Library Cookbooks Were All We Needed for a Family Voyage

The circumnavigation never happened, but my childhood was a culinary journey anyway

Andrea Posada Escobar for Getty Images

When I was 11, my family began preparing to sail around the world. My dad, a boat builder, decided that we’d build a 32-foot sailboat, starting with a fiberglass hull that my mother dubbed “a big brown bathtub.” The plan included a move from New Haven, Connecticut, to Annapolis, Maryland, where we lived in a tiny apartment while traveling back and forth to the marina where our boat, Karis — a Greek word for “grace” — was slowly undergoing the transformation from bathtub to floating home.

It was a spectacularly slow process — my parents both worked full-time, so the work on Karis could only take place on weekends and other stolen hours — and devoured every spare penny, leaving little money for leisure activities, like going to the movies or out for pizza. But what I discovered as a boat builder’s daughter was that extreme weather, from face-melting heat to eyelash-freezing cold, meant that we got a day off from painting, sanding, and hammering. Those precious days were spent at two of my favorite places: the library and the grocery store.

But what I discovered as a boat builder’s daughter was that extreme weather, from face-melting heat to eyelash-freezing cold, meant that we got a day off from painting, sanding, and hammering. Those precious days were spent at two of my favorite places: the library and the grocery store.

The morning began by parking ourselves in orange vinyl armchairs at the library, where we’d explore the streets of Shanghai in the latest issue of National Geographic, soak up memoirs set in the sunny olive groves of Corfu, and turn the oversized pages of heavy coffee table books that allowed us to imagine the scent of lavender in Monet’s garden at Giverny.

By early afternoon, we’d scour the shelves to load up on cookbooks to bring home, ready to immerse ourselves in the flavors of the places we’d read about — the next week’s dinner table might feature fresh peaches cooked in red wine, slippery noodles tossed with fried scallions, or cinnamon-spiked pastitsio accompanied by a mezze platter piled with charred eggplant and garlicky skordalia.

In the late 1970s, the cookbook selection at most libraries was somewhat limited, but there was nearly always a set of Time-Life’s “Foods of the World,” 27 cookbooks covering global food culture. The books came with a decidedly Eurocentric perspective, but they still offered a glimpse into the places and flavors we planned to discover someday while circumnavigating the globe on Karis. Those cookbooks were a passport to the far-flung harbors where we’d drop anchor.

From the library, we’d pile into our exhaust-belching Chevy Vega hatchback in search of provisions. My mom would thumb through the books, reading recipes out loud for consideration as we began making a grocery list. Roast lamb redolent with rosemary, straight out of the pages of Gerald Durrell’s “My Family and Other Animals.” Roman honey cake stuffed with pine nuts inspired by “I, Claudius.” Po’e, a Tahitian fruit pudding, in homage to Somerset Maugham’s “The Moon and Sixpence.” We considered which ingredients we’d be able to find at the local Graul’s Market or the Safeway across the street from our apartment building — bananas and coconut were easy enough to find, while pine nuts were still somewhat exotic. Seafood dishes were often at the top of the list because living on the Chesapeake Bay meant that fish, crabs, and oysters were both plentiful and cheap.

Somewhere along the way, we acquired a $10 wok, and my dad pored over books with titles like “WokCraft” and “Chop Suey” to learn how to properly season it. It was while eating weeknight stir-fries of snow peas and shrimp that he finally began to share some of his experiences as a young soldier during the Vietnam War — a topic that hitherto was always taboo.

Three years later, we left Annapolis for Florida, I started high school, and our family’s journey shifted course. The only extended voyage Karis ever took was down the East Coast’s Inland Waterway, eventually landing at a marina in Cape Canaveral. We never sailed to the places whose flavors we had dreamed of, never stocked Karis’ galley with canned foods to sustain us across the Indian Ocean, never straddled the bowsprit to fish while bobbing at anchor in the Mediterranean, never haggled over fresh longan at some island market in the South Pacific.

We never sailed to the places whose flavors we had dreamed of, never stocked Karis’ galley with canned foods to sustain us across the Indian Ocean, never straddled the bowsprit to fish while bobbing at anchor in the Mediterranean, never haggled over fresh longan at some island market in the South Pacific.

When Karis was eventually sold, some 10 years after we first laid eyes on her, we were left with different souvenirs from those we had expected. Our memories were lit by the fluorescent lights of the library stacks and supermarket aisles, each stocked with unexpected adventure and flavored by our imaginations. We could never be certain that we’d gotten the seasonings quite right, but the process of getting unfamiliar food onto the plates — together — became a voyage of its own.

Cintascotch for Getty Images.

Food writer/editor, frequent contributor to NPR and the Washington Post; culinary producer for chef Carla Hall.

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