Although I’m not the kind of person to inscribe my books, it is a joy to come across a handwritten note in the margins or an underlined passage. I prefer the polished and pristine look of an untarnished book. You’d barely even notice I’d read one, that is, of course, if I hadn’t spilled all 40 ounces of my water bottle on top of it—this has been more frequent than I’d like to admit.
I’ve learned a lot about my friends from borrowed copies of their books, or at least about who they were when they read them. Sentences highlighted or circled or underlined scream of their identity, look at me, look at what inspired me, look what resonated with me. Holding the same book they held, flipping through the same pages they flipped through, reading the same words they read, I’m somehow more connected.
I once bought a collection of short stories by Mark Twain because of a note jotted on the first page. The book had apparently been a gift. The note told whoever the receiver was to flip to a certain page. “This was the story I had mentioned at dinner the other night.” The story was a novella, The Mysterious Stranger, in which three boys from a village in Austria meet a handsome teenager named Satan. Yes—Satan. At the end of the story, after subjecting the boys to bouts of religious fanaticism and mass hysteria, Satan vanishes. He says, “There is no God, no universe, no human race, no earthy life, no heaven, no hell. It is all a dream—a grotesque and foolish dream. Nothing exists but you. And you are but a thought—a vagrant thought, a useless thought, a homeless thought, wandering forlorn among the empty eternities!”
Quite the dinner table conversation. But it made me wonder the circumstances which led these two (or more) people to discuss this particular story on this particular night. There’s a story in that exchange, a relationship that existed, and I, roaming around a dank Goodwill in Tempe, Arizona, became somehow a bystander to that fragment of time. I was content to witness and imagine these lives beyond my own.
In 2015, my friend David gave me his wife Nancy's copy of Joy of Cooking by Irma S. Rombauer and Marion Rombauer Becker. Both he and Nancy were cooks. He still is. She unfortunately passed away some years ago. But David held on to his wife’s cookbooks for years, unable to part with them. One day, he took me to a shed in his backyard where he removed crates and crates of them, frayed from decades of use, dusty from years of neglect. Before handing me Joy of Cooking, David told me I reminded him of his son, who, tragically, had also died.
Later on I flipped through the book and noticed delicate strings of cursive handwriting on various pages. Above a recipe for baked pineapple rice Nancy wrote, “Very good but very rich!” Beside a recipe for honey orange toast she wrote, “I though this delicious, but it didn’t go over with [the] boys or David. I think the amount of rind should be cut down + just a little juice.” For as much as David had reminisced about Nancy, nothing made me feel closer to this woman I’d never met than reading her words, how she altered recipes and shared tiny anecdotes about her family life.
This week’s cover story focuses on recipes for the holidays, and I’d like to add one more for anise drop cookies. Nancy wrote that these are “an excellent, professional-looking cookie (foil must be peeled from cookies after baking). Be great for the holidays.”
ANISE DROP COOKIES
1 cup sugar
Beat until light:
You have free articles remaining.
Add the sugar gradually. Beat at least 3 to 5 minutes on medium speed with an electric beater, longer if beating by hand, then add:
½ teaspoon vanilla
Sift before measuring:
2 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon double-acting baking poweder
1½ tablespoons crushed anise seed
Beat the batter another 5 minutes. Drop ½ teaspoon at a time, well apart, on a cookie sheet lined with foil. The ½ teaspoon of dough should flatten to 1-inch round, but should not spread more. If it does, add a little more flour. Permit the drops to dry at room temperature for 18 hours. Bake the cakes in a preheated 325 degree oven, until they begin to color, about 12 minutes. When done, they will have a puffed meringue-like top on a soft cookie base.