Surrounded by Cookbooks (written by Anthea Syrokou)

When will it happen? When will I open up one of my many cookbooks — the ones that are housed in their well-crafted bookshelves that I bought from some trendy studio furniture shop, just for them to live in; to reside at the address that is my kitchen?

They look so beautiful, I think, as I admire them from afar, while I prepare another average pasta dish for dinner, because there is no time to be creative when the house feels like an airport hub where everyone has something important to do or to be at, and they have to get their stuff, grab a bite and be home for dinner — whenever. There is no time to even try to study a recipe or to do some research on what each ingredient is and if it can, in fact, be purchased in the country I am currently living in. You see, the airport pitstop also has a 24 hour coffee shop, and little snacks, drinks are always on offer — the kitchen never closes in this coffee shop.

So the lovely cookbooks sit in their stylish homes, and stare at the happenings of the day thinking: “What on earth are we doing here? We don’t belong here,” or “Sure, she’ll use us one day, and not just to look at our pages and admire the pictures like we should be framed and hung on a wall. Does she even know why we were created — the thought and care that has been taken into all our recipes, and to actually publish us?”

I look at the lovely and judgmental cookbooks, knowing what they are thinking, because that’s what I’m thinking. When will I open one of these useful cookbooks and actually use them for their intended purpose — to make something extraordinary and delicious? Yes, there were a few occasions, but our relationship seems to cool down before it heats up. It was a time when I decided that I would “try” to emulate the perfect host that I feel I am supposed to be when I look at these works of perfection. It was also a time when guests were abundant, and a social lifestyle had a period of popularity in our household.

What’s more, the same three pages from the three chosen cookbooks were the only ones ever used during this “hostess with mostest” period. It’s better to learn to cook these three meals to perfection, and thus, apply them when necessary without pressure, I figured, and that I did.

So I look at them as I prepare another pasta dish that I also made the week before, and the week before, and the week before… It’s too much pressure — to be the person in each and every perfect page. Yes, I had a shot at it, and I did quite well, and continue to do so, intermittently. I managed to make the most extravagant meal that earned me high praise from my guests and family. The food was so succulent and fragrant. Presentation was exceptional. I was encouraged to even buy a new dinner set: candles, placemats, fresh flowers — the works! Jazz added to the triumphant euphoria that I had felt. It felt good. I was one of those people from one of my many cookbooks for those few hours. It was as though I needed to prove that I can do it — to earn my stripes, so they, the cookbooks, won’t hold it over me every time I look at them. I can be one of those people.

That victorious feeling lasts for a few months. Then the “I must” negative self-talk resurfaces as the image of me being a wonderful host begins to fade, thus feelings of guilt begin to consume me again. I know that my negative inner voice has a new gripe with me — I never maintain it. Just like when I came first in modern history, but then fell somewhere in the fifth position at the end of Year 11, overstudying one topic, and neglecting some of the others.

Why so much guilt? The answer is simple. These cookbooks are not just cookbooks. They are the “me” I want to be. As I hand over my credit card to the sales assistant, I’m not just buying a cookbook — I am purchasing a new life: one that has many guests, lovely things, everyday joy, order, ability to co-ordinate. I instantly become an event co-ordinator. Words like “efficiency” and “running smoothly” become part of my vocabulary. I want the event to turn out successfully — and I don’t want to hear the words: “You’re fired” because it has been a fantasy to be all these people in the many diverse cookbooks — to play all these roles, because they seem to have it all worked out. They know how to plan huge parties, that require maths skills, scales, tricks involving flames, craftwork, a degree in science and home economics. They are superheroes, they are jugglers, and they can even get kids to listen — in the kitchen — while cooking! There is no stress, everything is quiet and orderly. Ingredients are chopped in the right measuring bowls, and there are no unwashed dishes — the kitchen is always clean. They are the CEOs of breakfast, lunch, and dinner, and every type of party ever imagined. I mean, they even have the right amount of ramekins.

I must be like the people in the cookbooks, the ones that perform magic. These thoughts feed on my guilt. I tell myself that I will — one day. I occasionally spend at least an hour looking at all of my many cookbooks. I pick one out and gaze at it in wonderment, and at that moment I feel that it can happen — this lifestyle change, and this time, it will be different — I will sustain it. It will be engrained in my everyday life.

