This handbound book is only 15 years old, though it’s had a lot of use and so it looks older.
I made it when Kris and I moved into a ramshackle fisherman’s house on the beach in El Nido, Palawan. The elevated plywood and bamboo house was so flimsy that it shuddered every time one of the cats jumped from table to floor, it swayed giddily on its hardwood posts during storms, and, once, an entire wall facing the beach popped out while Kris and I were having a romp in bed (turning our bedroom into something like those glass-fronted rooms, open to the street, in Amsterdam’s red light areas…good thing no one was walking down the beach when it happened!)
After this episode we jokingly nicknamed the construction “Rocking House,” after Stevie Ray Vaughn’s song The House is Rockin’…When the house is a’rockin’ don’t bother knockin’
The nickname stuck, because we’ve mostly lived in boats on the water since we left El Nido (and a houseboat doesn’t just rock, it rocks and rolls…and pitches) and it’s come to be the name of our household, more than any individual house we occupy. So when I wanted a title for my household cookbook, Rocking House Recipes was the obvious choice. I made a large book (A4) of 600 pages, using a beautiful white watermarked 25% cotton paper from India, rounded spine and half-leather kidskin binding. I used primed artist’s canvas for the cover panels.
Then I drew in the lines for a busy, messy allover pattern of stylized flowers and fruit, but never got around to painting it. The book gets used almost daily, but the covers have remained in this incredibly ugly state all this time. Annoying. Clearly, I hated the design I’d drawn—which is why I never finished it—but was dragging my feet about sanding it off, re-priming the surface, and starting over.
I finally decided it was time to give the book covers a make-over this weekend. I wanted the book’s title to be on the cover, and for the design to be relevant to the book’s purpose and content. What is the point of a cookbook you painstakingly bind by hand, if you are going to put nothing but a meaningless pattern of floral barf on it?
I tried to stick to a very restricted palette of yellow ochre, prussian blue, opaque white for mixing tints, and black for the letters. I couldn’t resist, at the very end, adding tiny cross-hatches of red ochre (on the ham, the tomato, the chilli, the wine bottle) to pull in the reddish brown of the leather binding. I worked with a triple 0 sable pinstripe brush, thinning my paints with a low-viscosity liquefying medium, and made tiny cross-hatch marks to form the shapes…also, I really enjoyed building up the plaid tablecloth pattern this way!
Rocking House Recipes is more than just my cookbook…it’s my diary, too, of cooking experiments as well as anecdotes from memorable meals in cherished company. I made it to gather all my beloved recipes together in one place. It’s still mostly empty because I don’t use it for new, untried recipes (no matter how nice they sound) copied out of other books and magazines, in the hopes that I will be able to use them someday (I’m very wary of degenerating into an armchair chef, she of the fabulous kitchen and huge collection of gorgeous ‘for-display-purposes-only’ cookbooks…but who serves soggy stir-fries, shriveled hard pork chops or microwave dinners to her family on ‘ordinary’ nights)
In this book are the recipes that I have learned and embraced as my own…the ones that I am confident about, that I feel I have mastered enough to play with, to change and shape as the need arises…also, these are the dishes that we have enjoyed, by ourselves or with friends and family, many, many times over…not just the recipes that I reserve for guests or special occasions, but the ones I make almost daily because the food is so simple and beautiful, and the slow act of preparing it is grounding, and makes my soul sing.