My neighbor Bernie has been leaving books on my stoop for at least 20 years. To say he’s thoughtful is to say that Lamar Jackson is athletic. Bernie hears a rumor about neighbors — that their kids play ice hockey, for instance — and, forget about it: You can expect old National Hockey League yearbooks and biographies of NHL stars on the stoop every couple of months, usually with a sticky note attached and an amusing quip written with a felt-tip pen.
Last December, I wrote a “Dan Can Cook” column under the headline, “32 things I learned about everyday cooking,” and this prompted a new round of Bernie book-giving. He started leaving previously owned cookbooks on my stoop almost every week.
I have been unable to ascertain where Bernie gets these books — I suspect flea markets, yard sales, estate sales, Goodwill maybe — and even a recent meal did not induce him to reveal the source.
But it doesn’t matter. It’s the thought that counts, and the count, last I checked, was 11 cookbooks from the Bernie giving spree.
I appreciate the thoughtfulness and generosity. All inhabitants of the Greater Patapsco Drainage Basin should have the benefit of such a kind, considerate and amiable Marylander for a neighbor.
But Bernie’s book-giving has served to remind me that food and cooking make up a vast planet of infinite history and folklore, cultures and customs, provinces and kingdoms, tribes and traditions, opinions and preferences, tools and techniques, herbs, spices, proteins, fruits and vegetables.
It is overwhelming.
You can chop. You can dice. You can slice. You can boil. You can broil. You can blanch, bake and baste. You can pan-fry, stir-fry or deep-fry. You can saute, steam, simmer or stew.
You can sear and roast. You can marinate and grill.
And on and on, and don’t forget the garnish.
You open a cookbook and start to read, and it’s too much: So many great recipes, but so little time and not enough meals, too many potential dinner guests watching their weight or refusing to eat pork products.
Don’t get me wrong: I like cookbooks. I prefer to use them over online recipes. I like the well-used appearance of dog-eared, oil-stained cookbooks stuffed with even more recipes clipped from newspapers or mailed from aunts. In time, they become family heirlooms.
But Bernie has overwhelmed me with cookbooks. He’s been able to do that because the world has been flooded with cookbooks. Long gone are the days when only established chefs or culinary experts wrote about food. The era of the “celebrity cookbook” is reflected in my Bernie collection.
There’s “Hot Italian Dish” by Victoria Gotti, daughter of the late Gambino family crime boss, John Gotti. The recipes are familiar to me because my lane for cooking is primarily Italian, with side trips to Portugal and France. Though her book is dominated by classics worth making, Gotti appears to have stretched to meet her publisher’s demands. For instance, the recipe for “Italian-style Roasted Rosemary Potatoes” is like any other, and only qualifies as Italian because of a pinch of dried oregano. Gimme a break.
A few weeks ago, Bernie blessed me with “Frankie Avalon’s Italian Family Cookbook.” Frankie Avalon was a teen music and movie idol of the 1950s and 1960s. He was in a string of beach films, “Beach Blanket Bingo” probably being the most famous. He was a popular pre-Beatles singer, too, “Venus” being his biggest hit. (Why he didn’t join Paul Anka and Fabian in the ridiculously star-laden cast of “The Longest Day,” the 1962 movie about the D-Day invasion, is something I always wanted to know. Alas, it’s not revealed in his cookbook.)
When I get a book like Avalon’s, I look for twists on standards, though it doesn’t mean I go along with them. Avalon’s spaghetti sauce, for instance, calls for onion, not garlic, which was the late Marcella Hazan’s approach, and some people are apparently crazy about it. I think it’s foolish to leave garlic out of spaghetti sauce. Hazan’s recipe also calls for butter, not olive oil, another overrated idea. The New York Times asserts that Hazan “changed how Americans cook Italian food,” like anyone can even know that.
What I know is, I start spaghetti sauce with olive oil and garlic, and I listen to opera when I cook, not Frankie Avalon.
Bernie dropped off a restaurant cookbook — 160 recipes from the Union Square Cafe in New York City. Fortunately, the previous owner made notes in the pages, declaring several of the recipes “delicious” in elegant cursive. This is the kind of cookbook that requires study, the dishes being original and nuanced. I look forward to trying the baked eggplant, zucchini and parmigiano tortino, a creamy vegetable tart.
Bernie gave me two cookbooks by priests, one by my favorite Italian foodie, the late Giuliano Bugialli — try his carrot salad sometime; it’s easy and amazing — and, best of all, “The Encyclopedia of Italian Cooking,” from the editors of Reader’s Digest. There are 1,001 recipes, all condensed in Digest style, but accurate and beautifully presented.
Last but not least, Bernie bestowed upon my household a copy of “Hunt To Harbor,” with more than 500 recipes contributed by Marylanders from all over the state and published by the Junior League of Baltimore in 1985. It’s a treasure of old-school regional dishes. I can’t wait to try the one for sauerkraut balls.