The Cookbook Project by Melissa Edwards

Melissa Edwards is Director of Research Communications in the Office of the Vice Chancellor for Research.


There are many joys of living in a college town, not the least of which is easy access to specialty grocery stores that serve the needs of a community that includes people from nearly every country in the world.

What does that have to do with reading?

For those of us who love to read cookbooks, it means that inspiration has a real chance to become reality.

It also means that you can pick up some galangal or a bit of chapati flour or a bag of masa harina on the way home from work. And that means, in theory, anyway, that you can whip up some flavors in your central Illinois kitchen that have no business being there, beyond curiosity and a taste for adventure.

Earlier in the year, I decided to press that proximity into the service of my palate. A good ethnic grocer, an abundant garden, a friendship or two with international colleagues with exquisite taste in food, et voilà! A project was born.

As I considered where to go with this idea, I came up with a few parameters:

  1. Once a month, I’d whip up a feast with the cuisine of a different country.
  2. I would only use cookbooks that I could get at my local public library.
  3. I would incorporate locally sourced products—even if those products originated halfway around the world. If I could incorporate some things from my own garden, I got bonus points.
  4. I would try my best to move beyond tacos and lasagnas and pad thais.

Gran Cocina LatinaSo, in January, I started in Mexico. The library had several books to chose from, including the gloriously comprehensive Gran Cocina Latina. At nearly 1,000 pages the book is as comprehensive a look as you could hope to get at Latin American cuisine. I cooked up a feast! February was India, March was Morocco and again, the library delivered with Madhur Jaffrey’s From Curries to Kebabs: Recipes from the Indian Spice Trail and the lovely Morocco: A Culinary Journey with Recipes from the Spice-Scented Markets of Marrakech to the Date-Filled Oasis of Zagora.

But then April hit. I’m involved in a charity that does work in Tanzania, so I thought I’d give Tanzanian cuisine a try. Perhaps not surprisingly, the library didn’t have anything on the shelf, so I requested the only cookbook available through interlibrary loan. (It was terrible, so I revisited India.) As the months went by, I traveled to Cuba and Greece, enjoyed Thai on the 4th of July, and in August sorted through five library shelves of cookbooks to select something for Italian night.

Morocco by Jeff KoehlerWhat started as a fun little hobby has evolved into a fascinating exploration of culture, history, science, conquest, immigration, and, of course, cooking techniques. Perhaps even more interestingly, though, are the questions it raises about access – to information, to food, to exotic ingredients, even to dreams.

Why do you cook the way you cook? Why do you read what you read? Why are there dozens of Italian cookbooks in my local library, but only one lonely book about Peru?

I understand that I could very easily just order things up from Amazon – and in fact, I often do that. But as I’m approaching the end of my cookbook project, I realize that it hasn’t been an international cooking project at all. It’s been about global context for an authentically local experience and exploring the fullness of what’s possible here in my own part of the world.

Or perhaps it’s even simpler than that. When I described my project to my mom, her response was so beautifully, authentically her that I giggled for hours:

“My favorite country to eat from is Candyland.”

Mine too, Mom. Mine too.

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About iprh

The Illinois Program for Research in the Humanities at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign was established in 1997 to promote interdisciplinary study in the humanities, arts, and social sciences.
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