One of my daughter's closest friends is severely allergic to eggs, milk and nuts. Another one is allergic to milk and eggs. The kids' preschool is nut-free at this point, and the teachers have done a wonderful job of teaching the children not to share food at school. "We could make our friends very sick," Trix will intone gravely, italics audible. "So we don't do it!"
Still, one of the fundamental joys of childhood is being able to bring in treats on your birthday, and another one is being able to share your snacks. So I asked the moms whose kids do have these allergies: "Do you have any recipes you like, or cookbooks to recommend?"
The surprising answer: Once you ignore any recipe that has nuts in it, a vegan cookbook is a handy resource.
So a few nights later, I unwound by going cookbook shopping on Amazon. Because I bought all my cookbooks used, they're trickling in slowly, but I can tell you, Vegan Cookies Invade Your Cookie Jar looks like it will be a winner for future bake sale contributions.
Parallel to this striking development in "thinking ahead before my daughter wants me to bake cupcakes for her birthday this fall" has been my ongoing quest to find the right pre-bedtime reading material. As part of Operation Live Like A Showrunner, I've been paying more attention to my sleep hygiene and doing my best to make sure I clock at least six and a half hours a night. (I run best on seven to seven and a half, but real life happens, you know?)
The problem with reading before bed is that I have to find what I'm reading to be relaxing and rewarding, but it can't be too stimulating or engrossing. This is why I haven't tackled Christopher Moore's The Serpent of Venice yet; I know I'll want to gulp up the book and I know if I were to start it at bedtime, I'd be looking at the alarm and weakly rationalizing, "I used to go on four hours of sleep a night at college all the time," while ignoring the fact that I was young, immortal and not directly responsible for the welfare of another human being.
Nor do I want to try reading dull or bad books before bed. I can't turn off my critical faculties, and whenever I encounter a bad book, I find myself charging into battle with it. As Joe Queenan writes of bad books:
Good books don’t make you think, because the author has already done all the thinking for you, but a terrible book can really give your brain a workout, because you spend so much time wondering what incredibly dumb thing the author will say next.
Again: I don't need to be doing anything that will keep me up until 1:30 in the morning. Not unless the next day does not include getting in the water at 6 a.m., or being responsible for a substantial portion of a website's traffic, or parenting a preschooler with any modicum of competence or compassion.
And then I found the solution. What reading is comparatively unchallenging and entertaining yet still gives one a warm flush of productivity? Cookbooks.
Each night, I repair to my bed, prop up a cookbook on my knees and fall asleep somewhere around the entrees. It's been wonderful. I've dog-eared dozens of pages in the Everyday Food series of cookbooks, revisited the Enchanted Broccoli Forest, re-appraised the Dad's Own Cookbook recipes I tabbed with old "YES!" stickers from Lucky magazine in 1999 to see if I'd still give them the "YES!" or if they'd be downgraded to "MAYBE?" I've let Mark Bittman teach me how to cook everything and marveled at Michael Ruhlman's command of ratios in cooking.
I still have to find out what's up around Dorie Greenspan's French table, and Cook's Illustrated is waiting to test my theory on whether cookbooks won't keep me up at night. And then there's the new haul that's coming in: The Italian Slow Cooker, The French Slow Cooker, Vegan Pie in the Sky, Vegan Cupcakes Take Over the World, Southern Casseroles.
By the time I finish working my way through our cookery collection, I will have read enough recipes to comfortably meal-plan for a year. Will I actually follow through on any of this? Ha! Moving from sleepy intention to dinnertime execution will be a whole other undertaking.
When I was thumbing through the Julia Reed Trilogy (Queen of the Turtle Derby and Other Southern Phenomena; Ham Biscuits, Hostess Gowns and other Southern Specialities; But Mama Always Put Vodka in Her Sangria), it occured to me that while I cannot imagine wanting to eat half of the things Reed writes about -- succotash, for example -- I do like imagining her life, with its endless forays to Doe's Eat Place, its frequent boozy nights with friends, its snubbing of calories or nutritional concerns.
And that's the charm of most good cookbooks, isn't it? They wrap their glittery aspirational appeal in the virtuous broadcloth of the instructional recipe format. To flip through the pristine photography of a Everyday Food cookbook is to luxuriate in the notion of serving one's family seasonal, healthful, delicious food that can be made in less than half an hour. You can have it all.
As the cultural premium shifts to valuing experiences over things (because experiences and services are less attainable than material goods, obviously), the cookbook market is poised to boom like never before. You won't be able to swan about France, but you can cook like you did. You work in a cubicle and your idea of time management is approximately the same as your idea of money management: You're trying to maximize a finite resource that could stop without warning at any time. But you can buy into the fantasy of living in the slow, natural rhythms of the season via the contents of your plate.
And I? I am buying into the fantasy that absorbing these fantasies will have a net positive effect on the people I love. And I can sleep soundly, dreaming of the life where we'll always know what we want to eat and we'll always have cupcakes we can share with everyone in the class.