Great Cookbooks: more than a recipe collection!

Beginning sometime last summer, the leaves on a two-year-old violet in my family room began to turn white, beginning with the leaves at the pot edge and continuing over the wintertime, until there were only a few green leaves left in the center. I added the liquid fertilizer from the plant store, the kind made with chemicals, but the green in the center kept getting smaller and smaller until there was only a smidgen of green color left.

Then as I was brewing tea one day I decided on a whim not to throw them away, as was my usual habit, but instead sprinkled them around the roots of the sickly violet. If I hadn’t done and seen it myself I’m not sure I would have believed it, but–within days–the green circle began to widen from the center. Now, the plant is looking quite healthy; there are only a few white and pale green leaves left around the edge of the pot, and I predict it’ll be totally green in a few days. It hasn’t shown signs of blooms yet, but I’ll bet it won’t be long. And my thumb feels and looks a tiny bit greener too. So, just where is this leading, you ask?

Well, this weekend I was reading through a cookbook you’ve probably heard of–Bert Greene’s GREENE on GREEN–a vegetable cookbook. As I often do, once I’ve discovered or re-discovered a book or an author I like, I go to the internet and google them to see what else I can learn about them, other books they’ve written, etc. Now keep in mind that I’d just picked up the book Friday night and started idling through the pages that night, and then just last night, (Monday) was looking through it again trying to pin down which recipe to try first, the Tater’N’Tomater pie recipe he was given by a woman in San Antonio after a department store cooking demonstration, or Batter Fried Kale, the idea of which intrigued me. I was not prepared for, nor could I have been more startled by what I was to read from the first of the searches:

May 19, 2008: Bert Greene, a cookbook author and food columnist, died of a heart attack Friday at New York Hospital. He was 65 years old and lived in Manhattan and Amagansett, L.I.

Oh my! When did he die, I wondered, so I quickly glanced at the date and source and found it was an online version of the New York Times obituary section, and the date was Monday, May 19, 2008, and he had died Friday, May 16th. Just as I was beginning to become acquainted with vegetable master Bert Greene it was strange to think that he’d just died, perhaps at the very moment I’d first begun leafing through the pages of his book, full of the stories about the beginning of his lifelong affair with vegetables. It was a little like reading the beginning and then switching to the last page of a novel before you’ve finished the middle. Life is full of little ironies.

You can learn a lot of interesting stuff in some cookbooks, and this one was much more than a collection of recipes. In it Green relates the story about how his grandmother used the water she cooked vegetables in to sprinkle on the gladiolas, dahlias, and tulips. We called that vitamin-laden water pot-liquor where I grew up. “Bulb plants,” she insisted. “Not roots,” she emphasized to her young grandson of about eight at the time. “Soup stock or fish broth is what makes a root grow strong. And as a special treat, maybe a little meat juice once in a while.”

I remember how my own mother and grandmothers too used every bit of the water they pumped from their new fangled pump on the porch by the kitchen. The water left in the pot after cooking vegetables was either given to us to drink as a snack or at dinner, or it was poured over slices of cornbread to eat. Most every drop was consumed, and what wasn’t was poured on the flowers that grew outside near the kitchen steps, nothing ever wasted. I thought of the giant sized elephant ears that grew from bulbs by the porch. Had Aunt Annie poured her pot-liquor over them to get them to grow leaves so wide?

With these new insights gleaned from Bert Greene’s Yogoslavian grandmother, the tea leaves saving my sick violet, and remembering my Aunt Annie’s giant sized elephant ear plants, I may just have learned something about living a little greener. And I leave with one more moving story from the book. It seems when his grandmother died, Greene’s grandfather took over her beloved garden and it survived for another seventeen years:

“. . . because my grandfather doggedly took over the task of its cultivation. It was not an easy chore for an old man with a bad leg and no apparent horticultural skills, but clearly he undertook the enterprise as a memorial to his wife.”

Have you ever heard of anything so romantic? Now go find your own cookbook to read. No telling what you’ll learn about when you do. More than how to cook in the best ones. You’ll see!

Update: Tuesday, May 20, 2008: Is my face red! I’m reading the book page by page now and read a revealing sentence: “I grew up in the drear days of the 1930’s” which sent me back to google. I find I didn’t read the fine print under the headline that reads: published June 12, 1988. Is my face red?! Changes the whole timbre of this piece doesn’t it? But hell, the book is still a great treatise on vegetables. I’ll share one of the recipes with you one of these days.