The oldest cookbook in the world is made of mud recipes — not recipes for eating mud, but tablets fashioned from mud and inscribed with cuneiform script. They are from Babylon and are now in the Yale Collection in the university’s Mesopotamian Collection. There are three nearly complete tablets and a forth fragmentary one and they date from about 1750 BCE, nearly 4,000 years ago and roughly the time of Hammurabi. 

Most of the recipes they contain are for broths and stews, but no doubt these fragments are only the remains of a larger cache of recipe tablets so far unearthed or uncatalogued. It is notable, though, that the evidence suggests that it is at this time and place that cooking in liquid was first introduced. It was an innovation in cooking and supplemented the open fire roasting and closed oven baking. 

The recipes we have are sketchy at best, mostly a list of ingredients with rudimentary instruction, most likely because the recipes were written down for the use of well-trained chefs who already knew the basic methods of the kitchen. 

A recipe for lamb stew reads literally: “Meat is used. You prepare water. You add fat. You add fine-grained salt, dried barley cakes, onion, Persian shallot and milk. You crush and add leek and garlic.” 

The ingredients for many recipes includes ingredients that are obscure, at best. Translating from the Akkadian text is often ambiguous. Modern scholars disagree on what is meant by “sebetu,” and they are probably a type of greens, like collards, but arguments persist.

Mesopotamian wildfowl pie, before and after covering

There are recipes older than these tablets, like an Egyptian recipe for flatbread from the 19th century BCE tomb of Senet and a formula for beer — or “liquid bread — from Sumer in the 14th century BCE, but the Yale Tablets are the oldest collection of recipes pulled together, in other words, the first cookbook. 

The oldest book, not on clay, is from the Fourth or Fifth Century CE and is typically ascribed to a Roman gourmand named Marcus Gavius Apicius. He almost certainly didn’t write the book, since he had been dead for at least 200 years when it was produced, but several recipes in the book are named for him. (Plato in his Gorgias has Socrates mention a book by Mithaikos on the cuisine of Sicily, which the philosopher calls a “gluttonous food culture.” Plato disapproved of so much. The book, if it existed, is lost.)

Apicius was once the byname for gastronomic excess. Pliny tells us he loved the “superb flavor” of flamingo tongues, and that he once sailed across the Mediterranean Sea to sample Libyan shrimp, but when his boat pulled up to the coast, and he saw what the local fishermen had caught, was unimpressed by the size of the shrimp and turned his ship around and went home without even going ashore. The Historia Augusta tells of his taste for “camel heels, cockscombs, the tongues of peacocks and nightingales, the brains of flamingos and thrushes, partridge eggs, the heads of parrots and pheasants, and the beards of mullets.” 

De Re Coquinaria

The book is De Re Coquinaria, or “On the Subject of Cooking,” and while it contains such exotic recipes, most are of more mainstream foods, and gives us an insight into the typical Roman diet. 

A recipe for Pork with Apples translates literally as: “Put in a sauce pan oil, broth, finely chopped leeks, coriander, small bits of cooked pork shoulder cut into long strips, including the skin, having everything equally half done. Add Matian apples cleaned, the core removed, slice lengthwise and cook them together. Meanwhile crush pepper, cumin, green coriander or seeds, mint, laser root, moistened with vinegar, honey and garum and a little reduced must. Add to this broth of the above morsels, vinegar to taste. Boil, skim, bind strain over the morsels, sprinkle with pepper and serve.” 

There are no measurements, no cooking times, and a few ingredients that may make you scratch your head. “Garum,” for instance, is a ubiquitous Roman fish sauce made by layering whole small fish with salt in a one-to-one proportion and letting the whole concoction ferment for a month or so and to collect the juices. “Laser root” is the Latin equivalent of the Greek sylphion, which is an extinct herb. Modern versions of the recipe often call for the substitution of asafoetida, “Must,” or “defrutum,” is a thick, reduced grape syrup. 

A recipe to stew lamb or goat kid says: “Put the pieces of meat into a pan. Finely chop and onion and coriander, pound pepper, lovage, cumin, garum, oil and wine. Cook, turn out into a shallow pan, thicken with wheat starch. If you are cooking lamb, add the spices while the meat is raw; if goat kid, add it while it is cooking.” 

De Re Coquinaria was popular in many editions and variants through the Renaissance and first printed commercially in 1498, with dozens of editions to follow. 

In the middle of the 10th Century, the first Arabic cookbook was compiled by Abu Muhammad al-Muthaffar ibn Nasr ibn Sayyar al-Warraq, or Ibn Sayyar al-Warraq, for short. Called the Kitab al-Tabikh, or “Book of Dishes,” it collects 600 recipes in 132 chapters. 

Because the Rome of Apicius and the Middle East of al-Warraq are both Mediterranean cultures, it shouldn’t be surprising that so many of their recipes share certain traits. If the Romans douse everything with garum, the Arabs had their murri, or fermented barley water (very like soy sauce). 

A recipe for Barida runs thus: “Take roasted chicken, disjoint it and arrange the pieces on a platter. Beat together mustard made with good wine vinegar and a small amount of murri and some sugar so that the sauce tastes sweet and sour. Add to the mixture ground walnut and a little asafoetida. Pour the sauce over the chicken to drench it. Then pour olive oil all over, finally, sprinkle top with chopped rue and garnish with pomegranate seeds, God willing.”

Long pepper

And if you compare the Arabic, Roman and Mesopotamian cookbooks, you find a family resemblance: lots of coriander, mint, cumin, caraway, cinnamon, sesame, rue, long pepper, and the lost sylphion. They could really be considered variants of a single thousand-years-old basic cuisine. 

Indeed, the Akkadian word for broth is “mu,” or “water,” and in al-Warraq’s book, a cooking broth is called “ma wa milh,” or literally, “water and salt.” 

Some two centuries after al-Wassaq, another Kitab al-Tabikh was written by Muhammad bin al-Hasan bin Muhammad bin al-Karim al-Baghdadi (they had a thing for long names), al-Baghdadi for short. It contains 160 recipes. 

Many early cookbooks, including al-Wassaq’s Kitab al-Tabikh, functions as much as a medical book as a cuisine guide. The quadri-humoral theory of medicine underlies all the recipes — the balance of wet, dry, cool, and warm. The subtitle of al-Wassaq’s book is “Winning a Lover’s Heart and Sparing Him the Need for a Doctor.” 

The first cookbook from India is the Sushruta Samhita, a Sanskrit medical text and one of the foundations of Ayurveda medicine. It is usualy dated from the First Millennium BCE, but the oldest surviving version dates from 878 CE. 

The Manasollasa is a 12th Century guide to Indian culture, from politics to dance compiled by Someshvara III, king of the Deccan empire of Chalukya. The Third Book is devoted to cuisine both vegetarian and non-vegetarian. A recipe for fish:

“Cut fishes into pieces and wash them well. Cook along with tamarind juice. Sprinkle well with wheat flour; fry in heated oil until brown. Add rock salt. Sprinkle powdered cardamom and pepper.” 

