Do we really need a guide to collecting cookbooks?

Is it true? Does he or she who dies with the most cookbooks really win? AbeBooks published A Guide to Collecting Cookbooks recently that triggered something in me - and I had a "come to Julia" talk with myself. While I find the information on the sought after titles and the prices they fetch interesting - I took umbrage at this statement: "...it is advisable to specialize in a single genre or ethnicity, or to collect the work of a particular author or group of writers from a region or period."

Collecting books for the sole reason of "collecting" doesn't seem quite right. Don't get me wrong, I am a dedicated cookbook lover but the books on my shelves have to speak to me, they must contain recipes and stories that inspire me and that I truly hope to cook before I head to that giant library in the sky. By my estimation, I will need to live to age 399 years, 11 months, 3 weeks and 4 days to cook all the recipes from the books that I have selected. 

The statement from AbeBooks might be acceptable if you are amassing a collection as a financial investment but collecting cookbooks as a source of joy shouldn't be so calculated. Even as I write this, I know I have books on my shelves that are there for purely sentimental reasons mostly autographed cookbooks including Eat This... It'll Make You Feel Better: Mama's Italian Home Cooking and Other Favorites of Family and Friends by Dom DeLuise, several editions of Julia Child's Mastering the Art of French Cooking and the Price's A Treasury of Great Recipes.

In my case, I like to think that I have become more cunning in my decisions on what books make the cut. It is time, again, to do a purge and weed out some books that are here because at one time they spoke to me and now we just aren't speaking. Years ago, I was guilty of unconscious collecting - all the books - I had to have all the books. I am making a vow to keep and treasure books that will be utilized and displayed instead of stacked and dusty. The major issue is that so many great books are published each year. I already find myself excited about titles slated for 2017: BraveTart: Iconic American Desserts, Tartine All Day, The Cecil Cookbook, Federal Donuts, Sketch, Myers & Chang at Home, The Milk Street Cookbook and dozens more. I'm even stalking Amazon for news of Ottolenghi's book about desserts and Deb Perelman's next offering. What is a conscious cookbook lover with an obvious addiction to do?

Somehow I started off strong about narrowing down my cookbook totals and through my journey of words ended up excited about adding more books to my shelves. Do what gives you joy.

What is your criteria for adding to your collections? Do you do periodic purges? What is the most prized book in your library? Answer these questions to help keep my mind off the task at hand: purging. 

19 Comments

  • darcie_b  on  1/11/2017 at 10:11 AM

    Well said! I did a purge a few years ago and really pared down; I had only about 75 books at that point. Since then I have doubled the collection, including volumes I probably should have passed up. However, it is difficult to resist when you are in a thrift shop and the price tag is so low. I have a dozen of the Time Life Foods of the World that probably need to go because I have never used them and only purchased because they were $1 each (sadly none of them have the spiral bound book to go with them). Not buying new books is easier because the commitment is greater! My biggest love is baking, so going forward my collection will focus on baking books. They have to present something that I haven't seen before. Stella Parks (Brave Tart) has some intriguing ideas (even though some of them haven't panned out for me), so I'll be getting that one. And of course the Ottolenghi book will be on my bookshelf as soon as it's released. My love of baking notwithstanding, my most prized book is one I may never cook from: an autographed copy of Alinea.

  • sir_ken_g  on  1/11/2017 at 10:11 AM

    I collect things....and I have quite a few cookbooks but I don't "collect" them for thier own sake. They either have great recipes - or a story.

  • lgroom  on  1/11/2017 at 11:10 AM

    A big move is on my horizon but I'm finding books and cookbooks hard to part with. I lived and traveled overseas for a few years and I can remember where I bought each book. That said, I hate to keep cookbooks in the kitchen cuz they tend to get a stickiness to them. Suppose a lot will depend on what kind of dwelling I end up in.

  • manycookbooks  on  1/11/2017 at 11:41 AM

    Well, as an avid cookbook collector, I must say that I don't collect them for the sake of "collecting", and they must "speak" to me somehow. That said, I frequently purchase relatively inexpensive ones from remainder bookstores, that are a little unusual or somehow pique my interest. I mostly eschew newly released or recently published cookbooks, as I find them expensive, with lots of pretty glossy photos, and very little substance that appeals to me. I'm frankly tired of picking up a cookbook that contains recipes such as "Parmesan-crusted Poached Eggs on Creamed Spinach with White Alba Truffles", or "Vermicelli-coated Fritto Misto with Couscous and Soft-boiled Egg Sauce". Really? My tastes run to the out-of-print cookbooks, mostly, and those with intriguing titles. Sometimes they turn out to be duds, but mostly they are fun and I read them like some people read fiction. I have been accused of being a "hoarder", but my collection is carefully shelved, categorized and used, not thrown in cardboard boxes around my living room! I collect them because they give me pleasure and joy, and it is my passion and hobby, plus I really love to cook (and fortunately, my husband loves to eat!) Some day, perhaps (hopefully not!), I may have to sell the whole collection to raise some $$, but that is not in the immediate future. I do intend to donate them to the library of a local college with a good culinary program.

