Russ Parsons of the LA Times recently reached out to ask the industry’s opinion on the most important cookbooks. Most of the contributors ponied up Joy of Cooking, the Times Life Series, Escoffier Larousse Gastronomie and a few other classics. James Beard, Craig Claiborne and Dianne Kennedy made the list. Emeril, Martha Stewart and Jamie Oliver did not.
About five years ago I did my own important list, or more accurately, my not important list. My books followed Parkinson’s Law: Matter expands to fill available space (Cookbooks multiply to fill then overwhelm available shelves.)
My collection over-filled three walls of shelves. Some had to go. The only way to make the cut was to determine not what I wanted to keep but what I didn’t want. I’d watched an unhinged family hoarder try to make a path through the material chaos of her home enough to realize the futility of the “Lets keep this and I can do away with that” approach on anything with the emotional burden of cookbooks. Fortunately the real rotters in the cookbook field are childishly easy to categorize.
The Culling list:
1) Any book mentioning speed or time. The speedy gourmet cookbook. Ten minutes to French Cuisine. These byproducts of women’s liberation which promised women that they could pursue their careers and still put out a health meal on a napped table. Take out made the obsolete.
2) Any book mentioning human body parts, processes or infirmities: The Lower your cholesterol cookbook, Chef Markus cooks for a healthy liver, The Good Digestion Cooking Bible.
3) Hollywood celebrity cookbooks including the Vincent Price cookbook ( now selling for about $300). Somehow Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings’ Cross Creek Cookery and The Rich and Famous Cookbook survived the cut. Rawlins included recipes for venison. Cookbook irony is good. If Hollywood celebrities could cook they’d have restaurants. You wouldn’t buy an acting guide written by a chef.
4) Dinner party and cocktail party or hors d’oeuvre cookbooks: The Perfect Party. The Perfect Hostess. Cook For a Crowd! (Whoopee!!) Having lived the Mad Men years, I have no desire to revisit their food. If I remember correctly, most of the guests were usually too inebriated to know if the dinner tasted good or not.
5) Appliance specific cookbooks including a few food celebrity books for the first Cuisinart, microwave oven and, of course, the blender.
6) Any books with pinkish pictures of tomato aspic, stuffed mushrooms and spinach soufflé or gray veal in gray sauce.
7) Cooking with wine books. You need a book for that?
8) Anything gender specific. Sunset had a few inane paperbacks announcing the wondrous fact that men, if the recipes were simplified and the heat source charcoal could actually make food. Men? Imagine that.
9) Any book which, if opened to a random page, included canned soup or flavored salt in an ingredient list.
10) All but the earthiest and simplest ladies’ guild self-published cookbooks. I have no idea how the Flavor of Pittsburgh slipped past me (French Fried Ice Cream Balls? Tangerine Pie?) but it’s staying just for funkiness.
11) 25 years of Gourmet Magazine. Except the cookie issue.
12) Porn disguised as cookbooks. Very seventies.
I recently went to the local book store in search of a book in pickling by Sandor Katz. I found a new category that I didn’t need to deal with : TV Celebrity Chef cookbooks. I rarely watch food shows, so perhaps I am missing something, but I suspect that ten years from now cooks buying these books now will be loading them into bags for the Good Will.
Just in case you have too much book space and are bemoaning not having had a shot at these books, you still have a chance to own books chock-a-block full of thoroughly superfluous mediocre recipes: Every year the San Francisco Public Library has a book sale crammed full with the culinary literature ripped from shelves like mine.