But who will I be first? Will I be the superfood expert who doesn’t drink alcohol, exercises frequently, has no caffeine in her diet, and uses ingredients like: quinoa, kale, garlic, lemon, no salt, sweet potato, spices that promise unimaginable health benefits? These cookbooks almost qualify one to graduate with a certificate as a nutritionist once they complete making all recipes and read all commentary contained in them. You’re also guaranteed to look like you just walked out of a beauty salon, one that uses certified organic products, of course. I become so excited at the prospect that not only will I make healthy meals, but my skin will glow as well. I’ll be the healthiest I’ve ever been, and the whole family will have skin and hair that glows — we’ll only shop at organic stores. What’s more, my family will “naturally” be on board with this new healthy lifestyle, as we all walk together; our shiny hair glistening in the sun, inviting onlookers to gaze in admiration.

Or I’ll be the host who wears heels in her house when hosting a party. My guests will think: “How does she do it?” “Not only did she prepare such a lavish dinner, but she looks flawless as well.” I’ll engage in smart, witty conversation as I explain how simple it was to fold the napkins. My guests will spend most of the night admiring everything on the table, on their plates, in my house. The flowers will be freshly picked from my manicured garden. The scented candles will fill the air with just the right amount of fragrance, and then comes the piece de resistancecreme brûlée proudly prepared by moi. Just like the hosts in these cookbooks, I won’t feel tired at all because such preparation is second nature — in fact, I’ll even have energy to engage in heartfelt conversation — I’ll be the star of the night and my husband will look on with pride, as he serves a walnut liquor that he actually made. Nothing is too challenging in this household. In fact, just as the guests say their final adieus, we’ll start planning our next soiree because it was such a hit with all our guests and they will elevate us to earning the title of “perfect dinner hosts”.

Or maybe I’ll be the mum who spends Sunday afternoons cooking with her little tykes; who lets them bake cakes, biscuits, scones, and anything that involves flour — the most messy ingredient ever — that can easily be compared to snow — and with water, is almost like plasticine. We’ll make mountains and volcanoes, and make shapes with gooey mixture (thanks to too much liquid) that I will ever-so patiently explain is called dough — and is actually for cooking. Then, they’ll lick the spoon, and the bowl as we wait for our creations to bake in the oven, and even if the kitchen looks like the aftermath of a Snowy Mountains avalanche, I’ll still be smiling, and they, the kids, will even help me tidy up. The smell of freshly baked treats will permeate throughout the house, evoking memories of my own childhood.

Maybe I’ll be the cook who dabbles in trying out recipes from different countries: Moroccan, Greek, Italian, Vietnamese — and I’ll even know where to access all the ingredients, and how to pronounce them, and have the time and energy to actually buy them. I’ll even use the right serving bowls: the couscous will be served in a huge Moroccan dish, I’ll have the right tea cups to serve Chinese tea, the right laksa bowls. I’ll invest in my own pasta press machine, and I’ll even make coffee and dessert from the region that the main meal is originally from — it will be my own food adventure; smelling the cities and feeling their vibes as I cook. Authenticity will be paramount.

Will I be really adventurous and serve drinks with names no one can pronounce: mix them, shake them, stir them, add lemon slices, strawberries, guava, ask them if they want it on the rocks, with a twist? I’ll have all the right utensils — I’ll be moving and shaking with the best of them. I’ll be like Tom Cruise and Brian Brown in the 1980s movie, Cocktail — performing tricks in the air. My guests will watch in amazement. Acoustic guitar music from sunny Spain will gently soothe the air, as I dip chilled Margarita glasses in salt.

I’ll even serve the most impressive coffee like the cookbook which promises that it will have you making desserts and coffee like your favourite coffee shop does. I’ll be a barista, offering: short, long, flat, extra creme, espresso, double espresso, mocha, caramel lattes. My cappuccinos will have just the right amount of creme, and they’ll always be biscotti on the side of the saucer. My dessert will be a magical act. I’ll perform tricks with fire, with a pastry bag. My soufflé will rise and my pancakes will be fluffy and have just the right amount of thickness, and my sponge cake won’t be as dry as an unused sponge. I’ll add cherries, dates, icing sugar, make multi-tiered Bavarian cakes. I’ll make my own toffee, chocolate, and I’ll even make my own jam — for the freshly baked scones.

