Kathleen Murphy column: Cookbook 'problem' opens up possibility

I have a cookbook for almost anything. But do I cook from them? That's another story.

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Kathleen Murphy
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I have a cookbook problem. The problem lies in the sheer amount of cookbooks I own, and the rate at which they tend to multiply.

I have cookbooks that instruct me how to live my best life by avoiding grains and carbohydrates. Most of these are found on the same shelf housing my large assortment of baking cookbooks. “Baking with Julia” sits wedged between a Keto cookbook and a massive tome that claims to cover anything bread.

Another shelf contains my impressive collection of vegetarian and vegan cookbooks, including a few on juicing. There is one book, I notice, that focuses exclusively on the art of making vegan cheese at home. I don’t remember buying it. Regardless, the vegan cheese-making book is nestled right next to the “Big Book of BBQ.” It truly is enormous. All of the meat books are, for some reason. Big meat requires big books.

The ethnic cookbooks are some of my favorites. I have cookbooks devoted to Thai food, Indian food, Mexican food and Ethiopian food. I am, of course, a Midwestern girl born and raised, and as such own several Scandinavian cookbooks touting the importance of adding lingonberries and a side of lefse to everything.

I recognize Beatrice Ojakangas as the local treasure that she is, and appropriately own several of her many, many cookbooks. A few of my favorites are “The Finnish Cookbook,” originally published in the 1960s, as well as her more recent recipe-infused memoir, “Homemade: Finnish Rye, Feed Sack Fashion, and Other Simple Ingredients from My Life in Food.”


Continuing with the local scene, I own cookbooks from The Duluth Grill, Norske Nook and The Madeline Island Historical Society. If I go out to eat and the restaurant happens to have its own cookbook, I beg the host to allow me time with the cookbook at my table. You know, so I can decide if I want to buy it. I always want to buy it, but sometimes I talk myself away from the abyss.

I have a cookbook that focuses just on appetizers, as well as a cookbook for sauces, another for salsas, and a third for vinegars. Just vinegars. I have three books on creating alcoholic drinks, one of which is devoted entirely to creating bitters and shrubs for my cocktails. Also on my shelf are two books detailing the growing and use of herbs, as well as books on how to preserve foods that I grew in my garden.

Going more traditional, I have over a dozen spiral-bound church cookbooks that I inherited from family members, as well as a few binders full of my own recipe cards. I own, of course, a copy of “Better Homes & Gardens Cookbook,” the ubiquitous red and white plaid, three-ring binder style book that I think we are all required by law to own, preferably obtained as a gift from a family member when we were young adults.

I have a wide variety of cookbooks, admittedly, but why would I call it a “cookbook problem”?

Here’s the thing: I don’t preserve my own foods. I buy the 79-cent bottle of white vinegar, just like everyone else. I rarely drink, and when I do, it’s because I am somewhere a professional bartender can make a drink for me.

I don’t barbecue, am not vegan, and don’t partake of special diets. When I’m craving something from The Duluth Grill, I head to The Duluth Grill. I don’t grow a garden — not even a window herb garden.

It would be fair of you to question if I cook at all. Yes. I do cook. But only infrequently, and almost never from cookbooks. I typically rotate through the same 15-20 recipes. When I do cook something new, it is usually because I saw the recipe online. I have been using the same whole wheat bread recipe for two decades. I know it by heart.

Still … I love a good cookbook. Maybe I like to daydream about what I could make, had I the inclination. Much like pouring over maps and travel brochures, even when the possibility of travel is nil. I like to keep my daydreaming open-ended.


Even if the daydream is simple. Someday, I might just make that rhubarb vinegar. If I look at it in that manner, I don’t have a cookbook problem. I have a bookshelf full of possibilities.

Kathleen Murphy is a freelance writer who lives and works in Duluth. Write to her at

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