Yinshan Zhengyao

Tugh Temur

The first Chinese cookbook was written in 1330 and was also a medical text. Called the Yinshan Zhengyao, or “Essential Knowledge for Drinking and Feasting,” it was assembled by Hu Sihui and presented to Emperor Tugh Temur of the Mongol court. 

Hu Sihui is believed to have been of Turkic origin and many of his recipes seem to have been brought over from the Middle East, and therefore, share some of the habits of all the previous cookbooks. He was working during the Yuan Dynasty, which was Mongol, and the culture and cuisine of the nomadic peoples of Central Asia had a monumental affect on Asian and European societies, which may account for the similarities in cooking from Beijing to Marseilles, where you find meats stewed with fruits and exotic spices. 

One recipe, for Wolf Soup calls for: “Wolf meat (leg: bone and cut up),  cardamom, black pepper, kasini (powdered chickory), turmeric, saffron.  Boil together into a soup. Adjust flavors of everything using onions, sauce, salt, and vinegar.”

The author was primarily a physician and was likely the first to discover the link between nutritional deficiencies and disease. A recipe for mutton stew says “it supplements and increases, warms the center, and accords qi [the life force, literally ‘air’].” 

That Pan-Eurasian food culture lasts through the Middle Ages in Europe, but a more Western style of cuisine begins to emerge in the as the Medieval morphed into the Renaissance. Apicius still stood as the model for the kitchen staff of the wealthy, but at least in northern Europe, a different sort of cookbook began to emerge. And after about 1500 CE, the Columbian Exchange brought a whole new pantry of ingredients. 

Next: Cookbooks become an industry 1400-1800

Walk into any used bookstore — or if you can find it, a new bookstore — and you will find an entire aisle devoted to cookbooks. Perhaps there may be more romance novels, if it’s a used paperback store, but in most, cookbooks take up more space than anything else. Of the making of cookbooks, there is no end. 

Reading a good cookbook is a pleasure and collecting them is a vice. When I got married, 40 years ago, two collections joined as one. Over the years, many have gone to feed the shelves of used bookstores and now I’m whittled down to the most essential ones. But I still love them all; many I have let go I have since rebought. 

But not all cookbooks are of the same ilk. There are four distinct classes of cookbooks and they offer differing rewards. 

ONE

The first group are the recipe books, and they make up by far the largest class, maybe even 80 percent of the total. Their purpose is to give homemakers directions to the preparation of the standard day-to-day fare of the family table, or to instruct how to make more exotic dishes from exotic cultures. There may be intercalary text, a few stories or some background information, but the heart of such a book is the individual recipe, divided into an ingredients list and a procedure directive. 

We can divide these up into actual bound books and the plethora of booklets and pamphlets, many of them promotional items.

Among the books we run from the big comprehensive volumes  covering everything from soup to roasts and desserts, to the specialty book, such as have Christmas recipes, or baking secrets, or how-to for Chinese food. 

And each cook has one of these compendiums as her primary source: either Craig Claiborne’s New York Times Cookbook, the Fannie Farmer Cookbook, the Gold Cookbook, or the Better Homes and Gardens New Cook Book: America’s #1 Cookbook Since 1930. 

And most have a collection, too, of smaller books — a McCall’s paperback on pastries or a Southern Living collection of casseroles. Such books, often mere pamphlets, have been produced at least since the end of the 19th century. 

I have lived in the South for a good portion of my life, and have come to love, even need, Southern cooking, from barbecue to Brunswick stew, from fried okra to hushpuppies. There have been Southern cookbooks from way back, when it was still OK to use an African-American mammy on the cover. Edna Lewis is a great step upwards. I have owned three editions of Mrs. Dull’s book.

As American food culture expanded, beginning in the 1970s, the range of cookbooks of exotic cuisine expanded. Julia Child taught us French; Joyce Chen taught us Chinese; Madhur Jaffrey brought us India and Diana Kennedy made us long for varieties of chile pepper we had never heard of and never even imagined. 

Before then, most cookbooks were good ol’ American family fare, and  magazines gave out monthly ideas for how to turn loaf bread, Jell-O packets, a can of soup, and some Shake ’n Bake chicken into a meal fit for a junior assistant vice president in charge of sales. 

And from the 1920s through the 1960s, various corporations put out pamphlet-size promotional books with recipes for their products. A Jell-O cookbook; a Diamond Walnut cookbook; a Gold Medal Flour cookbook; a Sunbeam Mixmaster cookbook — hundreds, maybe thousands of them. 

For anyone interested in graphic design and typography, these promotional cookbooks are a treasure trove of historical fashion. They popped up first in the years before World War I, became popular again in the 1920s, served the war effort with helpful kitchen shortcuts in the 1940s, and became hip and cartoonish in the 1960s. Each era has its look and seasoned eyes can date one from its cover alone, to an accuracy of less than five years. 

A subgenre of the recipe book is the celebrity cookbook. Many of these have a short shelf life, as movie and TV stars come and go. 

And television series and movies with sequels spawn similar entries. Want a Star Wars cookbook? There are at least six of them. 

A Harry Potter Cookbook? Game of Thrones? Walking Dead? Outlander? 

A kind of gender spread from boy-aimed Star Trek to girl-aimed Gilmore Girls, with Doctor Who in the middle, pitched to both. 

For Downton Abbey, there are official and unofficial versions. 

Every church has, at some point, published a spiral-bound book of the favorite recipes of its parishioners, usually with much use of crushed corn flakes and cream of mushroom soup. 

But I’m getting sidetracked. I love my collection of these ephemera, not for their recipes, which I never use, but for their design and typography. They are an unnoticed art gallery. Others find the same in classic cars or vintage clothing, but for me, it’s the changing trends in publishing, and the cheapest source of old book design comes on the cookbook shelves of your favorite used bookstore. 

TWO 

The second class of cookbook is the instructional — those books whose purpose to to show how to bone a chicken or julienne a carrot. The most famous is probably Jacques Pepin’s La Technique and La Methode, with their photographic step-by-step. 

Of course, the boundaries of these classes is blurry. Most procedurals also contain recipes, and even the big recipe collections give some help in the basic techniques. But it is a question of emphasis. You can look at Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking as a roster of gourmet recipes, but its greatest virtue is its explication of technique. (And no, I am not forgetting Louisette Bertholle or Simone Beck). 

And it is easy to think of the perennial Joy of Cooking as a recipe book, but while I would never consider being without my own copy — which is the single volume I would keep if required to disinvest in all but one cookbook — I never cook from its recipes, but depend on it to consult on how long to cook a pork roast or how to poach a trout. For me, it is my go-to technique book. It has never let me down. 

The importance of technique is that once you have learned all the basics, you can abandon all your recipes and begin cooking on your own, with full confidence that you know how. 

