Do you write in your cookbooks?

“[Annotations] are deeply personal and it's one of the reasons why cookbooks are often handed down within families. In many cases they are the only written records we have from our loved ones.” Dr. Ian Mosby


I'm not sure I have much to say on this, other than regret that I have not written in my cookbooks, a new vow to do just that, and a brief summary of why you should according to various people, from commenters on websites to famous people like Elizabeth David.


I do have some very battered and well-used cookbooks, so that you may be able to tell at a glance which books I use most. Although that is deceptive, because the books that are most battered, are old paperbacks, on paper that is yellowing and crumbling into dust with age, and moreover, poorly bound, so that the spines have cracked and the pages have become unstuck. I'm obviously not alone in this. It's a truism isn't it? Although now that books are so much better made and possibly less used, will they become those battered tomes that are instantly recognisable as much loved by their deteriorating state? After all, I use Delia Smith's Summer and Winter Cookbooks a lot and I suppose the covers are a little torn, but I try to be careful with them and I don't think I would describe them as battered.


"the ones I go back to are obvious before you even turn to them—crinkled paper, stain-splattered, and annotated." Harry Harris - Reader's Digest


However, aside from the very occasional tick that shows I have made the recipe, there is very little to show which recipes I cooked and what I thought of them. They definitely do not look like the wonderful example above that I found on the net.

I thought to write about this habit of writing in cookbooks because of Yotam Ottolenghi's exhortation to write in his latest book, and not to worry if it got splashed with food. Heavens he even supplies you with a neat little box in which to write a comment, and starts you off with some suggestions. Which is a little bit contradictory. On the one hand he invites you to do your worst, and on the other seems to suggest that you should keep your writing to the provided box. Still there is indeed plenty of empty space on the page into which to expand. So maybe I will when - or more likely if - I make those sausages with plums.


I wonder why I don't write in my cookbooks? It seems there are others who share my reluctance, perhaps born out of being told to respect books as precious objects that should never be defaced. Although I do have a vague memory of writing in set texts at university for some reason and I don't really understand why I did that, because I rarely went back to them. I did two literature subjects and therefore did a very large amount of reading. No time to go back to scribbled thoughts. I should check some of them out because I still have most of them.


If I didn't write in those old paperbacks because I considered them precious, then why would I write in the much more expensive and beautiful books of today? Surely so much more precious. Besides they often have that glossy paper that makes biros smudge. So it was interesting to see one British cookbook writer Ella Risbridge say:


“I specifically wrote in the introduction: please write in this cookbook. It took a really long time to find paper that would work no matter what pen or pencil you were using. It was really important to me that you could write in it in pen or pencil and it wouldn’t slide off.”


And let me say Yotam Ottolenghi's Shelf Love has thick very glossy pages. Smudge territory.


Taking the 'precious' objection a step further was one commenter on Chowhound who said:


"there are some books that I'm just not comfortable writing in. I have quite a few books that are out of print, not easily available and I am not prepared to diminish their monetary value with handwritten notes." Chowhound


In response to another commenter she later explained that she was a collector, and that, yes, she was considering selling some of them as her children were unlikely to value them, or, indeed know which were valuable and which were not.

But there's the thing. For relatively new books the value would indeed decrease on the second-hand market if they were littered with comments, but old ones increase in value perhaps with such scribblings because the scribblings themselves have become artefacts. And it seems that people have been scribbling in books for a very long time, although then again, because those books are so old, and so unique they would be valuable anyway. Perhaps if the annotations were by somebody famous?


Maybe it's nothing as high-minded as a reluctance to deface though. Maybe it's just that I have been concentrating so much on the actual cooking that I have not had the time to write anything at the time and then once done, and once eaten, it's gone. I think the only thing I have occasionally done is convert quantities and temperatures to modern ones, for much loved and much used recipes such as Jane Grigson's stuffing for the turkey. Still fresh in my mind that one although the turkey and its hangers on is now done and dusted.


So what should, or could you be writing in the margins? Peggy Grodinski writing in the Portland Press Herald provides a useful list that covers almost everything, although perhaps not quite:


Additions and deletions those things that Yotam Ottolenghi exhorts you to do - make it your own by substituting or changing in some way

Ratings - pretty obvious I guess, although it needn't be some actual system of ratings like a five star system - it could just be like this one: 'Quite simply the best curry I have had anywhere anytime. Wow. 15th April 2006.'

Admonitions - Elizabeth David it seems was rather famous for these. Here is one of hers: "Why say crispy when crisp is more expressive?"

Corrections and clarifications - some cookbooks are really not that well-written. There are typos in the amounts in the ingredients list, ingredients left out, or, going back to Elizabeth David, the recipe is so succinct it needs a bit of explanation.

Conversions - as I said, the only ones I do. For those old British books that are in pounds and ounces, and gas mark numbers. Not worth doing if you're not going to make it again though. These days most cookbooks cover the full range of options, so the conversion thing is not as necessary.

