By the Book: Satisfying results of cookbookkeeping

The big box book store in Riverhead has cookbooks everywhere, and each one you pick up is more colorful than the one you just put down. They’re all over the place — up front in the New & Recommended displays, lining the shelves in the Cooking section and stacked like flapjacks on the 30% Off tables. They’re written by people I’ve never heard of, who probably can cook, and by celebrities from every field, who probably don’t know a chafing dish from a satellite dish. They come in endless designs and dimensions, and to flip through them is almost as good as eating.

My wife has 41 cookbooks. It was 40 until two weeks ago when the Southold Book Cottage served up “Grilling,” 384 pages, for $2. It is stuffed with succulent pictures of grilled beef, pork and fish (oh, yeah, and vegetables). I was ready for a feast — Salivation Day had arrived — but “Grilling” disappeared into the cookbook complex to meet its new extended family.

Disappointed, I questioned this, and was reminded of her large, wooden recipe box and the two loose-leaf recipe books, which I then hauled out and commenced the count. The box contained 554 recipes, the green folder 339, the white 596. There were clippings from newspapers, magazines (from doctor’s offices!) and catalogs, along with handwritten file cards from friends, relatives and, it seemed, enemies (poached hamburgers with apricots?).

“Don’t forget our gourmet club,” she said, and 26 years of recipes from those bimonthly affairs entered the crowded kitchen. Some quick arithmetic, cookbook offerings included, yielded just under 6,000 possible meals.

My saintly, gray-haired mother was not a great cook (when it’s smoking it’s cooking, when it’s black it’s done), but I remember her Fannie Farmer cookbook that stood alone on the counter. My wife is a stupendous cook, and I asked how she chose any given meal from this stunning array of choices.

“It’s all in the imagination,” she said. “I might find tilapia on sale, or chicken or bok choy. Maybe there are coupons for black beans, or red potatoes or artichoke hearts or … ”

The list continued, but apparently she shops, comes home, gets out all 6,000 recipes and begins slicing and dicing, stirring and shirring, mashing and mushing — all totally in her head! And shazam! A previously unknown dish is born. Racetrack handicappers might say “Stir Fry, out of Julia Child, by Craig Claiborne.” Problem? Well, I can’t respond to “What would you like for dinner?” because these dishes have no identifying names.

I spoke with several other friends, intense cooking people, who basically said the same thing: Cookbooks form a research library, an idea factory, from which imaginative meals spring. One such friend has accumulated over 800 of them. (What’s for lunch, Fran?) Some standards are relished by all: Good Housekeeping, Joy of Cooking, New York Times, Silver Palate, but, sadly, Fannie Farmer’s name never came up. Sorry, Mom.

July Fourth is coming soon. Let’s celebrate the recipe that created our country — pinches and dashes of every imaginable nationality, color and religion mix-mastered into a concoction the entire world envies. God bless the cook.

Mr. Case, of Southold, is retired from Oxford University Press and a former member of Southold Free Library’s board of trustees. He can be reached at [email protected].