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why i collect cookbooks
by Alice Dick | 1 2 3
continued from page 2

One Sunday I went downtown to check out the libraryís cookbook section and was amazed by its variety. I found books dedicated to hors díoeuvres, ice cream, and barbecue as well as slow cookers and campfire cooking. I found a military cookbook from the fifties from which the reader could bake angel food cake for seven hundred people. I found a 1940ís cookbook dedicated to lunchbox meals, with an entire chapter dedicated to the question of how to achieve variety in lunches despite wartime rationing and meat shortages. I found a cookbook from the 1930ís entitled Seven Hundred Sandwiches. I wanted them all. I was charmed by the enthusiasm of the writers Ė not just for the food, but also for the idea that cooking for oneís family was a noble and important duty. (Naturally, most of these books were targeted for a homemaking female audience.) I was amused by their wild enthusiasm for unusual combinations of ingredients Ė carrots, raisins and prunes as a sandwich filling? Obviously nouvelle cuisine must have started decades before the Eighties. The ingenuity these writers brought to bear on food shortages caused by the Depression or war rationing was astounding, and nothing was wasted. One cookbook recommended "freshening" stale crackers in the oven before serving, and I was ashamed when I realized my solution to stale crackers would be to throw them away instead of trying to find a way to make them palatable.

My collection has continued to accumulate in the last few years Ė at last count, I had over sixty-five cookbooks. Alibris.com has been an extremely helpful source for those out of print books that Iíve decided I cannot live without (such as Seven Hundred Sandwiches). My criteria for buying a cookbook are simple: Is it fun to read? Does it contain recipes for the sort of food I might actually cook? Does it take me to another time or place? Not all my cookbooks meet all three of these criteria, but the ones that do are like gold.

If you just want to cook daily meals you donít really need that many cookbooks, and even if you have an interest in a given specialty, say Italian food, two or three additional books should be enough. No, my collection fills a deeper need. As Laurie Colwin says, "If you want to know what real life used to be like, meaning domestic life, there isnít anywhere you can go that gives you a better idea than a cookbook." If we ever perfect time travel, I for one would insist that cookbooks be made required reading prior to the trip. But for now, I can make do with my armchair and a good 1940ís cookbook.


Alice Dick is a physician in Los Angeles. When not working, her pleasures in life include lounge music, fancy martinis and reading cookbooks.

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