THREE

The third type of cookbook I might call the travel book, the book that explains culture and geography through cuisine. Television has largely taken over this genre. One of the best at this was Anthony Bourdain, although his work was in TV rather than in books (although he wrote his share of them, too). 

Amber Hoffman wrote The Food Traveler’s Guide to Emilia Romagna: How to Taste the History and Tradition of Italy. David Lebovitz wrote The Sweet Life in Paris. Yemisi Aribisala wrote Longthroat Memories: Soups, Sex and Nigerian Taste Buds. Fuchsia Dunlop gave us Sharks Fin and Sichuan Pepper: A Sweet-Sour Memoir of Eating in China. 

There are also historical books that take us through the history of a single ingredient, such as Mark Kurlansky’s Cod: A Biography of a Fish that Changed the World and his Salt: A World History. Or Beans: A History by Ken Albala. 

Kurlansky also translated Emile Zola’s novel about the food markets of 19th Century Paris: The Belly of Paris. 

Finally, there are a series of books about the kitchens of famous artists — three Monet alone. Others cover Van Gogh and Matisse.

 

FOUR

The fourth class is similar to the third, so that even the line between them is blurred, which is the food memoir and the food essay. 

Bourdain had a best seller with his jaundiced look at the backstage antics of restaurants in his Kitchen Confidential. Jacques Pepin is a bit more nostalgic about the hardships of his long culinary training in The Apprentice: My Life in the Kitchen. 

Three food writers wander back and forth between memoir and essay: M.F.K. Fisher, Elizabeth David, and Ruth Reichl. Fisher wrote The Art of Eating, David wrote An Omelette and a Glass of Wine, and Reichl published Tender at the Bone: Growing Up at the Table. 

I feel I have to mention one of my favorite food writers, Calvin Trillin. Where others are rhapsodic, he is ironic and quirky. His essays were usually published in The New Yorker, and some were collected in three of his books on food — American Fried: Adventures of a Happy Eater; Alice, Let’s Eat: Further Adventures of a Happy Eater; and Third Helpings. The three were later published in a single volume titled The Tummy Trilogy. 

The genre was born in 1825 with the publication by Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin of his Physiologie du Goût, or to give it its full title (translated): The Physiology of Taste, or, Meditations on Transcendent Gastronomy; a Theoretical, Historical and Topical Work, Dedicated to the Gastronomes of Paris by a Professor, Member of Several Literary and Scholarly Societies. Brillat-Savarin was a man who liked to eat and what is more to write about what he ate. 

He is perhaps most famous for having said: “Tell me what you eat and I will tell you what you are.” 

All of these books are a pleasure to leaf through, to look at the pictures, to read the introductions, to read the recipes and imagine their tastes — the way a musician can look at a score and hear the music in her head. 

Of the enjoyment of cookbooks, there is no end.

Next: A history of cookbooks

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I have lived in the four corners of the U.S. Born in the Northeast, I went to college in the Southeast, later moved to the Pacific Northwest and for 25 years, lived in the desert Southwest. I found value and pleasure in each region. 

But having moved back to North Carolina after so many years in Arizona, I am having lurching pangs from missing the West. I cannot deny that when I lived in Seattle, I had similar pangs about the South — I missed the tremendous variety of plant life when faced with forest consisting of nothing but Douglas fir and western redcedar. Hundreds of miles of Douglas fir and western redcedar. Where were the dogwoods, the sweetgums, the witch hazel, the sassafras, the red maple, canoe birch, beech, elm, oak? 

Aspens, Rocky Mountain National Park, Colo.

And so, I moved back to the East and back to North Carolina, where I had by then spent the largest portion of my life. I met my wife there and some years later, we moved to Phoenix, Ariz., where she got a job teaching and I found my life’s work writing for the newspaper. For the paper, I did a lot of traveling, and visited every state west of the Mississippi to write art and/or travel stories. It is always a pleasure to travel on someone else’s dollar. 

Pacific Coast Highway, Marin County, Calif.

After retirement, we moved back to the mountains of North Carolina, which I love. But I have to admit a nagging desire to spend time again in the desert, on the Colorado Plateau, driving up the coast of California, or revisiting the less glamorous portions of Los Angeles. The American West has wormed itself into my psyche and I feel almost as if some part of it has been amputated and I’m now feeling “phantom pain” or at least pangs in the missing limb. 

It is not the idea of the West that I harbor. The idea has been around since before Columbus thought to sail west to find the East. It was there for Leif Erickson; it was there for the Phoenicians; and before that for the Indo-Europeans. It was the idea that grabbed the early American colonists who saw the trans-Appalachian lands and envied their possession.

The West of the mind is a West of infinite possibility, of clean slate and fresh start, of fantastic riches to be had, of prelapsarian goodness. People emigrated to the West for a better life and a quarter-section. 

Fort Bragg, Calif.

The reality, of course, is something different: not enough rain for crops, prairie fires and tornadoes, mountain ranges nearly impossible to cross. And an indigenous people we first needed to wipe out and then mythologize into something noble and vanishing — as if the erasure had happened on its own. 

The Greeks had the Iliad and the Odyssey; we had our two epics: First, the Civil War, which is our battle epic, and then the wandering to find a new home in our Westward expansion, our odyssey. We made movie stars of our cowboys. The West of the movies is scenic and immaculate. It is a cinemascope landscape. 

But that isn’t the West I miss. The West I knew isn’t pristine; it is dusty, dry, spackled with convenience stores and gas stations, and getting hotter every year. It is even boring: If you’ve ever driven across Wyoming, you know what I mean. It has been described as “miles and miles of miles and miles.” 

Near Pendleton, Ore.

Gertrude Stein’s description of America is really a description of the West: “In the United States there is more space where nobody is than where anybody is. This is what makes America what it is.”

The West I miss in my deep heart’s core is the dusty, windblown vastness, but it is also the crowded, traffic-choked cities. I miss Los Angeles as much as I miss the Rocky Mountains. 

And let’s be clear. There are four very different Wests. There is the Great Plains region; 

the mountain West; 

there is the desert West; 

and the Pacific West. 

Each has its character and its psychic magnetism. I am drawn to each. 

Route 66 near Oatman, Ariz.

The flat middle of the country is usually forgotten when we talk of the West. In the movies, Dodge City always seems to have the Sierra Nevadas in the background. The Kansas reality is very different: grassy, flat, and smelling of cattle dung. 

San Xavier del Bac, Tucson, Ariz.

As you drive across the Staked Plains of West Texas, you feel you might as well be out on the high seas with no land in sight. Indeed, that is how Herman Melville describes it in his story/poem, John Marr, about an old salt now living in the center of the continent. “Hooped round by a level rim, the prairie was to John Marr a reminder of ocean.” And the wind in the tall grass makes waves that undulate like the sea. 

Friends used to laugh when they asked where I planned to spend my vacation and I said, “Nebraska.” No one, they said, goes to Nebraska. How about the beach? How about Manhattan. But I had in my head a sense of Manhattan, Kansas, instead. I loved seeing grasslands, badlands, farmlands and cowhands. 

