddhist woman I know, who I have been trying to get them together for some time. My daughter said I'm like a New Age yenta. And they really liked each other.
ELLIOTT: It's Irene Sax. Turns out she's a food critic who frequents the shop.
Ms. SAX: Isn't it great? What a haven, yeah. And I'm actually down here because I'm doing a little research about casseroles, and I thought she probably had books from the '50s and '60s that would be about casseroles.
Ms. SLOTNICK: This is Jim Beard, as he was called in the early days, the Casserole Cookbook, 1955.
Ms. SAX: Well, sounds like the epicenter.
Ms. SLOTNICK: There he is.
Ms. SAX: Yeah.
ELLIOTT: So who is she, this cookbook sleuth? Bonnie Slotnick is a small woman with a narrow face. As she roams the shop, the crook of her nose plays host to a revolving cast of eyeglasses. She inherits old pairs from her friends.
Ms. SLOTNICK: Oh, this works.
ELLIOTT: She has a librarian's demeanor. As she strains for a book on an upper shelf, she even mutters the erudite mutterings of a librarian.
Ms. SLOTNICK: A woman's reach must exceed her grasp, else what's a heaven for?
ELLIOTT: Bonnie is literary.
Ms. SLOTNICK: Helen of Troy orange cake, hmm. Definitely want to try it. It's the cake that launched a thousand ships, I guess.
Ms. SLOTNICK: Sophia Loren once said everything I am today I owe to spaghetti.
ELLIOTT: And benevolent. She often hears confessions, notably this: Many, perhaps most of her customers don't cook.
Ms. SLOTNICK: Sometimes they say it in an embarrassed way and sort of put their hand in front of their mouth and say, I read them like novels, or I read them like pornography. And I don't think there's anything to be ashamed of in reading cookbooks for the pleasure of reading cookbooks and not cooking.
ELLIOTT: The subway below seems to rumble it's approval, and the door jingles again. Enter a young woman with long brown braids and a distinctly Southern lilt. She walks past the advertisement of Aunt Jemima touting pancakes in Yiddish, past illustrations of the great literary cookbooks with titles like Olive or Twist, the Bread Also Rises, and Remembrances of Things Pasta. Bonnie approaches the new customer.
Ms. SLOTNICK: Is there anything I can help you with?
Ms. EMILY ELLIOTT(ph) (Aspiring Chef): Oh, I believe I just found what I was looking for, thank you.
Ms. SLOTNICK: A signed copy of the Four Seasons Cookbook?
EMILY ELLIOTT: Um.
(Soundbite of laughter)
ELLIOTT: Emily Elliott is an aspiring chef from North Carolina. She quickly settles on a more smudged, less signed copy of the Four Seasons Cookbook. The next challenge, finding vesiga.
Ms. SLOTNICK: Vesiga?
Ms. ELLIOTT: Yeah. It's...
Ms. SLOTNICK: Is it an ingredient?
Ms. ELLIOTT: It is. It's the spinal marrow from the sturgeon fish. I've Googled it, and I can't even find it.
(Soundbite of laughter)
ELLIOTT: And what recipe is it used for?
Ms. ELLIOTT: It was something that was popular in the early 19th century in St. Petersburg when Karim(ph) was the chef to the Tsar there. Let's see. Essence of red snapper with vesiga. You have to simmer the vesiga itself for three hours, and then scrape it, and then slice the remaining translucent strip. And then simmer it again. Until a piece of vesiga stretches and breaks in half or leaves a sticky residue on your fingers.
Ms. SLOTNICK: And why is it you want to try this recipe?
Ms. ELLIOTT: Well, isn't that fascinating?
Ms. SLOTNICK: Yes.
Ms. ELLIOTT: I can't even imagine what it would be like. It's so strange. And it was a delicacy of the czars. So I want to know what Czar Nicholas ate.
ELLIOTT: Bonnie wonders allowed if the cookbook's smudged pages bear witness to Vesiga adventures gone by.