Descriptions - now you are getting beyond the practical and into the kind of erudite notes that somebody like Nigel Slater might make - although you get the impression he doesn't read other cookbooks. He must, surely. This category sort of blurs into ratings really, although I suppose one might be numerical and the other literary. You could practise your wordsmithing. Another famous Elizabeth David one is "the most revolting dish ever devised."

Records of time, place and companionship - This is quite a different kind of thing. More like a cooking diary, which apparently Nigel Slater keeps in his rather precious but sort of beautiful handwriting which is actually more or less illegible - to me anyway. He apparently refers to them often. On the more everyday scale, Peggy Grodinski, says: "my scribbles let me travel in time and space, visiting with past selves and conjuring past apartments, cities, jobs and friends." And I guess it would. Which I think is the main reason I regret not having done this. When I have opened an old cookbook of late, I have been ridiculously touched by tiny notes like a date or a note from David just inside the cover. It would have been nice to have extended that to where I first cooked a particular dish and who it was for, as well as whether it was any good.

Reassurance - this means remarks along the lines of "don't worry about it being wobbly, it firms up".

Cross-referencing - see also - a similar recipe kind of thing. Perhaps saying that somebody else's version is better.

Equipment - maybe you didn't have the right kind of dish but something you used instead worked.


Or there was this bit of advice in a Reddit conversation:


"In the table of contents put stars next to or circle the recipes you really enjoyed and cross off the ones you didn't like. Also make notes of who in the family likes which recipes most and you can revisit them for special occasions." Reddit


Because unless you catalogue all your notes - you are not necessarily going to remember that you wrote something complimentary against a recipe. You will only find that if you revisit the recipe - but which one? Like whose recipe for pissaladière did I use? So maybe the suggestion of highlighting likes and dislikes in the index is actually a good one. A quick table of reference. Which is helpful because some recipes you will either never find again, or never want to find again.


"Like most people, I annotate my cookbooks - ticks, crosses, exclamation marks, emendations and suggestions for next time. In certain cases, next time is never. ... in practice, most domestic cooks feel that failure is indeed a disgrace, and that it would take some years of therapy to convince them otherwise. So we have over the years developed a very good system for cutting down the likelihood of failure. If we make a dish once, and it turns out anything from a serious muff to a complete hash, then we don't cook it again. Ever. It's natural selection in the kitchen. And as a system it is - in the very ordinary sense of the term - simple." Julian Barnes " Julian Barnes


So making that sort of comment in the index - a big NO perhaps, would be a good idea.


It seems to me that particularly in this day and age we are all being invited to improvise and do our own thing, perhaps it's a fashion thing, perhaps it comes from all those food bloggers and instagram influencers trying to make a name for themselves, by adapting somebody else's recipe. Perhaps it's COVID. Whatever the reason, writing notes in cookbooks does seem like a good idea. And I shall start today, although it shouldn't actually be a 'must do' thing. Just a 'can do'.


Cookbooks - well I suppose any kind of 'recipe' thing - how to make a dress, mend a car - whatever - are all ripe for note making. None of those instructional things are ever absolutely perfect are they?


"it’s better to see cookbooks not as textbooks, but as choose-your-own-adventure stories, where interaction isn’t so much finding the correct answer as it is deciding a path to take and seeing where it might lead." Harry Harris - Reader's Digest


Conclusion? It's very useful to make notes that might make a repeat experiment easier or be a warning to steer clear. But perhaps, even more importantly it might be something much more personal, even just to you if it reminds you of some past occasion, person or time. Even more rewarding if it gives a little insight into who you were to your descendants.


“They invite conversation and implicit in conversation is talking back, exchanging something with the author, and maybe exchanging something with a version of yourself in the future." Kate Young


“writing about food is writing about being alive,” so maybe that’s what I’m buying, and what we all are: writing about being alive. When we write in them ourselves, we’re doing the same: acknowledging the fact that we are, and how important food is to the life we want to lead." Ella Risbridge


But what do you do about recipes you find online? Send a comment is one thing I guess. Or print it out, scribble all over it and file it somewhere. Of course if it turns out to be no good then you should just throw out the printout - if you have one. The younger and more digitally with it, would not even have printed it out of course. They would simply cook with their tablet or phone. I reckon it would be a good thing to leave a comment though if it was awful. Maybe you should say if it was wonderful too. We do, after all, tend to criticise rather than praise don't we?


Tonight I'm making a Jamie recipe which is not on his website - somebody else posted it - Inga Scarlett of The Quirk and the Cool - and interestingly she has already added her notes to the recipe. Maybe nobody can actually follow a recipe to the letter these days. Do we all think we know better, or do we just appreciate that we all have different tastes? She sprinkled some flaked trout on top at the and also used less milk because she wanted a thicker sauce. I'm not sure I have any milk that hasn't gone off. If I haven't I shall have to use diluted cream - or just cream.


It's called Fettucine with smoked trout, asparagus and peas by the way. Not terribly adventurous, although it's a little bit different in that you purée the asparagus and peas, but it ticks my new recipe and fish once a week boxes at the same time. Win win surely? And you can't go very far wrong with pasta can you?











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