Republican River, Kansas

The mountain West is spread into broad bands. The largest is the Rocky Mountains that were such a barrier to the early pioneers.  We drove up and through the Rockies in many of its latitudes, from the Southern Rockies in New Mexico to Glacier National Park in Montana — and further up into Banff and Jasper parks in Alberta. 

My wife wanted to see bears. When we camped, she threatened to tie a peanutbutter sandwich to a string and drag it through the campsite, saying, “Here, Mr. Bear. Here, Mr. Bear.” I persuaded her that was a bad idea, but we found several bears on the side of the road as we drove. 

Then, there are the Sierra Nevadas of California, some of the most photogenic peaks in the country, and the background to so many cowboy movies of the ’30s and ’40s. The mountains are home to the sequoia forests and Yosemite National Park. The lowest point in the U.S. is Death Valley and the highest peak in the Lower 48 is Mount Whitney of the Sierras and they are only about 80 miles apart. You can practically see one from the other. 

The Sierras eventually turn into the Cascade Mountains in Oregon and Washington, and a series of giant volcanoes, such as Mt. Baker, Mt. Hood, and Mt. Rainier. And Mt. St. Helens. I have climbed up portions of Rainier and walked along the Nisqually Glacier on its southwestern face. On a clear day in Seattle, the snowy, ghostlike presence of Mt. Rainier seems like a permanent cloud on the horizon south of the city. It is immense. 

Zabriskie Point, Death Valley, Calif.

The desert West is the one I know best. I lived in it for a quarter of a century, in Phoenix. But it is not Phoenix that I miss, except for the friends I left there. No, Phoenix is merely Cleveland in the desert. But outside of the city the desert is beautiful. In a good year — about one in every 15 — the winter rains make the desert floor a paint palette of wildflowers. The January explodes. 

To the north of the city, the Colorado Plateau is what I miss the most, those long vistas of grassland and badlands, the Navajo and Hopi reservations, the mesas and canyons, the Colorado River and a half-dozen national parks. The plateau continues north into Utah and into the southern parts of Colorado.

Petroglyphs scar the rocks and cheap souvenir shops, like those called “Chief Yellowhorse” dot the interstate. 

I can no longer count the number of times I have visited the Grand Canyon, both north and south rims, and the forlorn and uninhabited parts of the western stretches of the canyon on what is called the Arizona Strip. Anytime someone visited us in Phoenix, we took them up to see the Canyon. Pictures just don’t suffice; you have to see in to understand the awe. A picture is static, but the canyon changes color minute by minute as the sun slides across the sky and clouds pass over the rock. One of my great experiences was to arrive before dawn and watch the growing light slowly illuminate the stone and see the slim, glowing white ribbon of river a mile below us. 

South of Phoenix, there is the Sonoran Desert, with its Saguaro cactus and unending greasewood plains. And rivers with no water in them. The common joke in Arizona was about a long-time desert rat who took a trip to New York City and when he returned, his friend asked him about it. He saw all the sights, including the Empire State Building and the Brooklyn Bridge. “And did you see the Hudson River?” “Yeah, but there weren’t nothing to see; it was covered in water.” 

Lavender Pit, Bisbee, Ariz.

The picturesque parts of the desert are certainly attractive, but what I miss are the unlovely bits. The decrepit mobile home parks of Quartzsite, in the middle of nowhere, with its pyramid monument to Hi Jolly, the camel herder hired by the U.S. Army in a futile experiment. The burned out and abandoned shacks in 29 Palms, Calif.; the stink of dead fish along the shores of the Salton Sea; the shimmering fata morgana over the Wilcox Playa; the city-size holes in the ground where copper is hauled from the pits; and the mountain ranges of slag heaps hanging over the cities of Miami and Claypool. 

Miami, Ariz.

In so much of the desert, it is not the unsullied nature that used to be there, but the used-up quality, the peeled paint and weathered wood and broken-out windows, the abandoned and rusting cars, the roads cracked with weeds growing through. These would never be called pretty, but they have an intense kind of beauty about them. There is something very human about the ruins that no bland red sunset can match. 

As I said, it is the physicality of the West that speaks to me, not the idea. It is the West as it is, not as it is imagined to have been. 

Mural, Los Angeles, Calif.

This is true also of the Pacific West. I have written many times about Los Angeles and the parts of the city I love most: the concrete river, 

the oil wells on the Baldwin Hills,

the thousands of little strip malls and their ethnic restaurants and food markets. The bungalow houses, the back streets, the Deco architecture. 

I have driven from Tijuana to Vancouver along the coast, soaking up cities and redwoods, mountains and rushing rivers; the Samoa Cookhouse of Eureka; the bridges of Conde McCullough; the stonehenge of Maryhill; the Channeled Scablands; the floating bridge over Lake Washington; the Olympic Mountains. 

Jupiter Hot Springs, Yellowstone National Park

I have visited every state except Hawaii and every Canadian province except Prince Edward Island and Labrador, and I have absorbed the geography into my tiny head, swallowed whole. 

Mexican cemetery, Chandler, Ariz.

We all become the landscape we have lived in. It is what makes a Southerner so darned Southern, the Yankee so taciturn, the desert rat so possessive of his burning sun-broiled gravel. In the past — and still in the American South — people tend to live within a few miles of where they were born, and their regional differences become part of their DNA. In more mobile times, when so many move around the country or even to foreign climes, that conflation of land and psyche may attenuate. But it is still there, defining, in lesser or greater extent, who we are and what we feel and think. It is why red states tend to be rural and blue states urban. 

Yosemite Falls

And because I lived in the dry air so long, with the greasewood flats and the arroyos and the roadrunners and javelinas, the West — not the idea, but the real thing — has become a part of my insides. It is why even in the gorgeous Blue Ridge, I miss the desert, mountains, plains and cities of the West. We are in some part, the same thing. 

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I was born in 1948 and shared my infancy with television. Me and Uncle Miltie saw the light of day in the same instant of time, just a few clicks after the end of the war that killed 60 million people. Uncle Miltie was fun. 

My father still fit into his Eisenhower jacket and automobiles were just being remarketed, having been turned back from the Sherman Tank pumpkins they had been for the duration. I, of course, knew nothing of this: I was eating pureed prunes and slapping my sippy cup on the tray of my high chair and gurgling with ignorant happiness. 

I can’t remember a time when we didn’t have a television in the house. Some of my earliest memories were of watching that ovoid 12-inch screen in our house in Teaneck, N.J. and being told that I entered the world in the same hospital where Ozzie and Harriet’s son, Rickey, was born. 

Those early broadcast years were sparse. There was a test pattern on the screen until about six in the morning, and by midnight the National Anthem played over a picture of a waving flag, followed by a high-pitched sine-wave note and that familiar test pattern. 