  • Jane  on  1/11/2017 at 12:14 PM

    With more than 1,800 cookbooks in my collection, I know I should purge but until I really HAVE to or "I head to that giant library in the sky" (great expression Jenny) I will keep putting it off. At least I have now got all the books in my basement in subject order on bookshelves. My "favorite" 600 or so books are in the dining area of my kitchen. Every time I get new books I have to decide which of those are going to be banished to the basement - that is hard enough to choose. Trying to decide which get permanently banished (donated to my library) is really difficult. With so many cookbooks I know I really don't need any more, so new purchases are limited to new books from favorite authors, new baking or dessert books that seem to add something different or books that are an informative read (that is still quite a few new books every year).

  • Christine  on  1/11/2017 at 12:25 PM

    I am definitely due for a purge myself! I too over-collected at times and wasn't as selective as I should have been -- particularly with bargain/thrift shop books, as others here have mentioned. I did this with my "regular" books too, not just cookbooks and it's something I am trying to work on. I'm trying not to be too ruthless in my purging though -- just because I have a toddler right now and certain types of recipes (or novels, even!) seem completely out of reach right now, doesn't mean that will always be the case. In the meantime, I am making sure to pull down my "easy," "everyday," and "family" cookbooks picking out recipes I can manage during this phase and making better use of that part of my collection.

  • Kristjudy  on  1/11/2017 at 12:34 PM

    Jenny you have expressed what so many of us are feeling, our books bring us such joy, have seen us through difficult times and lead us to our happy places, our kitchens. Such a timely well written article.

  • Rinshin  on  1/11/2017 at 12:41 PM

    Not that our house is big, it is quite average by American standard in our area but I do have a room dedicated to my cookbooks that I spend most of my time in with 2 very comfortable chairs ie a recliner by a big window that I read or use laptop while watching front of the house facing street and another chair along with my computer chair and table. I doubt I will be getting rid of my cookbooks at any time in the future. I've only discarded maybe less than 10 to date. If anything, I really need to think about the massive magazine collection I have. I have all the issues of Bon Appetit since about 1977, Food and Wine since sometime in the 80's, Saveur (have to see the beginning issue) and all the issues of Gourmet. I bought all the issues I was missing of Gourmet when they were closing up shot.

  • obbigttam  on  1/11/2017 at 3:01 PM

    I find the best test of whether a cookbook you have still needs to be in a collection is to take it off the shelf and just leave it somewhere prominent where you'll see it a couple of times a day. If you haven't picked it back up again by day 3 or 4 then it doesn't hold your love anymore, and is safe to pass on to someone else. It only works if you leave it out for a few days though - as we all know tastes change from day to day and making a decision on how/what you feel on one day could lead to big mistakes lol. As for my favourite, much used and marked cookbook that would be Charmaine Solomon's Complete Asian Cookbook. I have my departed mum's copy from an early release and my own copy from a couple of decades ago - both copies with personal notes all through them. It's fun and interesting at times to open both copies to the same recipes and see the difference in tastes between my mother and me. Her note on a recipe might be more salt less chilli whilst in my book it's the opposite lol.

  • kitchenfrolic  on  1/11/2017 at 3:11 PM

    What I first started buying cookbooks (I hadn't considered it a "collection") I bought ones that I was interested in, ones that I thought might be useful and then ones that were on sale or that I found in used book stores. There was no rhyme or reason, but I never once bought one because of it's 'value' or its 'potential value'. Now, because of limited space, I am definitely more picky about the ones I buy, choosing only ones that I know I'll get some multiple uses from. I've never done a purge of my collection though - I've considered it but find it really hard to part with books (food-related or otherwise).

  • Jenny  on  1/11/2017 at 6:06 PM

    Just confirmed SWEET will be coming from Ottolenghi - publication date to be determined -- and it's going to be amazing! Wow-wee!

