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Note to Self

It's what Denis Harrington adds to recipes that's special



Denis Harrington with his notated cookbooks that tell the story of his life.

Photos by Rana Faure

When Denis Harrington took over the family cooking around 1990, he did what many cooks do—he kept notes about each recipe he tried for future reference. He stepped into the role gradually—his wife, Lynn, had finished Yale Divinity School and was the rector at St. John’s Episcopal Parish in South Salem.

She’d done the heavy lifting of raising their three kids and cooking for the family for years. So when an interest in baking lured him from the table into their Pound Ridge kitchen, Harrington found he relished the change in their domestic pace.

But his recipe notations weren’t jotted on index cards or typed in a reminder list on his smartphone. As he tried recipe after recipe, he began to make notations in the margins right next to the recipes, to refer to should he make the recipe again—“one tablespoon more sugar,” “a slightly hotter oven,” “a little less salt.” He used a rating system from one to ten. At a certain point in his culinary explorations, however, his recipe notations began to take on a different tone.

Harrington’s foodie inclinations were awakened many years before he took over the home cooking. His long career as a commercial and film producer had taken him on location to several continents. He had hosted innumerable dinners at great restaurants, befriending famous chefs and collecting their cookbooks.

So when he stepped up to the family stove, he already had an enviable collection of more than 500 cookbooks—many of them complete with colorful title-page inscriptions from chefs all over the world.

Denise Harrington notes in cookbooksAs time went by, Harrington found himself adding personal notes to his recipe notations. He began to make notes about events in the lives of his children and grandchildren, and he mused about friends, relatives, and pets.

For instance, next to a calzoni recipe, he wrote of one of his grandchildren, “Went to see Maddie today–she is now a Brownie.” A notation next to old-fashioned chocolate-chip Cookies reads, “Made pancakes for Denise, Bobby and baby Maddie. Wonderful visit. Donkey nipped a kid’s arm at petting zoo! Lynn in Czech Republic. I’m sad, no one like her to share cookies.” Another entry reads, “Entered the Blackburn Challenge with Scottie,” referring to a sea- kayaking race, another one of his great passions.

Next to a recipe for buttermilk pancakes, he wrote, “Puff passed away today. He loved these pancakes. He was the best dog friend I had.” When Harrington’s elderly mother was very ill, next to a griddle-cake recipe, he wrote, “Made a large batch for mom and her sidekick,” as his mother fondly referred to his father. “Hope it’s not for the last time.” He even made observations about world events. “Bin Laden is still alive,” one note read next to a recipe for roasted-carrot soup.

Of his penchant for using his cookbook margins for journal entries, he relates, “I’m a fidgeter by nature, and the act of cooking forces me to focus my energies. It centers me and gives me a real sense of peacefulness. So when I cook, I become very reflective.” He continues, “In a sense, the act of writing down my thoughts next to my favorite recipes became a sort of rough-edged diary over time,” he explains of his cookbook entries.

He soon realized that his collection of notes was becoming a personal chronicle of some of the richest moments in his life. And he began to think of it as a legacy that he could leave behind for his kids and grandkids, “a record of what I was thinking and feeling over the course of quite a few years,” as he describes it. In contrast to those who might keep a journal neatly written on the single-spaced pages of a leather-bound journal, Harrington’s 20-year diary is scattered throughout the pages of his extensive cookbook collection, which in turn is shelved in every room of their house, except one—the kitchen.

In large part, Harrington’s culinary inclinations are motivated by an intrinsic charitable drive. He points out, “To be honest, this is not a cooking story—it’s a food story. Food is the basis of everything we do in life, it’s a conduit to life. Any good cook is a giving person because the very basis of food preparation is service.”

He adds, “My mother always said, ‘Don’t visit with long arms.’ What she meant was—always bring something when you go out, prefer- ably something home-made.”

In Harrington’s case, it’s most often canned tomatoes from his garden or his locally famous chocolate-chip cookies. And as for his mother’s advice, he might have added a postscript: Make sure they know who you are. His culinary calling card is his car’s license plate: EVOO GUY. Extra virgin olive oil guy. 

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