In between, broadcasters scrambled for what today we call “content.” They found old movies, silent slapstick comedies, talk shows and, ever the staple, variety shows. What original material they had wasn’t really original, but was translated from radio. Many of the old familiars were now filmed (or performed live) and given new life. The Life of Riley, The Goldbergs, The Aldrich Family, My Friend Irma, Jack Benny, and George Burns and Gracie Allen. William Boyd repackaged his old Hopalong Cassidy westerns from the Thirties and such cowboy shows as The Cisco Kid and The Lone Ranger filled Saturdays for the wee bairns. 

Before I was sent off to kindergarten, I watched daytime TV with my mother as she ironed or cooked. Art Linkletter, Arthur Godfrey, Herb Shriner, and Dave Garroway, always Dave Garroway, with his meaty palm held toward the screen as he signed off the Today Show each morning: “Peace.” 

For the evening, a host of second-string movie actors stepped up as top bananas in sitcoms: Eve Arden, Stu Erwin, Joan Davis, Gale Storm, Ann Sothern, Robert Cummings, Leon Ames, Wendy Barrie, Harriet Hilliard and Ozzie Nelson, and the greatest leap up from B-films: Lucille Ball. 

And the kiddie shows. Howdy Doody was the royalty, but the rest of the aristocracy included Kukla, Fran and Ollie, Romper Room, Ding-Dong School, Captain Video, Beany and Cecil the Seasick Sea Serpent, Crusader Rabbit and Mr. Wizard. 

Three genres ate up a great part of the clock: game shows (Beat the Clock, Truth of Consequences, What’s My Line, Name That Tune),  Westerns (Roy Rogers, Gene Autry, Sky King, The Adventures of Wild Bill Hickock, Hopalong Cassidy), and space operas (Tom Corbett, Space Cadet, Captain Video, Space Patrol, Rocky Jones, Space Ranger, Captain Midnight). At least, on our TV. 

And to fill up the empty programming hours, there were endless old Western movies. The cream were from the 1930s, with Hoot Gibson, Buck Jones, Tim McCoy, Hoppy, Bob Steele, Bob Livingston, John Wayne (in his B-movie phase). The quality plateaued in the ’40s with Johnny Mack Brown, Rogers, Autry, Wild Bill Elliott, and Buster Crabbe, and then dropped significantly after that with some truly awful films with Lash LaRue, Whip Wilson and Tim Holt. The ’50s were bad for movies in general, but disastrous for Westerns — the best of them were now made for TV directly.

I haven’t forgotten the variety shows. Way too much singing for my childish tastes. My parents loved Perry Como, Dinah Shore, Patti Page, Kate Smith and Tennessee Ernie Ford. Me, not so much. But the parental units had the power over us powerless kids and so we watched. 

Toast of the Town, later called The Ed Sullivan Show, dominated our Sunday evenings. Nothing like plate spinners for the imaginations of 5-year-olds. Jugglers, ventriloquists, comics, animal acts, and Broadway tunes. The dying gasp of vaudeville.

But, I’m just naming names here, and gorging on nostalgia. What I really meant to do was point out the changing tenor of early television. I see three major periods from 1948, when I was born, to 1970, when I graduated college and pretty much ceased watching the tube on any regular basis. I’m afraid I lost touch with pop culture at that time. 

The first period was the one I call “Spaghetti on the Wall.” Audiences were familiar with radio, and television was radio with pictures. To fill the time-void, broadcasters tried pretty much everything trying to figure out just what this new beast was. Talk was cheap, so many of the programs, like Arthur Godfrey, Garry Moore or Art Linkletter’s House Party went on for hours filling the airwaves with chatter. Radio had half-hour sitcoms and hour-long dramas, and so TV did the same. Music was big on radio, more the same on the tube. 

There was an innocence in these first 10 years. A certain “Let’s put on a show” attitude. There were hits, such as Sullivan and I Love Lucy, but a lot of dead ends, too. Some old performers just didn’t have the TV magic and Ed Wynn, Jimmy Durante, Fred Waring, Ted Steele, Paul Whiteman, and Red Buttons simply didn’t translate well. (Loretta Young, who started out in silent films, attempted to remain 20 years old well into her 60s).

In the second period, beginning in 1957 or 1958, TV develops a confidence of its own, a kind of throaty adolescence. Radio was no longer something most audiences remembered, except as the source for rock and roll music, and some studios, such as Desilu and Warner Brothers began making TV-appropriate series. It was also the first time TV began remaking, not radio shows, but previous TV shows. There were a new Dinah Shore Show, a new Tonight Show with Jack Paar, new vehicles for Ann Sothern, George Burns, Ernie Kovacs, Gale Storm, Bob Denver, Jim Nabors and even Beany and Cecil. 

It was also the era of the explosion of cheap animation. Joseph Hanna and William Barbera pumped out assembly-line cartoons, beginning with The Ruff and Reddy Show in 1957, followed by Huckleberry Hound (with Yogi the Bear), Deputy Dawg, and The Flintstones. Similar animation came from Jay Ward et al. in the various Rocky and Bullwinkle shows. 

But the real prize came with popular filmed series, many from Warner Brothers, including Cheyenne, Sugarfoot, Maverick, 77 Sunset Strip, Hawaiian Eye, and Surfside 6.  There were other stalwarts, such as Have Gun-Will Travel, Perry Mason, Naked City, Sea Hunt, One Step Beyond, Bonanza, Rawhide, The Untouchables, Route 66, and East Side/West Side. 

And The Twilight Zone (and its poor relation, The Outer Limits). 

This is the era that brought us a normalized suburban vision of the U.S. and its country cousin. Dick Van Dyke and The Beverly Hillbillies. Leave It to Beaver and The Real McCoys. The Donna Reed Show and The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis vs. The Andy Griffith Show and Petticoat Junction. These were the Eisenhower Years reflected in My Three Sons and The Bob Newhart Show. 

This was TV in its stride, its first full flowering as the universal entertainment medium for the vast majority of Americans. 

After, comes a period of decadence, of imitation and slipshod production. Instead of The Man from U.N.C.L.E., we get The Girl from U.N.C.L.E. There’s Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea, Fantastic Voyage, and Voyage to the Center of the Earth. 

It was also the time of America’s cultural paroxysm and it shows on the screen. Black actors and entertainers showed up beyond Beulah and Amos ’n’ Andy: Julia, The Leslie Uggams Show, I Spy, Nichelle Nichols on Star Trek, The Bill Cosby Show and Flip Wilson. The counter culture ruled The Mod Squad and Laugh-In. It was clear the world was changing …

…and TV’s response was to go for the cheese. The second half of this third era of television history is really dominated by the shows remembered fondly by Generation X and those who saw these things in later syndication. This is The Brady Bunch and The Partridge Family. Adam-12, Love, American Style, The Flying Nun, Ironside, My Mother, the Car, Kung Fu, The Six Million Dollar Man, Wonder Woman. There was a full reliance on gimmicks. And what didn’t depend on a gimmick still felt like a bad parody — even a deconstruction — of what bad TV is all about. Some young people, grown up in a world of media rather than one of sky, sea and soil, enjoy such programs in cable reruns precisely because of how bad they are. 

