A Bold New Vision For My Cookbook Collection

Since you last knew me, I’ve developed a few food-related obsessions. The first one is plates. I collect vintage plates now on Ebay and Etsy and I have quite a collection (OK, here’s a peek on Instagram). I’m also obsessed with old cookbooks, usually ones that have historic value (The Lutece Cookbook, for example) but sometimes I purchase cookbooks that are pretty campy and semi-historic (The Uta Hagen Cookbook, The Liberace Cookbook, The Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous Cookbook). Those collectible cookbooks held the highest position on my old cookbook shelf, a shelf that was beginning to look like a real mess. Here’s what I’m talking about…

Even Mr. Lolita was scandalized.

So this past weekend, I took it all apart. Every book came out and I laid them out on various tables and chairs, though I didn’t do the whole “spark joy” thing. I made that mistake once before and accidentally gave away half my not-food-book collection. But that’s a story for another time.

Looking at all my cookbooks spread out, and then at the empty shelf (which Craig purchased at H.D. Buttercup and which he gladly AHEM reluctantly donated to my kitchen back in 2013) I decided that it was time to shake things up.

The former organization prioritized the vintage/collectible/campy stuff on the top shelf, the things I hoped people would enjoy rifling through at dinner parties. That never really happened. Then there were the staples on the second shelf, spilling down to the third shelf. On the bottom shelf, dessert books.

This time, though, I decided to map things out differently:

That’s right, no more vintage/collectibles at the top… from now on, the top two shelves would be VIPs!

Meaning: the books I’m most excited to cook from RIGHT NOW.

Not sure if that’s obvious to everyone–to put the books you’re most excited to cook from at the top of your cookbook shelf–but to me, it’s a definite game changer. Now when I mosey into my kitchen, I see the books that I’m most psyched to see at the very top. Let’s take a closer look:

These are truly my top-tier cookbooks right now, the ones I’m most likely to cook from if you’re coming over for a dinner party. You might spy Ottolenghi’s new dessert book, Sweet, in the mix; yup, that’s a VIP! But there are some unexpected ones, too: Donald Link’s Down South, Alfred Portale’s Simple Pleasures (where I got the recipe for the best soup I’ve ever made), The Food of Campanile (which Nancy Silverton wrote with Mark Peel, back when they were married and owned a restaurant together). But the book I’m happiest to own right now is this one…

Margot Henderson is married to Fergus Henderson, the British chef famous for cooking all the parts of the animal (I ate at his restaurant St. John when I was in London) and who wrote a book called Nose To Tail. Well as wonderful as that book is (it’s also in my collection), I have to say I’m a bigger fan of Margot’s book. It’s bright and funny and does something that no other cookbook does that I’m aware of: it scales its recipes to various sizes depending on how many people you’re feeding. More than anything else, it’s the book I’m most excited to pull off the shelf these days just to spend time with it.

One tier down, you have the other VIP books. Please don’t judge them unfairly for not making the top tier; it’s like getting a silver medal at the Olympics. These books are still at the Olympics. Give them a break.

These are all solid books, with some novelties mixed in (Ottolenghi’s first book, for example, a gift that my friend Lauren gave me years ago, before Ottolenghi was a name, and I was like: “Umm, thanks!” Little did I know it’d be a SECOND TIER COOKBOOK someday). I’m particularly excited about cooking from Every Grain of Rice (which, weirdly, I keep putting off), The Big Sur Bakery Cookbook, and My Two Souths (already made the fried chicken from it; it was pretty special).

Now let’s talk about the third tier. Things changed from my original plan: dessert books moved up a shelf and now share space with the warhorses. These are the books that’ve been with me the longest, in a way… the Inas, the Marios, the Lidias. These books are still stalwarts in the kitchen. I’ll pull down an Ina anytime I want to make a solid meal without too much fanfare. And Mario’s always a good resource for authentic Italian, as is Lidia. The dessert books–the ones that SURVIVED–are on the right.

And finally, we have the classics. These are now on the bottom shelf because I’m thinking of the bottom shelf more as a library, rather than the place I’ll go to first when I have people coming over. I think that makes sense. Gone are the novelties–Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous AND The Two Fat Ladies Cookbook are now in our living room (hope Craig doesn’t notice)–and Uta’s in my nightstand. There are some real treasures on this bottom shelf…

Come into the Kitchen by Mary and Vincent Price, The Cooking of Southwest France by Paula Wolfert, The Graham Kerr Cookbook (he was The Galloping Gourmet long before I was The Amateur Gourmet), Veal Cookery by Craig Claiborne, When French Women Cook by Madeleine Kamman (that’s one of my favorites), Simple French Food by Richard Olney, The Alice B. Toklas Cookbook, and The Breakfast Book / The Supper Book both by Marion Cummingham. They may be bottom-tier books geographically speaking, but these are top-tier cookbooks by all other measures. And I’m glad they’re all down there for me to peruse on lazy Sundays of the future.

So behold: my newly organized cookbook collection!

And to all of the cookbooks that didn’t survive the reshuffling, please know that you’ll always hold a special place in my heart. Just not on my shelf.