I get the sense from you that cookbooks offer little windows, little glimpses into history and culture.
Ms. SLOTNICK: Very much. I always thought nostalgia meant that you remembered something and you thought fondly of it, but I have nostalgia for times long before I was born, places I don't know, and opening a cookbook, just about any time, anywhere, takes me away by the palate. I get hooked like a fish.
ELLIOTT: Her favorites are narratives, the story of a young bride learning to set up house from her mother or this memoir called the country kitchen.
Now, this is a rather small book, about the size of a...
Ms. SLOTNICK: A little novel.
ELLIOTT: A little novel, and its got the red gingham cover.
Ms. SLOTNICK: It's cloth. And part of what I love about this book is exactly that, that it looks like a picnic cloth and a country picnic and life on the farm.
ELLIOTT: In one scene, the family attends a Sunday School picnic and there, quite naturally, a recipe unfolds.
Ms. SLOTNICK: Somebody at the picnic says, I guess we all know about your sour cream cookies, Ms. Thompson, I wished you'd give me the rule for 'em, said Ms. Boldry as they work together setting the table. Why, it's simple enough, said my mother, lifting golden donuts from crock to plate, you take a half cup butter and a half a cup of sugar and beat 'em together with a spoon until the begin to froth. Then you beat in a couple of yolks and about a third of a cup of sour cream with half a teaspoon full of soda dissolved in it. Then you add enough flour to roll them out, just enough to handle them, and roll them thin. I sprinkle some caraway over the top and stick a raisin in the middle. Who do you suppose made these fried cakes?
So she just gives her a recipe on the fly and I love the way the recipes are just worked right into the narrative like that.
ELLIOTT: Are there things that cookbooks tell you about the larger themes of life? Even, for instance, life and death, war and peace?
Ms. SLOTNICK: Certainly. I have books about food in wartime and I have had a book that was produced by the Red Cross for prisoners of war, American prisoners of war who were given a little allotment to grow whatever they could grow in whatever climate they were being held prisoner, and recipes for things like raisin brown betty made out of cracker crumbs and raisins and oleo or something, whatever kind of fat they could get.
ELLIOTT: For Bonnie Slotnick, even the bookmarks she finds in these old cookbooks preserve the past.
Ms. SLOTNICK: I've found a piece of v-mail from World War II of a soldier writing home that he was about to be shipped from Korea but he had found a place to have a Passover Seder. It doesn't just show where there favorite recipe was, it shows what was happening in their life at the time that they were using that cookbook.
ELLIOTT: Like a family scrapbook, almost.
Ms. SLOTNICK: Uh-huh. Some of them are almost like a family bible with that kind of record.
ELLIOTT: We ended our visit with a book mend to send you straight to the family Bible, an old Church Lady Cookbook, published in 1911 by the Dorcus society in rural Maine.
Ms. SLOTNICK: One of the things that's in this and is not uncommon in books from Church Lady groups is something called scripture cake, where the recipes are given in terms of the part of the Bible, chapter and verse, where they are referred to. And the recipe goes: Judges, 5:25; First Kings, 4:22; Jeremiah, 6:20; First Samuel, 30:12.
ELLIOTT: And what is First Samuel, 30:12?
Ms. SLOTNICK: It's two cups of raisins. They do have to give the quantities. But apparently in Judges, Chapter 5, butter was mentioned. In First Kings Chapter 4, flour was mentioned. In Jeremiah, sugar. In Samuel, raisins and also figs. Now, how that got cream of tartar from Matthew 13, I do not know. But I'm dying to look it up.
ELLIOTT: If you're dying to reconnect with you culinary past, you can visit Bonnie Slotnick Cookbooks on West 10th Street in Manhattan.
Ms. SLOTNICK: And then the last direction is Father Solomon's advice for making good boys, from Proverbs 23. And that's probably to beat it well and often.
ELLIOTT: Our story was produced by Kate Davidson and recorded by Manoli Weatherall(ph). To try your hand at scripture cake, go to our website, npr.org.