Television itself has become so much more self-aware as television. Postmodernism hit the medium with a wallop. You can’t have a David Letterman without the irony of his take on the very medium that brings him bread. 

This has all been a very broad overview. Certainly, there have been good shows in each era. Even in the ruins of decadence we have Mary Tyler Moore, All in the Family, M*A*S*H, The Rockford Files, Barney Miller, Soap, and Taxi. There are always creative people in the field: No era is complete dross. 

 I have very fond recollections of the TV I watched as a child and no doubt rank such shows higher in my estimation than they deserve and no doubt each generation feels something of the same for the fare they ingested in their formative years. We should all be forgiven the folly of our youths.

I rather lost track of the toob after going to college and since graduating. I have caught bits and pieces and I’m afraid I am rather disgusted with the current 24-hour news channels. This has been called a new “Golden Age” of TV, and no doubt it is: The quality levels of much is quite high, at least on cable and on streaming services. The networks seemed largely mired in repetition of the same cafeteria food. I find myself turning primarily to Turner Classic Movies, PBS, and British television. Or perhaps, cracking open a book. 

But then, I am a crotchety old geezer.


Like most everyone else, I have been bunker hunkering, like some 1920’s gangster, holed up in a house, fearful of each approaching human. And like most everyone else, a bit of cabin fever intrudes. I peek out the window and see a yard across the street with a Bradford pear tree like a snowstorm of white, and the lawn is beginning to get unkempt. The temperature has moderated and the sky is filled with crisp, dry air. And so, I have to get out. 

For me, the best solution is to drive up the Blue Ridge Parkway. Its entrance is only a few hundred yards from my house. I can stay sealed up in the car but find a place where the horizon is still marked by the distance where the curvature of the earth bends the rest down and away from my sight. When you are stuck at home, it is easy to think of the planet as consisting of four walls; things are cubicular and static. But get out into the mountains, up high where you see for such a length, and you are again standing on the apex of a globe. Everything falls away from you, both geographically and emotionally. Anxiety thins. 

This century has redefined nature. In the 19th century of Thoreau and Emerson, nature was green and pleasant. To Emerson, nature was the outer manifestation of deity. Earlier, to Wordsworth, “There was a time when meadow, grove, and stream,/ The earth, and every common sight,/ To me did seem/ Appareled in celestial light.”

To Byron nature was so vast not even humankind could mar it. Our century has proven him wrong. For us, nature can no longer be the birds and beasties, the green leaves and burbling streams, the sky above and the soil below. We have filled the oceans — where Byron said man’s control “stopped with the shore” — with tangles of plastic waste the size of islands. In our cities, we have turned the transparent air into murk. We have left our rivers thick with the runoff of pigpens. 

The television nature programs I grew up with, that showed us the wildebeest swarming on the veldt and the flying squirrel gliding from tree to tree, have turned into chronicles of rapine and threatened extinction. Those documentaries are now alarums to wake the public to what it is losing. 

The Antarctic ice is thinning, the oceans are swelling, the bees are coughing and the once myriad cod have turned into shriveling shoals. It is hard to think of nature the way I did when I was young. 

“There hath past away a glory from the earth.” 

When I was in my 20s (which was 50 years ago), I was a bird watcher, a hiker, a camper, an amateur astronomer and a gardener. I knew the name of every tree and wildflower or weed. I had an almost mythic connection to the earth: It glowed every day, like a van Gogh painting, buzzing and whirling. Every bush was the burning bush. A surge of brain chemicals blasted my emotions. I was giddy. Now, half a century later, it is not now as it hath been of yore. “Whither is fled the visionary gleam?” “At length the Man perceives it die away,/ And fade into the light of common day.”

Career and responsibilities, the vicissitudes of living, the betrayals of love and the deaths of those we loved, have all risen to take too much space in our journals. And so, in my senescence I have drawn away from what we used to call nature, and that selfsame nature has itself decayed and left me. 

But not completely. I drive up the road into the hills, through the tunnels, into the high country where the sun shines and the wind blows the shadows of clouds across the flanks of the peaks. It is April and the dogwoods become galaxies of stars against the darker, still-leafless trees behind them. When I look down at the valleys, I see in the lower elevations the bright young leaves swelling from the buds. It is certainly beautiful, but it isn’t just beauty that makes this important. 

We are facing a new virus and most of us, and especially those of us on the shorter end of life’s measuring stick, feel an immediate threat. We may die. We always knew that, but now we can almost touch it and taste it on our fingertips. It is not theoretical. 

And so, I get out of my car in a roadside pullout and look down from the mountain into the woods beside the road and see the fresh buds and the tree branches that sway and the shoots springing tip first through the forest litter and I know that it is another spring, my seventy-second, and one more of millions that make a wake behind the present going back before there was any consciousness to know it. On the uphill side of the road there are stony outcroppings and those folded strata tell me of eons of continuity. 

I have heard, as you have, poets and essayists talk about the importance of nature, and I have at times winced at what seemed to me the perfervid sentimentality of such bromides. After all, everyone knows, or else, should know, that if nothing drastic is done, we’re all going to hell and taking the world with us. The news is 24 hours a day bad, or at least the talking heads tell us so. Over and over. 

But when I go to the woods, it is quiet except for the “small fowls that make melody and sleep all night with open eye.” And the hurly-burly slows and I am forced to know that there is a rhythm that is not that of CNN, that whether it is plague or influenza or corona virus, we have inhaled and exhaled this pestilence before, that the world endures, with me or without me. My frame of reference, like my horizon, expands.

So, it isn’t the simple beauty of the natural world that does me needed good. Gustav Mahler’s Third Symphony has six movements and they include such titles as “What the Flowers in the Meadow Tell Me,” “What the Animals in the Forest Tell Me,” and ends with “What Love Tells Me.” And what they all join to say is a harmony and a flow. And so, as I drive along the Parkway, I listen to that music on the CD player and the outside and inside, the world and my thoughts and feelings, all twine together into a singularity, mind as mirror to the world, and world as mirror to mind. Pan awakes, Summer marches in. 

Click any image to enlarge

At various times in my career as someone who got paid for writing, I have been asked to speak to groups of students or the curious about my craft. It hasn’t always gone well. 

I remember one time I managed to annoy a community college teacher no end by telling her students to ignore everything she had been hammering into their heads. I didn’t know I was doing that; I was just talking about what I knew through experience. But she had been filling their minds with ugly formulae and what to my mind are tired old saws: Make an outline; use a topic sentence; the rule of threes. As if you could interest readers by rote. 

Part of the problem is that I believe that writers are born, not made. Of course, you can improve anyone’s ability to put down comprehensible sentences, but good spelling and decent grammar do not make a writer. Just as anyone can be taught to draw and sketch, but that won’t make them an artist, anyone can be instructed how to fashion a paragraph or two without embarrassing themselves, but that don’t make’em into Roger Angell. 