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  1. I have been told to divest myself of my cookbook collection! Gads, does no one realize what wonderful stories around those receipts are usually there, history et al…….years ago I mistakenly cleared out some and now have regret. Enjoy your volumes……glad you are back.

  2. OMG ADAM. Does Crosse and Blackwell still make oyster stew???? When I was in kindergarten in 1962 my parents used to go grocery shopping on Friday mornings and my mother would always serve this to me, along with Nabisco oyster crackers out of a blue and white bag, when I came home at noon. It was my favorite lunch. {Back in those days, kindergarteners would walk to school and home all by themselves, in every weather. It was a different world. And speaking of a different world, imagine people feeding canned oyster stew to a five year old in 2017!}

  3. It’s delighting me so much to read your new blog posts. And I love the link to the best soup, which led me to the coq au vin, which got me very excited to recreate Craig’s 2014 birthday meal. Now I just have to decide who is worthy of the dinner invite…

  4. Such a nicely organized and well thought out collection of books.

    I am so glad that the dessert book that caused such an amazing internet “stir” made the shelf!

  5. What a great collection although I wonder where the two Adam Roberts’ cookbooks are?? I have over 1,000 cookbooks in my collection — an entire guest room lined with bookshelves. That Crepes & Omelettes 2 in 1 saved me when I was first married 30 years ago. I keep my “important” cookbooks in my kitchen and Secrets is on that shelf along with Michael Mina, Ina, Mario, Goin and Joanne Chang.

  6. It’s always exciting to see someones cookbook collections! You slowly scan the books, “oh I have that one and love it”. Scan some more “oh that’s one that I’ve heard about and would like to get”. Scan some more “oh I’ve never heard of that one but I’d like to see it”. And on and on it goes. It never gets tired.

    Love your collection Adam!

  7. I should do this. I have 5 shelves in my kitchen and also keep all of my New Yorker food editions there. Those used to be published every November and now it’s spring, combined with travel or something.

    Also have all of the Lucky Peach magazines, which are going for a pretty penny on eBay (one listing is $1499 for buy it now).

    As much as I love Blaine Wetzel’s food, I find myself reluctant to make anything from his “Sea and Smoke” cookbook. In order to make the “drippings” that go with the bread, it takes 4 whole chickens and results in 2 cups of drippings.

    But they sure were tasty.

  8. Love this! I aspire to have as great a cookbook collection as you. I don’t even cook from them that much these days because the Internet, but Imjust love reading cookbooks like novels.

  9. Than you for returning to #BlogLand! Interesting way to organize your books. I would assume you will reorganize and shuffle as books jostle for the gold medal. I organize by theme and my internal question where would I look for that recipe. Anything Asian be it from an American chef goes in the Asian section, there’s the French section, celebrity chef,restaurants. My Mary and Vincent Price cookbook rubs elbows with Craig Claiborne NYT cooks, and an LL Bean cookbook. The kitsch? A joyful jumble I save for myself, hidden away.

  10. As a book person, I adore this post and talking about book organization in general.

    But I also had to say: my mom has that ancient recipe tin! They lost their house in Harvey, but I still managed to salvage that little tin because I love it so. Always reminds me of my childhood. :)

  11. Especially during the years I was reviewing cookbooks for Bookslut, this was a huge challenge in my life! I’m now down to 2 shelf units in my kitchen — mostly organized by cuisine or type (Asian, Bread, Italian, Desserts). And I gave 5 or 6 boxes to my local thrift store late this summer when we had a yard sale.

  12. Like Margie I have over 1,000 cookbooks, some go back to the first few years of our marriage, some only added within the past week.

    In the kitchen I have the ones I find I run to the most often, long time favorites like Julia’s opus, The Essential Pepin and Beard’s Fish. I no longer cook much Italian so the only Italian book that still holds a place in the kitchen is Italian Two Easy by the lovely ladies of the London River Cafe where we had one of the best meals ever and Meat Cooking Italiana, an English translation of a book by a fabulous Italian chef, Savina Ruggero. I cook more Asian so Ken Hom is there along with Fuschia Dunlop, Ming Tsai and Jet Tila. MIddle Eastern and Mediterranean have their shelf space as well. And then there are the oddball books that don’t fit into any category but have earned their spot on the shelf because they’re books that help me put foolproof good dinners on the table consistently, even after a late night at work. Those include books by Rozanne Gold, Jamie Oliver, Ina Garten, Donna Hay, Mark Bittman, Nigella Lawson, and of course the old favorites, 60 Minute Gourmet and More 60 Minute Gourmet by Pierre Franey.

    Upstairs on the shelves that line what was once my oldest son’s room there is superficial order by cuisine and author – sometimes. I love them all, I read and reread and I still find new ones I can’t live without. I m keeping them because when asked “do they give me joy” my answer is always Yes.

  13. I really love your/Craig’s bookshelf! You’ve also inspired me to give my cookbook shelves a refresh but not sure how to order them. I kind of have a favourites shelf going at the moment but then I do try and organise by cuisine but then I run out of space and have some books organised by author… I love the look of colour coded shelves but do they really work? ah dear.. dilemmas of cookbook owners :)

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