Cookbooks… if you like to play in the kitchen, you can never have enough of them. At home you may have several shelves full of well-thumbed favorites, but it’s equally intriguing (and educational!) to peruse the latest titles, explore emerging trends, learn new techniques, and discover a new-to-you cuisine. With the library’s building closed for now, we can’t hang out in the 641s, browsing through books on the shelf until we find the one that speaks to us. But, luckily for us, the Chelmsford Library offers plenty of virtual alternatives, which our group tackled this month with great energy and enthusiasm!
Starting with the basics, most of us downloaded titles from Overdrive or Hoopla. While Overdrive is accessible to anyone who has any Merrimack Valley Consortium library card, in order to use our Hoopla service you do need to be a Chelmsford resident. However, nearby Westford and Carlisle also offer Hoopla to their cardholders, while Billerica and Lowell direct you to information about the Boston Public Library’s ecard. This card is available online to any Massachusetts resident, and provides access to a wide range of e-resources, including Hoopla, Overdrive, and much more.
Everyone found both Overdrive and Hoopla simple to navigate, even if they’d never used them before. And we quickly discovered one of the virtues of virtual books– it was amazingly easy to quickly flip through titles and decide if we wanted to spend more time on a particular book, or maybe buy it later. And of course, the key attribute is that ebooks are accessible anytime, anywhere. But….there were some downsides. Recipes tended to take up more pages than print versions, which led to a lot of flipping back and forth while trying to cook. Those who tried to print recipes were frustrated that they couldn’t efficiently print the whole thing on one page; it printed with the same number of pages as the recipe took up in the ebook, which led to a lot of wasted paper. And of course we all missed having a physical book in our hands; an ebook “doesn’t draw you in….it’s a more remote (!) experience.”
Also, the selection of titles available in e-version is much smaller, so if you wanted a particular author or title, sometimes you were out of luck. Some that we looked at and enjoyed were: Myers and Chang at Home by local favorite Joanne Chang; Magnolia Table by serial entrepreneur Joanna Gaines; 5 in 5 by restaurateur Michael Symon; anything by Jacques Pepin (“there were lots of his books on Hoopla”); and The Farmer’s Wife Cookbook by Joanna Engstrom, a 1930s title that was fun to browse. It even included advice on how to buy that newfangled appliance, the refrigerator!
Some of us had a stash of cookbooks at home that we’d picked up before the library closed, or that we ordered online. We enjoyed two titles from prolific America’s Test Kitchen: Sous Vide For Everybody, and Twentieth Anniversary TV Show Cookbook (“it’s a big book!”). One person perused Melissa Clark’s newest, Dinner in French. Many recipes looked enticing, although “she uses lots of spices that aren’t so easy to find.” Midwest Made by Shauna Sever proved to be a volume of yummy, no-fuss baked goods, and Eat Your Vegetables by Joe Yonan was a unique collection of cooking-for-one vegetarian recipes. And we all encountered one problem, regardless of book type: inevitably, after choosing a recipe we found we were lacking one or two critical ingredients– and all of us are shopping less and much more cautiously. No more running to the supermarket at the last minute, or for just a few items!
Besides books, we visited plenty of websites, and these overall were preferred to ebooks. Many in the group already have “go-to” sites or blogs, whether created by author, magazine, or TV show. The resources really are almost unlimited. And, with various meetings and activities cancelled (and a much shorter commute, if you can work from home), we now have more time to delve into various cooking projects– carefully planned ahead, of course, due to the aforementioned need to shop less, as well as the well-documented shortage of some ingredients, like flour or yeast (and heaven forbid you want brownie mix!). The Epicurious site, and others, now has a feature on its website, a “cook with what you’ve got recipe finder,” a notion that many are perforce embracing. One person mentioned that her adult children text her a photo of what’s in their fridge, and then challenge her to create a meal out of what’s there. Hopefully they take turns as to who has to come up with a dinner idea! This concept also applies to equipment problems, as one person’s oven is broken, and parts have been slow to arrive. So, lots of slow cooker stews, stovetop sautes, and baking in a tiny toaster oven. The shortage of flour and yeast has also spurred creativity; non-wheat flours have come into play, as well as breads that don’t rely on yeast, like soda bread, beer bread or cornbread.
As much as we have a newfound appreciation for our downloadable resources, most of us would still far prefer to have a “real” book in our hands. A big part of this is familiarity; perhaps after using e-books for a while we’ll enjoy their unique attributes more, and come to rely on them. It makes me think of the shift from typewriters to word processing, which we all hated at first because it seemed so cumbersome, and was such a different way of doing things; the advantages weren’t (for some reason) readily apparent. But, would any of us really want to return to using a typewriter today? We’ve all become accustomed to, and appreciate the ease of, composing on a screen, despite software quirks. Of course, the big missing piece with an e-book is the tactile experience, and for people who love to snuggle up with a good book (cookbook or otherwise), hunkering down with your phone or tablet just isn’t the same. I’m sure there’s a neurological reason for this preference; maybe our human need for connection– and touch– extends even to certain inanimate objects? Our excursion into the virtual may have been delightful and delicious, but it’s doubtful that, right now, most of us would desire to do our reading, or cooking that way. This month I asked everyone for a vote on the overall experience with e-books, and while we definitely appreciate having this resource available, no one was ready to fully embrace it– yet! So, most of the voting was in the 1-2 range (out of a possible 5). I think that works out to a grade of D!
Our next meeting will be via Zoom on Friday, May 29 at 11 AM. We would love to see some new faces next month – please let us know if you interested in joining us by emailing program leader Andrea Grant at email@example.com — We’ll be discussing Jamie Oliver’s 5 Ingredients: Quick & Easy Food. While we can’t provide the physical book, most of the recipes from this title are available on his website, jamieoliver.com. He also cooks from this book on CreateTV; check local listings for channel and time. Stay safe, stay well, and see you then!