One of the things that caused the teacher no end of bother was my insistence that the single most important and defining part of writing was “having something to say.” Without it, no rhetorical device, no repetition of authoritative quotations, no using active rather than passive voice, would suffice. And the truth is, few people have anything to say. 

Of course, everyone thinks they do, but what passes for thought is most often merely the forms of thought, the words that have previously been used to frame the ideas, and hence, someone else’s thoughts. Having something to say is genuinely a rare gift. 

This hardly serves to help the composition-class student or the teacher hoping to form them into perfect little Ciceros. Having something to say requires having had a living experience to draw upon, something original to the writer — a back yard with skunk cabbage, or a two-month deployment with a platoon, or the betrayal of a spouse — and an idiosyncratic reaction to it, something personal and distinct. Instead, most people are just not used to finding words to describe such things and fall back on words they have heard before. Easily understood words and phrases and therefore the mere ghosts of real expression. 

When you use someone else’s words, to that extent you don’t know what you are talking about. 

Being born a writer means being consciously or unconsciously unwilling to accept approximation, to be unsatisfied with the easily understood, to search for the word that more exactly matches the experience. 

One of the consequences is that to be a writer means to re-write. As you read back over what you have just put on paper — or on the computer screen — you slap your forehead over this bit or that. How could I have let that through? And you find something more exact, more telling, more memorable. It is only the third or fourth go-round that feels acceptable. (Each time I come back to a piece I’m working on, I begin again from the beginning and work my way through what I’ve already finished and change things as I go to make myself clearer or my expression more vivid. This means that the top of any piece is usually better written than the end. Sorry.) 

Having something to say and sweating over saying it in a way that doesn’t falsify it — this is what writing is all about. 

But is there anything I can say to those who just want to be a little bit better when turning in a school paper, or writing a letter to the editor, or publishing a novel about your life so far? Here are a few suggestions.

First and most important: Read. Read, read, read. Not so much to imitate what you have found, but to absorb what it is to use language. Just as one doesn’t “learn” English as a youngster, but rather you absorb it. When you are grown, you may have to learn a second language, but as an infant, you simply soak up what you hear and gradually figure it out. And likewise, reading lots of good writing isn’t to give you tricks to follow, but to immerse you in the medium so that it becomes your mother tongue. 

Second: Write. Write, write, write. In his book, Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell famously made the claim that it took 10,000 hours of practice to master a skill. He later explained he only meant that as an average, but the issue remains: You can’t become a writer without writing. Over and over, until it becomes second nature and all the amateur’s kinks are driven out. Write letters, journals, blogs — it doesn’t matter what, but writing and doing it constantly makes you a better writer. 

Third: Fill the well you draw from. Nothing will come of nothing. Everything you see, feel and do is who you are and is the substance of your writing. If you know nothing, feel nothing deeply, do nothing interesting, then you have nothing to bring to the sentences you write. Good writing is not about writing, despite all the reflexive gibberish of Postmodern philosophers. 

Even when you want to write about abstract ideas, you had better do it through touch, feeling, color, smell, sound. Nothing is worse than reading academic prose, because it is upholstered with “isms” and “ologies.” 

“The work of the text is to literalize the signifiers of the first encounter, dismantling the ideal as an idol. In this literalization, the idolatrous deception of the first moment becomes readable. The ideal will reveal itself to be an idol.”

Thank you. I no longer need to count sheep. 

Through the Middle Ages, all educated people communicated in Latin. In a strange way, that doesn’t seem to have changed. Words of Latin origin predominate in academic prose. Sometimes reading a peer-reviewed paper is like translating Virgil. 

Language and experience are parallel universes. We try to get language closer to the life we live, but it is always at least slightly apart. When we speak or write in abstractions, we are manipulating language without reference to the world of things we live in. Language about language. Good writing is the attempt to bring these two streams closer to each other, so that one may refresh the other. We do that primarily through image and metaphor. An idea is clearer if we can see it or feel it. Flushing it through Latin only obscures it. 

“Show, don’t tell” works best even when you are “telling,” i.e., writing. 

For those who don’t have to think about such things, a word is a fixed rock in the moving stream, set there by the dictionary. But for a writer, each idea and each word is a cloud of meaning, a network of inter-reference. To narrow down those possibilities, a picture helps — a metaphor. Not added on at the end, but born with the idea, co-nascent. 

Take almost any line of Shakespeare and you find image piled on image. “Our little life is rounded with a sleep,” says Prospero. Donalbain fears “the daggers in men’s smiles.” “If music be the food of love, play on.” “Now is the winter of our discontent made glorious summer by this son of York.” Shakespeare is nothing if not a cataract of sense imagery. 

How different if Prospero had simply said, “Life is short and then you die.” 

There are a whole host of injunctions and directives that are given to wanna-be writers, and all of them are worthy. Don’t use passive voice; always have antecedents to your pronouns; avoid pleonasm; edit and revise; dump adverbs and, damn it, learn how to use a semicolon. 

But none of them is as important as the primary directive: Have something to say. 

Oh, and yes, it’s always fun to annoy community college teachers. 

I have cooked for most of my life. Even as a small boy, my mother made sure her kids could be self-sufficient in the kitchen; In grade school, I  made sandwiches, Chef Boyardee ravioli, and baked my own brownies. All through my life, I have been happy with the pots and pans. But I’m a cook, not a chef. Nor am I one of those suburban dads who takes credit for culinary skill by charcoaling a chunk of beast over a grill on a weekend. 

No, I’m a day-to-day sort of cook; a plan a menu for the week kind of cook; the sort to check the pantry to see what we’ve got. Through two marriages and two unofficial marriages, and during those years I slogged it alone, I always kept my hand in. Several times, I was the primary cook; my second unofficial wife had no interest in the kitchen and I cooked daily for those seven years, and I spent a year an a half cooking for the family that took me in when I was on the verge of being homeless. The kitchen has become the room in the house I am most intimate with. 

Through it all, I’ve never had a really great kitchen, the kind you see on TV or in glossy magazines, with kitchen islands in the middle and a butcher block and maybe a $200 food processor with a hundred horsepower. But I’ve had perfectly usable kitchens, mostly rather small, in all the houses I’ve lived in. Never enough counter space, but one learns to make do with a tiny patch of clear space to slice and dice. 

The first I remember was when I got married to my first official wife and we lived on the top floor of a duplex. The stairs were on the outside of the house and rather treacherous in the snow. The kitchen had metal cabinets and a small electric stove. Our pots were cheap and nearly thin as tinfoil. Our dishes were Melamine and our flatware bent if the steak was too tough. She did most of the cooking, but I did the baking. For some reason, even if we did exactly the same things, my bread turned out steamy and crusty and delicious and her bread came out of the oven ready to be used as a deadweight anchor or doorstop. I’ve always been mystified by the juju of baking. Some people seem born with it, others not. 

We were poor and planned our meals from a book called Dinner for Two for $1 a Day (Dorothy Neiswender Kent, 1967). We’d buy a chuck steak and split it into three parts, the two bony parts cut for stew beef, the middle filet for a kind of steak. 

