Leaving a cookbook legacy

If you have a significant number of cookbooks, you may have thought about what will happen to your collection when you are no longer around or able to keep it. You might have a plan for some or even all of your books, perhaps bequeathing them to friends, family, or the local library. But what would you do if you had over 5,000 books? If you are Carolyn and Randall Abney, you create an entire library in collaboration with a prestigious university.

The story begins over 20 years ago when the couple relocated abroad from their home in Georgia. At the time, neither Carolyn nor Randall cooked much since they were busy with their careers. Carolyn was successful in a variety of pursuits, including real estate and finance, but it was Randall’s work in a media-related job that led them to London. The move resulted in Carolyn having a lot of time on her hands. Since food in the UK proved to be expensive and not particularly to her liking, Carolyn enrolled in cooking classes and began to enjoy making the couple’s meals.

Randall Abney
Randall Abney with a very small selection of his and Carolyn’s books

As her cooking skills increased, Carolyn started to collect cookbooks, a habit that continued as she and Randall moved from country to country. Cookbooks were the perfect souvenir to remind them of places they lived in or visited, like Italy, France, the Netherlands, and Malta. Carolyn’s passion for cooking expanded along with the cookbook collection, and when the couple lived in Italy, she taught cooking and wine classes and was the wine writer for The Florentine, Tuscany’s only English-language newspaper.

When they returned to Athens, Georgia in 2008, Carolyn and Randall began collecting US books, initially focusing on Southern cookbooks. As collections are wont to do, theirs continued to expand, eventually growing to thousands of cookbooks – not including their other books, which number over 6,000. These cookbooks aren’t just items for display, as the Abneys use them daily, preferring to look for recipes in their collection before turning to the internet or other sources. They try to make 3 to 5 new dishes per week, an ambitious goal.

As their collection grew ever larger, the Abneys began to think about the long-term plan for the books, and in 2012 they decided to donate the cookbooks to a library. Key meetings with culinary historians and professionals shaped their plan and set it into motion. One occurred when Randall met John T. Edge, the founder of the Southern Foodways Alliance. The SFA has a food writing and cookbook library in Oxford, Mississippi dedicated to Southern books. However, the collection is not easily accessible, as the public is not allowed to browse through the stacks and the library’s antiquated card catalog access means that you must know the title or author of any book before viewing it.

A visit to The Southern Food & Beverage Museum, a nonprofit living history organization dedicated to the food, drink and the related culture of the South, also influenced the Abneys. Based in New Orleans, the SoFAB Museum includes a culinary library that serves as a valuable tool for researching Southern food culture. The Abneys were also inspired by discussions with chef (and cookbook author) Hugh Acheson, who also lives in Athens. Acheson requires all of his employees from the dishwashers to the chefs to bring a recipe in with them to a weekly staff meeting. The executive chefs of Acheson’s restaurants use these recipes as a starting point for items that eventually make it on the menu.

If their books ended up in a library, the Abneys wanted everyone to be able to access them, not just chefs or researchers. In 2015, the pair entered into talks with the nearby University of Georgia, an institution they knew well since both of them are fellows of its Henry W. Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communications. UGA houses several different libraries, and decided that the Abneys’ collection would be a good fit for one of their special collections.

As people learned about the Abneys’ plans, they began to contribute books to the couple for eventual placement in the library. Many of these books are church or community books, which as Carolyn notes are not just about cooking. The books “represent a slice of life in that small town, church group, or community,” she says. They have received books from nearly every state in the US. “It’s like people dropping off zucchini from their gardens,” Carolyn jokes about the hundreds of books that end up on their doorstep.

You might think that after amassing thousands of volumes, the Abneys would tire of cookbooks, but the couple remain enthusiastic about them. Carolyn is fascinated with the history of cooking viewed through the lens of cookbooks. She enjoys seeing how people migrated from writing recipes that assumed a certain level of knowledge – that everyone would know what a knob of butter was, for example – to recipes that spell out the smallest details. She noticed how British cookbooks referencing ration tickets reduced the number of servings for recipes as ingredients became scarce. Carolyn also explained that you can learn how ingredients move from one region or country to another by reading cookbooks. For instance, you can trace the introduction of balsamic vinegar from Italy to the US in the 1970s, aided in part by Marcella Hazan’s recipes.

When you have as many books as the Abneys, it’s almost impossible to come up with a favorite. The couple did provide details on the rarest book in their collection, however. It is a 1939 booklet distributed at the opening of the film Gone with the Wind at Loews Grand Theater in Atlanta. The White Flour Co. of Atlanta created the pamphlet, which featured 30 recipes, specifically for the film’s premiere.

Carolyn and Randall are committed to seeing their cookbook library become an invaluable resource to community members, cooks, chefs, and researchers. So far, the couple has donated over 3,000 books to the library, and their friend Tim Dondero (a local chef and restaurateur) has donated a similar amount. Cataloguing that many volumes is a large undertaking, and since UGA is in the process of converting all of its libraries to a digital catalog search engine called GIL-Find, progress has been slow. Recently the Abneys contributed funds to help expedite the process, and currently about 700 books are available to the public. The couple hope to eventually have 25,000 books in the library. Duplicates will be donated to other libraries such as the SoFab Museum, and to culinary training programs. If you have books that you would like to donate to this project, you can email Carolyn at CCAbney@gmail.com.  

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  • monique.potel  on  December 5, 2018

    What a fabulous article
    I own 950 + cookbooks and this got me thinking
    I also loved discovering these libraries I didn’t know before
    This was great
    How about starting a list of all the cookbook libraries in the US and around the world ?????

  • Analyze  on  December 7, 2018

    What a cool story!

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