Gary Handman’s Culinary Notebooks

Title page to the second of Gary Handman’s culinary journals

My Journal Culinaire

By Gary Handman


A major part of what I know about cooking and about bringing friends and loved ones together to celebrate around the table I learned from my redoubtable mother-in-law, Shirley.

An intuitive and largely self-taught cook (with the aid of a constantly expanding cookbook library), Shirley rocked her Lilliputian kitchen. Her patience, focus, and efficiency in this improbably cramped 1950s galley were wondrous—a kind of zen and the art of mise en place. The main takeaways from watching her pull astounding culinary rabbits out of a hat over the years? Don’t scrimp on quality ingredients, pay attention, take your time, and you don’t need high-end equipment to produce high-end meals.

Shirley was also a firm believer in writing things down, which she did in the form of fastidiously maintained cooking and eating diaries. Each volume was filled with detailed descriptions of special and everyday meals, including citations to recipes used and commentary on the outcome. Each was illustrated with all manner of goofy and sweet family memorabilia—scribbly drawings by our daughter, thank-you notes and birthday cards, New Yorker cartoons, and other clippings that caught her fancy.


The above pages from Gary’s mother-in-law’s culinary journal of 1988, show how Shirley recorded what she served for holiday meals.

When she died in 2001, one of our most precious inheritances was the Shirley Diaries, now sitting with pride of place on our kitchen bookshelf, directly next to the bourbon decanter and Paula Wolfert books, company that Shirley would have adored. Inspired by her example, I began my own kitchen diary in that same year, albeit a version that over time has become infinitely more baroque, shambling, and anarchic than Shirley’s tidy, practical journal.

Into my strange salmagundi have gone Proustian descriptions of meals cooked for friends and family; musings on successful dinner parties and those that have crashed and burned; random recipes; notes on guests’ food and drink preferences; culinary quotes and aphorisms; photos of guests and table settings; sources of ingredients used and dramatic tales of shopping; lists of restaurants and cafes visited; doodles and sketches drawn to illustrate a dish or dinner; wine labels and graphically interesting food packaging; and assorted other cool-looking ephemera.

After 18 years, these once grub-centric postings have somehow taken on a wayward life of their own. Now, among the harrisa-stained and sauce-splattered pages are random notes on concerts and movies attended, vacations and day trips taken, significant and mundane life events, sundry gossip. Even when the entries stray outside of the kitchen, however, lunch or dinner are usually not far out of the picture (“Truffaut at PFA; Cheese Board pizza for dinner afterwards”).

Looking back at these volumes is a constant source of pleasure and amazement, a means of refreshing our increasingly inaccurate memory. (“Did we really serve paella to John and Linda last time they were here? When’s the last time we hiked Pt. Reyes?) Somehow, despite these diaristic liberties, I think Shirley would have approved. ♦

Gary Handman is an occasional freelance illustrator and cartoonist whose work has appeared in a strangely diverse gaggle of publications. In a former (pre-retirement) life, he daylighted as the film and video librarian of the UC Berkeley library. He has lived in Berkeley with his wife, Pam, for ages. You can reach Gary at handman(at) Find him on Instagram @ghandman.


The above and below images from Shirley’s culinary journals contain some of son-in-law Gary Handman’s earliest illustration work. “Woody” is Gary and Pam’s nickname for Shirley.

The five images above are from Shirley’s journals. Continue below to see Gary Handman’s evolution of the concept in recording special-occasion meals.