Clearing space to put large format signs and maps piled on top of boxes of cookbooks was a start. I had the project of reducing the number of my cookbooks in mind for a while. It began with a question. How many cookbooks does a home cook need? Not as many as I currently have.
The end result will be a shelving unit in the dining area with the consolidated collection nearer to the kitchen. The goal is to review hundreds of cookbooks one last time, reduce them to as few as 20, and sell the rest at a garage sale, donate them to the library, or give them away. The project forces me to think about what cookbooks mean in my kitchen garden.
According to author Nichole Burke, “The kitchen garden is a small-scale version of the vegetable garden that enables you to experience the magic of growing and enjoying some of your own homegrown herbs, greens, and vegetables, but that gives you the convenience of requiring just a few minutes or hours of your time each week.”
My idea of a kitchen garden is different. I seek to incorporate what goes on in the kitchen more closely with the garden so they become one coherent whole. I began a couple of years ago and each season the two entities are closer to integration. As a result, more of what our household eats comes from the garden.
My garden is larger than what Burke suggests. In addition to patches gleaned for daily meals as she suggests, there are rows designed to grow and preserve vegetables for winter. Examples are peppers, tomatoes, garlic, onions and broccoli. Cookbooks are useful as a way to help determine which vegetables should be grown in larger quantities for preservation and storage.
The Inspired Vegetarian by Louise Pickford is a themed cookbook. The theme is eating vegetarian meals and it is designed to provide examples of a variety of vegetarian dishes for adoption in a home kitchen. It seems unlikely I would follow her recipes exactly, yet when she presents the idea of a vegetable cassoulet, for example, I know what that is and can take it as a starting point to create a version that fits into the world view and produce of my kitchen garden. The recipes may encourage me to grow different vegetables so I can prepare dishes we like.
Big decisions are easy. I’ll keep Joy of Cooking, Julia Child and company’s The Art of French Cooking, and Larousse Traditional French Cooking. There will be one or two “American” cookbooks even if there is not really an American cuisine outside fast food. The King Arthur Flour Baker’s Companion is essential, along with one or two other baking references. These alone would be enough for endless meals.
When on long-term work assignments in South Georgia, Pennsylvania, and Texas I spend idle hours watching Food Network. I expect to keep volumes by Anthony Bourdain, Mario Batali, Rick Bayless and Giada Di Laurentiis. Also in the mix will be Jeff Smith (The Frugal Gourmet), Ming Tsai, Martin Yan and José Andrés. Celebrity chef cookbooks have accessible recipes. I expect them to be a third of the final collection.
Another section of retained cookbooks will be those created by a community of which I was a part. My collection includes cookbooks from the hospital where I was born, the church where I was baptized, and other coherent groups to which I belonged as I proceeded through life. I read The Iowa Writers’ Workshop Cookbook edited by Connie Brothers over the weekend. It is an example of why certain communities shouldn’t produce a cookbook. I mean, some of the recipes seemed like outrageous inside jokes. I did enjoy seeking out authors with whom I interacted or saw at events in Iowa City in the cookbook. Most of the workshop mainstays provided recipes a person could actually use.
Another main use of cookbooks is in my writing. I intend to write about a trip I took to New Orleans. I read Lucy Hanley’s book New Orleans: Cookin’ in the Big Easy, which provides simple recipes of classic New Orleans dishes along with a list of local restaurants. The recipes and images evoked memories in a way that will be useful to my writing. While I spent only a few days there in 1981, the cookbook helps me remember. The same holds true for other regional or city-specific cookbooks.
With the rise of internet search engines, one questions whether cookbooks are needed at all. When I’m looking for ways to use radicchio, for example, it is easier to do an internet search than pore through a number of general purpose cookbooks searching for recipes. At the same time, there is something about having a book.
For now, I’ll be keeping some cookbooks.