Someone went into rooms and happened to be in a bin of used cookbooks Cooking for yourself. 50 cents, take it. Take a look at home. The sad sign on the cover could have been a warning: boiled spinach in a puddle of cooking liquid, a cutlet with pepper sauce and some boiled baby potatoes. Next to it a glass of beer and a jar of peppers in vinegar.

Inside, the author wrote that a ‘clever’ stock could not do without a packet of mashed potatoes, a jar of mushrooms and a can of luncheon meat. Then the recipes. Pork fillet with apple, white beans and half fried banana. Ham rolls filled with crab, walnut and cream cheese. Canned carrots with grapes and Cointreau. (Whoever now hears in his head: ‘love life, love Cointreau’ is also old.)

In the back there are ‘all kinds of tips’. But really all kinds of things. Buy a pack of bami vegetables ‘from the greengrocer’ and mix them with a can of bami goreng. Or: bake slices of corned beef and put a can of mandarins heated in butter on top. Put fried pineapple on a schnitzel, put a slice of cheese on top and melt under the grill. Finally, for the ‘healthy’ dishes: whole-wheat macaroni pizza with cheese and whipped cream and one tomato.

This sixth (!) edition came out in 1993 and with this book I was instantly back in my student kitchen, where we made chicken pilav with canned peaches and pasta with igloo spinach, bacon and Boursin. If you wanted to unpack, you bought magor: a mix of mascarpone and gorgonzola. Also very bad.

To all the students of today who haven’t dropped out yet: everything was bad then. The supermarket closed when you just got out of sleep. You didn’t have a poke bowl yet, just pizza. We drank JP Chenet wine. (Gin and tonic was in a highball glass and was for the elderly.) Restaurants were either very expensive or you went to an eatery where you could choose between satay, spare ribs and salmon. Vegetarian was always quiche. You can be homesick for anything and everything – a beer cost about a euro – but not for the culinary wasteland that the Netherlands was then.

Survive without a cookbook

In the same bin of second-hand cookbooks there was also The cuisine of the Middle East by Claudia Roden, a 1995 edition. So it did exist, good food, good cookbooks. But at least I had never heard of labneh or baba ganoush. And there was no Instagram where I could have seen it come by.

In 2020 you can also survive in rooms without a cookbook. Everything from a boiled egg to lièvre à la royale is online. You can even find recipes for pasta with igloo spinach. At the same time, there are more cookbooks than ever that you can cook to pieces on a limited budget. For single servings: Solo Food by NRC‘s Janneke Vreugdenhil. Vegetable: all Veg-titels van Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall. Vegan: Bosh! by Henry Firth and Ian Theasby. If you want to understand what you are doing: Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat by Samin Nosrat. If you have a month left at the end of your money: Crisiskoken by Mara Grimm.

I added the latter just in case. To prevent accidents with canned mandarin and corned beef.