I used to buy cookbooks like other people once, but I always seemed to like it a little bit more than most. One day Owen turned around and said “It’s a collection, you know that?“. I said “You say that like it’s a bad thing …” and I realised that I had Crossed A Line. I’m not quite at the point where I could appear on the ABC’s Collectors or anything, although my friend Nigel is the proud proprietor of bakelite fingernail polisher Mystery Object™, and hundreds of melamine cups and saucers and I may have to seek his expert guidance on the subject.
I’m not saying that it wouldn’t have happened anyway, but in part I blame Neil of At My Table. He posted in May 2008 on his satisfaction at completing his set of the Time Life series “The Good Cook: Techniques and Recipes”.
A little trawling showed me that his high opinion of them was shared, including in this 2004 post by Elise at Simply Recipes and the many comments on that post and at forums like eGullet and Chowhound.
I haven’t found many Good Cook titles in my habitual op shop trawling, but once my eye was in I’ve often found volumes from the other Time Life series loved by collectors, “Foods of the World”. For each country or region it has a hardcover narrative volume (with photographs and some recipes) and a small paperback spiral recipe volume. The recipe volume from M J K Fisher’s The Cooking of Provincial France, was my first find, and then the narrative volume on The Cooking of Germany. There is intense competition for the best cover, but Germany over there to the left is way up on the list.
Both Time Life Series were published in American and US Editions, and reprinted many times. You shouldn’t ever pay too much for them, particularly the Foods of the World Series which should never cost you more than about $3 each. The spiral bound books are often cheaper, but also often more tattered. Even though they have a Spatter Proof Cover! they were designed to be used, whereas the bigger volumes were designed to be read in bed with a glass of sherry. You can get the hardback and the spiral bound recipe volume in a slipcase (I only have one set with a case, Provincial France again) or groovy folder (I’ve a couple of those).
The Good Cook Series is collected by more people, and I have seen some of the more difficult to find volumes reach astronomical prices on eBay – most recently Patisserie which got to $78.50. (No I didn’t buy it – I waited a couple of weeks and got it for a great deal less than that). The first Good Cook books I bought were a partial set of 13 for $35, and I’d be lucky to pay that little per volume again. Some people get very lucky and stumble across a whole set cheap, but as I said, that’s being lucky. There’s a partial set of 18 (the US editions) on eBay at the moment for under $20, but the price flies through the roof right at the end in my experience (updated: it’s about 12 hours later and the auction’s at $71 + $25 postage -> still a bargain IMO even more updated: 5 hours to go and it’s up to $139.75 final update:end price was $197.50) They’re cheaper at events like the biannual Lifeline Bookfair, particularly at the end when you can cram whatever you can get in a bag for $10.
The reason I was drawn to the Good Cook series is the illustrated techniques, particularly of classic skills in the French cooking repertoire, but I’m still impressed by the recipes, which are drawn from a great range of cuisines and writers. Some of the advice I’ll be ignoring – even in winter I don’t find carrots need at least thirty minutes boiling to reach tenderness, and I’ve no need for the instant or canned tofu suggested in the Japanese recipe volume.
As a mark of the full nerdy glory that my cookbook love has reached, I have been putting my cookbooks on LibraryThing. There’s only about half of them on there so far (and I’m only going to include the cookery books, as I don’t actually collect the rest of the books I read), but there are some shocking book pigs on there who make my few stuffed shelves look positively abstemious.
Actually, that’s not the height of my full nerdy glory. This annotated list comparing the US and UK Editions of The Good Cook Series is. I am a little bit proud, and a little bit embarrassed. Updated to increase nerd levels: I’ve put up a cookbook set on flickr.
So yes, my name’s Zoe and I collect cookbooks.
I started writing this almost a year ago, but it’s taken me until now to actually get with the program (so to speak) and out myself properly. What sparked it was @eatnik’s pictures of her cookbooks on Twitter, and her comment that the pervy joy of other people’s bookshelves was just as interesting as looking in their fridge. Recent purchases have seen the four boxes of books under the bed emerge to shiny new shelves in the hall and loungeroom. Unpacking showed up a few double copies, so a happy Dr Sista Outlaw left after her delightful visit last weekend with an armful of surplus. The magazines are still mostly tucked away. I’m buying less, and more fussily. There are a couple of things that I Very Much Want – Ottolenghi, Deborah Madison, Fergus Henderson. But I have much better control over my desires than I used to.
The oldest book I have is rescued from my grandmother’s house, a 1892 edition of M J Pearson’s Australian Cookery which is discussed in this article. The newest was purchased today, at a Gunghalin op shop, the Breakfast volume of the Healthy Home Cooking series which came after Foods of the World and The Good Cook and involves considerably less duck fat. The last before that was Anna Del Conte’s awesome The Classic Food of Northern Italy and the Oxford Companion to Italian Food, $20 each from Clouston & Hall (a brilliant academic remainder bookshop – search “The Culinary Arts” category).
Owen came to our relationship with one cookbook. It’s on LibraryThing and there’ll be a prize for the first to guess which one it is.
And before you ask, I haven’t read every word of every one. In any event I don’t buy into the whole tight-lipped superior view that “people have cookbooks but they don’t cook from them”. If I’m feeling very
pissed up myself, I’ll point out that the whole “but they don’t cook the food” meme originated with a Roland Barthes article “Ornamental Food” comparing cookery articles in bourgeois and working class magzines, and was soundly debunked in Stephen Mennell’s “All Manners of Food”, by employing the cunning methodology of reading the articles that Barthes claimed to be speaking about. It’s still a hot issue, and there’s some interesting back and forth in the comments on Michael Ruhmlan’s recent excellent post about “foodies”, “cooks” and the forthcoming movie “Julie and Julia“.
If you’ve a favourite that you love, or a cookbook that you’re craving, do share it in the comments. It will make me feel a little better.