Maybe, I’ll be the salad expert who picks all the herbs and salad greens from the garden. I’ll use rocket leaves, baby spinach: add croutons, figs, roasted walnuts, pine nuts, mango slices, orange slices, pomegranate, passion fruit. I’ll add quinoa, lentils, couscous, barley, cheese, olives. There will be no salad I won’t try. I’ll even eat it for lunch on a regular basis. Salad will be my specialty — whenever there’s a picnic or party — everyone will expect me to bring the salad. They won’t even ask. It will be expected because there will be no-one that will know salads like me.

Then, it occurs to me as I look into the warm, kind eyes from one of the many chefs and cooks in my collection of cookbooks. I want to be all these people. That’s why I’m so bewildered when I look at them, and I avoid them, because I always think that I should have a certain lifestyle and solely be the person in the book that represents one type of lifestyle. In reality, however, each person in each cookbook representing different lifestyles and themes are in fact me. I am all these people because they share the same interests as me, and they represent the different aspects of the me that I already am!

The woman with the kind eyes staring back at me is offering her assistance, her expertise, her guidance. She and all the other chefs and cooks are here to help me — to be my teachers, my mentors. I did prepare some recipes from them that earned me enormous praise. I can do it again, but at a steady pace. I went too quickly, and did too much. I should have taken it slow, like a relationship that, at first, needs time to be nurtured; to grow, to thrive — to survive. I peaked too soon — poured too much of myself into a few dinner parties.

I look at another friendly face in the perfect pages. I can learn from all these people. I want to learn from all of them, because they all bring something to the table. I can tailor each recipe to suit my needs — my lifestyle, and I can use as many recipes from any cookbook that I want to use — because cooking is like life: blending, improvising, incorporating, separating, including, mixing, creating, expressing — combining small pieces and making one fabulous big piece — the bigger picture. What’s more, there is always room for error, and everyone can get involved. People change, and so do our circumstances, and our tastes. Adaptability and flexibility is vital to thriving and surviving.

Balance is the essential ingredient, and with it comes fun, enjoyment, and pride. The cookbooks, now, appear beautiful and friendly. They are willing to help me with my busy lifestyle and it’s okay to admire their lovely pictures — the photographs are masterpieces. That’s what my friendly, lovely, non-judgmental cookbooks are telling me when I look at them.

It also occurs to me that even if I may not have been using the actual recipes to cook, I have been using them every time when I look at them to some extent. They already encouraged me to make an effort. The little tricks that I already learned from their pages of inspiration have come into effect. I bought a new dinner set, I know how to make different types of coffee which I’m sure will be of great benefit. Who doesn’t want to learn to make the perfect coffee! They taught me about different types of ingredients and I will use them one day because I have actually noticed them at the supermarket. It’s okay if I use some recipes from all of them, or a few of them. Improvising is always okay. It takes time and they are patient with me. Let’s face it, they aren’t going anywhere.

They are really lovely and if I stuff up — hey, it’s part of learning! My cookbooks are there for me. During the rush hour at my airport hub; quick meals will get me through. I already learned some of the 15 minute recipes from the many times I’ve looked at them. Dinner parties — they’ve got it covered. If I do become daring and allow my kids to get involved, I’ll go slowly. I’ll let them make shapes after the dough is ready, or sprinkle hundreds and thousands, or add topping to the pizza — or maybe just allow them to lick the spoon — or just watch me cook! Maybe in the holidays I might have more patience.

In the past, I went all out. I felt that I had to create perfection and then I ran out of steam. I ran instead of jogged. Like Icarus flying too close to the sun; I hastily tried to reach the highest of heights. I went all out and I got burned. It was too intense: like a new friendship that’s rushed, or a crash diet — to maintain it you need to be realistic and make it your own.

So as I make another pasta dish, I may add prawns this time like page 22 suggests, from the Exploring Tuscany cookbook, and I’ll make the fancy salad from one of the health cook books to balance it out — and there’s always ice cream in the freezer for dessert. It always looks fancy in those crystal ice cream bowls and the gold spoons I purchased thanks to feeling inspired by the Dinner Party Essentials cookbook. Oh, and the coffee will be divine!