One winter, when the refrigerator went out, we left our perishables outside on the windowsill. When you are that young, poverty can actually be quite romantic. 

First kitchen; second; Phoenix kitchen watercolor by Jo Leeds

After that, my second unofficial wife — the one who didn’t cook — and I had a side-by-side duplex with a long thin kitchen and a window over the sink. Outside was a patch of garden and some woods that told of the season. We had splurged for Dansk dinnerware and felt quite sophisticated. But our frypans and pots were all dented and crappy and I longed for some quality cookware. One evening, we hosted a kind of Tupperware party for All-Clad cookware and I drooled over the saucepans. Unfortunately, they were way out of our price range — might as well have been a Maserati — and I could only gawk. 

At one point, I got a job working for the Black weekly newspaper in Greensboro, N.C., and among other things, I wrote a cooking column. I was the “Kitchen Magician,” and used my home cooking as the source for my material. (I also wrote stories, laid the paper out, wrote the headlines, wrote the editorials and managed an advice column: “Dear Carol.” I was factotum.)

World’s Most Obscene Man

When Second Unofficial moved on, I relocated to Seattle to share a house with two lesbian doctors and The Worlds’ Most Obscene Man™️. We shared cooking duties, but almost everything we made was tongue-crippling spicy. I remember making our weekly cauldron of hot sauce. It was an easy recipe: one-third onion; one-third jalapeño peppers; one-third garlic; and one-third tomatoes. It simmered all day on the stove. When TWMOM came home from work one day, he saw the pot and grabbed a spoon to taste the brew. “Great soup!” he yelled to the house. His motto: “If you ain’t sweatin’, you ain’t eatin’.” 

The year after Seattle was the low point of my life. I came home to North Carolina with no money and no job and a big, swollen and bruised case of depression. But my two saviors were my college best friend and his wife, who took me in and gave me a room in exchange for my cooking and housekeeping. It was an old multi-cat farmhouse with a woodstove in the kitchen, which was the only heated room in the house. In the winter, when I woke up, sometimes the glass of water next to the bed was frozen. Those months, we spent almost all our waking hours in the kitchen, stoking the fire, breathing the smoke and watching Masterpiece Theatre or Bob Newhart and Suzanne Pleshette.

It was 1980 and I kept notes that included our daily menus. For the week of Jan. 20, we had spaghetti on Sunday; sukiyaki on Monday, chicken and broccoli on Tuesday; souvlaki and eggplant with lemon soup on Wednesday; papas con chorizos on Thursday; hamburgers on Friday (evidently I was slacking off); and braised pork chops to end the week. We had several regular recipes to save money, including something we called “sausage and rice mess,” and there was always tuna casserole. 

Because I always cook without recipes, there was the occasional complaint: “This was really good; how are you going to make it again if it isn’t written down?” Except for a few reflexive dishes, such as spaghetti or that tuna casserole, I never cared to make repeat meals. But a few did get stuck with names, like “Chicken Motocross” and “Linguine Nilsenesca.” (My brother, who also cooks, is famous for his “Mock Hawaiian Chile.”) A few had rude names that I won’t repeat here. 

To my host’s horror, I even baked without recipe. “You can’t make a cake without measuring ingredients,” she said. But I did. A bit of this and of that and voila: cake. (In retrospect, I think there may have been some luck involved that time, but boy, I loved the look on her face when it came out of the oven looking perfect.)

Carole

I got married again a couple of years later, to the woman I spent the next 35 years with, until her death three years ago. Although Carole could walk through walls, and took no guff from anyone — she once stopped a knife fight in Norfolk, Va., by jumping out of her car and scolding the belligerents in her best schoolmarm voice — she had a surprisingly retrograde view of gender roles. “Cooking is the woman’s job,” she said, and kept me out of the kitchen for years. I couldn’t argue with her; she’d beat me up. Changing burnt out light bulbs and unclogging the toilet — those were “the man’s job.” But when she began to get sick, I took back the kitchen and I’ve held it ever since. 

Carole was crazy for red, and so we have a red Kitchen-Aid mixer and a dozen red bowls, casseroles and a dutch oven. Open pretty much any cabinet and you will find a burst of red, like roses in a garden. 

When I retired and we moved to Asheville, N.C., I got the current kitchen, which is still small, but nice enough. And with my buy-out money and pension I have been able to supplement the kitchen arsenal with some of the nicer tools I have long coveted. Over the next several years, I acquired heavy-duty triple-layer professional-grade saucepans, each weighing enough to clobber a bear. 

I have used T-Fal Pro fry pans recommended by America’s Test Kitchen. I’ve had to replace them every 18 months or so. 

But now, I got my perfect non-stick pan from Ikea

and I have kept it bright and shiny for more than a year. It is for me, the perfect 12-inch pan. I use it almost every day. 

I found a series of Ikea knives that have taken over from all the others I have owned. They are one-piece with stainless steel handles and I love them. 

I’ve owned many a knife. Before the current set, I used some really cheap ceramic knives I bought for about $4 each from Target. They each held their edge for about six months before I needed to replace them. But Target doesn’t seem to have them anymore. I miss them. 

And I have added some specialty knives I always wished I had, like a blunt-ended carving knife, a flexible boning knife, and an Asian-style cleaver. 

There is a kind of fetish I have for pots and knives. When I was young, I threw anything in the dishwasher or left them soaking in the sink. Now, I cringe when I see anyone doing that. I wash everything carefully and dry it immediately. I keep a polished gleam on the bottoms of pots. I have always loved dishwashing almost as much as cooking, and almost as much as eating. 

I have settled on a cutting board and I have a drawer full of the implements I use regularly, including a spider and tongs. Almost an antique, I have the shallow-bowl ladle that my grandmother used when I was a wee bairn. It’s one of the few heirlooms in my kit. 

The bane of my existence is storage. I have not enough cabinet space and I really don’t know what to do with all the pot lids: They seem to multiply like gerbils. 

But the cupboards are upholstered to overflow with the ingredients I need: flour, cornmeal, olive oil, baking powder, panko crumbs, canned tomatoes, dried beans and lentils, rice — the cast of thousands. 

And over the years, I’ve collected many sets of dishes, changing them out every few years for variety, which had left me with a pile of back-catalog plates and bowls that I used to have to find a place to store. Finally, I gave most of them away. But I have found a couple of old Dansk dinner plates that are my current standard, along with a nice set of elegantly simple blue-rimmed white-ware. 

So now, to the left of my flat-top electric stove I keep the pots I use regularly

and to the right is my work area, with the salt and oilcan, cutting board and garlic bowl. 

The kitchen is the place you can be creative every day; you build a chemistry experiment out of things you love to put in your mouth. It is an utter delight to have the implements of construction in your toolbox and the means in your larder. 

I love my kitchen, especially now that none of us dare venture out of the house. The kitchen has always been the beating heart where I make my offering to those I love.