  • Globegal  on  1/11/2017 at 9:18 PM

    When I started college in the '70s, I became a vegetarian so sole criteria for cookbooks was it had to have a macaroni and cheese recipe in it. Then vegetarian. I've purged most of those books over the years & then repurchased a few. "Joy of Cooking" was one I had in college, purged because never used over many years, repurchased a few years ago because it was on "books to have," then purged it again as I knew I'd never look at it. Had "Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking" by Marcella Hazan since the '80s and never looked at it. A few years ago was given a lot of Roma tomatoes & discovered her wonderful tomato sauce. I don't live near bookstores so generally go by what’s recommended on the internet. After just recently purchasing "I Know How to Cook" and Nigel Slater's "Appetite," have decided it’s time to use the library before purchasing any new title. That's a little hard to type; will see how easy it is to do! "The Best Casserole Cookbook Ever" by Beatrice Ojakangas has been the most reliable. "Moosewood Cookbook" is a sentimental favorite, though seldom used ... just fond memories of meals gone by.

  • Nhcookingdiva  on  1/11/2017 at 9:30 PM

    My favorite? It's like asking me to choose between my children! I don't collect just to collect and I certainly don't stick to one author or one region. Whatever book has a recipe I'm craving that day is my favorite book on that day.

  • pokarekare  on  1/11/2017 at 10:26 PM

    Nah, I'll stick to my method of collecting - eclectic, whatever appeals to ME and those with sentimental value like my mother's, grandmother's, great grandmother's, auntie's and mother-in-law's old cook books. The latter would be shunned by collectors - all are tattered and/or stained, some are coverless and have the first and last pages missing so I had them rebound. They include several editions of the iconic " Edmonds Cookery Book" from New Zealand [s] and the American "Betty Crocker's Picture Cook Book" (1959) and others I have been unable to track down. Some of my personal favourites are cook books from other countries - I always try to buy a cook book [in English] from every country I visit and this has sometimes proved challenging! I live in hope that my sons and daughters-in-law will treasure at least some of them when I die! And I'd sell my poor tired old body before I sold any of them!!! :)

  • pokarekare  on  1/11/2017 at 10:58 PM

    And besides, if I need a recipe for stewing or jugging a pukeko or Gundaroo bullock, or instructions on how to tell if the oven is hot enough to bake bread or cakes [if my thermostat fails] or cook in a hangi, I have just the books to turn to.

  • hsteel  on  1/12/2017 at 8:52 AM

    I don't understand collecting for the sake of collecting. What's the point in having books if you don't at least pick them up once in a while to peruse (if not to actually cook from them)? I also don't like the idea of concentrating on a particular cuisine or author...I want some variety in my life! My bookshelf - admittedly pretty small compared to many on this site - has books I love dedicated to French, Italian, Middle Eastern, Mexican, pies, etc. For me to add or keep a book,it has to bring some value. I've gotten to the point in my cooking skills where I'm not looking for a book of 30 minute meals. I want to learn something new - whether a new technique, a new cuisine, or just interesting information about a particular place or food culture. And it has to have recipes I would try. I'm much more discerning nowadays about what gets on my shelf, and I do occasionally get rid of books that I've outgrown.

  • vickster  on  1/12/2017 at 9:08 AM

    I started getting interested in cookbooks in the 70s and started with Mastering the Art of French Cooking, Marcella Hazan, Betty Crocker. Then got interested in Moosewood books and many others. I am continuously weeding out books, but it is hard. Kindle books are my current problem/addiction. When they are $1.99 I can't resist and my collection is kind of out of control. And I don't use them as often, since I don't see them. So thankful for EYB! Oh well. It's all good!

  • lsgourmet  on  1/14/2017 at 10:34 AM

    Jenny - you wrote a great article. I think it set a lot of to think about our books. I have been buying cookbooks since 1966,. It was the year I got married and it was also when the US began its journey into the world of cuisine. So I bought Child, Beard and Joy of Cooking and, years before Julia & Julie, I cooked my way through those books, learning, learning and learning. We began to travel and I bought cookbooks everywhere we went, first a book from every state that we visited. Then I bought the Time/Life International series of books, whetting my appetite for foreign food and travel and ended up buying a cookbook everywhere we traveled. So cookbooks expanded my world as well as my waistline! I don't buy many cookbooks now, too many contain recipes recycled from older cookbooks in my collection. Plagiarism seems to run rampant in the industry. I now buy cookbooks that highlight a cuisine I'm not familiar with, the last few being Korean, and others that are from restaurants we've been lucky enough to enjoy. In a way, my cookbooks contain the story of my life, a stovetop biography as it were. Still I do have to start weeding out those cookbooks I haven't visited in a while. I have three daughters in law who can't, and don't want to learn how to, boil water without scorching the pan and I really can't burden them with the task of getting rid of the books when I gain entry to Jenny's giant library in the sky. What a shame you can't take it with you!!!

  • Rella  on  2/1/2017 at 10:36 AM

    A few years back I purged around 300 books; now my EYB books are a manageable 620. I will probably never purge again, because it I thought, oh, well, I'll never cook Thai food again, now I regret giving away the 10+/- Thai books (good ones, too). Sigh!

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