Chocolate pudding has always been my comfort food—and, contrary to what the title of this post might suggest, my momma makes a great one. That hot, creamy Cook N’Serve of my childhood was pure heaven to the both of us more nights than I can count. We’d pull out the tiny cardboard box, rip open a paper envelope, combine the contents with milk on the stove and whisk and heat that mixture until it grew into a thick, creamy, throat-coating dessert. I liked it best when it was hot, almost steaming. But we’d both also eat it cold, having been covered with wrap in the fridge. It was milky. It was rich. It was the first thing I’d reach for when I’d had a rough day. But lately, I’ve been learning there’s more than one kind of creamy, chocolate comfort.
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About a week ago, Tim and I made a quick stop at McKay’s, which, for the record, is the largest, cleanest used bookstore I’ve ever been to in my life. Set high up off Old Hickory Boulevard on Nashville’s west side, McKay’s exterior looks more like a bulk warehouse shopping center than a place that makes it easy for anyone to walk in and buy or sell old books any day of the week. You park your car in an eco-friendly brick parking lot and walk inside to a bright, high-ceilinged space filled with aisles and aisles of books, books on tape, CDs and DVDs. The inventory’s always changing, so even if you’ve just been in a week before, you still never know what you’ll find when you come. In December, I bought a Mexican cookbook that later had me Googling for information about its illustrator, a woman who loved beautiful buildings and architecture as much as I do. Last Monday, we came looking for a children’s book; we left instead with a hardcover Tim had been wanting and a $2 original copy of The Moosewood Cookbook, published in 1977, for me.
I go to used bookstores for the same reason I look into windows when we’re driving down residential streets at night: I like to imagine the people inside. The same way I fix my gaze on the warm glow of a table illuminated by candlelight or the man who’s sitting in his recliner all alone, I pick up a hardcover, tracing over the handwriting, wondering about the person who underlined that passage or the reader who signed her name in this front flap.
This might be what I love about the first-edition copy of The Art of Mexican Cooking, written by Jan Aaron and Georgine Sachs Salom, that I found at McKay Used Book Store Friday Night. Published in 1965, this beauty has all the earmarks of another era, one in which American women still wore skirts and aprons to make dinner and in which Mexican food (along with other ethnic cuisines) was just beginning to enter the conversation.
There are hand-drawn illustrations at the division pages, created by artist Dierdre Stanforth, the same woman who did illustrations for a Betty Crocker cookbook two years later and for books on New Orleans after that. I’d never thought much about book illustrations until recently, when we went and made an ebook and hired the amazing Rebekka Seale to create the cover—now I notice them everywhere I look: on blogs, on Pinterest, when I’m flipping through the thick pages of my new vintage book.
Over the last few nights, reading The Art of Mexican Cooking before bed, usually out loud to Tim, along with continually remarking that “This entire recipe is a paragraph! One paragraph! These directions kill me!,” I’ve also been thinking about the woman who drew the maps in the front and back pages and who sketched two large pots of soup in front of Mexican tiling.