The Great Cookbook Purge of 2009

Nobody likes moving. It’s a daunting process: first you have to find boxes, then you have to find packing tape, then you have to put all your stuff in the boxes and then you run out of packing tape and then you find you have more stuff and you need more boxes, etc, etc. It sucks.

Which is why, a few days ago, I found myself staring at my cookbook collection. I was on the couch and there it was, across the room. Six giant Ikea shelves of cookbooks, collected from five and a half years of food blogging. And like a bolt of lightning, a thought singed the inside of my brain: “Do I really need all of these cookbooks? How many do I really use, really?”

So I walked over to the shelf. I applied a test that Craig taught me when it comes to getting rid of stuff you don’t need: “Do you use it? And if you don’t use it, do you love it?”

I lifted the first book: the Larousse Gastronomique. An enormous red tome, this is the French encyclopedia of gastronomy, filled with French cooking techniques and dishes and even recipes. But did I ever use it? NEVER. A big, all-caps NEVER. The few times I’d lifted it off the shelf to study it, I found myself flipping through the pages dutifully, but unenthusiastically. I’d never found anything I wanted to cook in there. And when, in the course of my cooking life, I came across a French cooking term or technique I needed to learn, I didn’t turn to Larousse: I turned to the internet. So why did I need it? I didn’t. And did I love it? The answer was no.

So I put it in a pile. And then I continued. Oh, how I continued.

As I noted on Twitter, this became a regular bloodbath: the pile kept growing and growing, and before I knew it, I was getting rid of more cookbooks than I was keeping.

I should quickly note that when I say “get rid of” I don’t mean “throw out” (believe me, enough people on Twitter wanted to claim them!) No, good people, I have two giant suitcases of cookbooks that I am going to bring to the Strand to sell. I won’t get nearly as much money back as I paid, but I will be cleansed of cookbooks and left with enough cash in my pocket to pay for extra packing tape. You can never have too much packing tape.

But back to the carnage. There were some cookbooks I had no qualms about purging. For example, as much as I love her on TV and as much as she was one of my first cookbook purchases, my love affair with Nigella Lawson is now over. I think she’s a terrific gateway drug–for someone who doesn’t know how to cook and is terrified to start, her cookbooks are a great place to begin. But once you’ve begun and you’ve branched out, I find her recipes rather disappointing. And the most disappointing of all, a Christmas ham that led to this Serious Eats comic book post, was so dry and drab, I stayed away from her book forevermore.

Once bitten, twice shy: I suppose that’s true of me and my cookbooks. And thus, both River Cafe cookbooks–shiny books with big, beautiful pictures from the famed London restaurant–are out the door, due to this disastrous fish stew from 2007.

It all comes down to trust. Do you use it, do you love it, but–most importantly–do you trust it? The ones that I kept, are books that I trust absolutely. I would lean backwards and collapse on to them, I trust them so much. For example, Molly Stevens’s “All About Braising.” It’s a flawless cookbook that has never–EVER–served me wrong. It will be on my shelf from here to eternity.

So, too, the Barefoot Contessa books. All of them. Love her or hate her, her recipes are impeccable. They never fail: if you follow them, you will get the food she intends for you to eat–and it will always taste good.

Others that made the cut: Suzanne Goin’s “Sunday Suppers at Lucques” (one of my all-time favorite cookbooks), all of my Mario Batali books (he’s still my chef hero), and reliable classics like Jacques Pepin’s Technique book and, of course, Julia’s “Mastering The Art.”

But those that didn’t make it, let’s have a moment of silence for them, shall we? I’m talking about you, Diane Kennedy, and your famous Mexican cookbook, “The Art of Mexican Cooking.” It’s not that I didn’t give you a chance: I took you to bed several times and flipped through you, reading your elegant prose and pondering which of your recipes I would make first. And I continued to ponder. And ponder. Until one day I realized that your recipes require obscure ingredients and that those that don’t are so casually written, I wouldn’t be sure how to see them through. If I’m going to cook from a cuisine of which I’m utterly unfamiliar, I need real guidance. I didn’t think you offered that.

And to you, Deborah Madison: I know you and your “Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone” book are legendary. But we just didn’t click, you and I. I tried to get inspired by you, really I did, but nothing popped. Your book sat there collecting dust and after several years, I think it was time to say goodbye. I think you’ll be happier on someone else’s cookbook shelf.

Only one cookbook inspired any controversy, via Twitter. I mentioned, in that Tweet, that Thomas Keller was part of my purge. It was true: I hardly ever used my French Laundry Cookbook or the Bouchon Cookbook. These books are gargantuan and so imposing that to just lift one off the shelf burns more calories than an entire day at the gym.

But, more importantly, the cooking represented in these books is not the kind of cooking I like to do at home. I like home cooking at home: big pots of stews and braises and roasts in the oven. These books are about fine, fine details, like dusting a beet powder over the goat cheese salad you arrange with tweezers to make just so. Nu uh. Not for me.

Bloomberg food critic Ryan Sutton (@qualityrye, on Twitter) replied to my Tweet: “what pray tell are you doing purging a cookbook by thomas keller? those 3 books (fl, bchon, up) are like bibles for me.”

I responded: “For me, I never, ever, ever open them. Ever. I think it’s b/c that kind of fussy cooking I like at restaurants, not at home.”

Ryan answered: “Fair point. but that’s the thing about cookbooks. you read them for inspiration and to understand a chef, not just to cook.”

He then linked to this article by Amanda Hesser (@amandahesser), a review of the Bouchon book from when it debuted. Hesser seems to make both of our points in the same article:

“If you cook from this book, you’ll discover that, frankly, it’s a pain in the neck to be Thomas Keller. You can’t just brown the beef, toss in some vegetables and wine and go read a book. You must reduce the wine with a pile of leeks, carrots, onions, mushrooms, shallots, garlic, thyme, parsley and bay leaves. You must then add more leeks and the rest….But when you are done, you have something sublime. You bow to the master and plan to try it again in a year or two, after you’ve rested up.”

That kind of cooking might’ve appealed to me before, but not so much now. I’d rather make the beef stew where you just throw it all in the pot, as Amanda says, walk away, and read.

Still: might I change my mind somewhere down the road? Or might I want to try that kind of detailed, obsessive cooking for a future blog post? This morning, I rescued Bouchon from my suitcase: it’s now returned to the shelf.

But not you, Balthazar Cookbook! And not you, Zingerman’s Guide to Good Eating! You had your moment in the spotlight–mushroom soup from you, Balthazar, and mac and cheese from you Zingerman–but since then, we’ve just drifted and drifted apart. It’s time for a clean break.

What remains is a cookbook shelf with a zen tranquility about it. The books that survive are books that I use, love, know and trust. I don’t glance at the shelf, anymore, overwhelmed by choice; I know what’s there and, when I move and set up the cookbooks in our new apartment, I’ll know exactly what I have and why I have it. This is what a cookbook collection should be: not a mishmosh of random titles collected over the years, but a carefully gleaned library that you can manage and utilize without going crazy.

Thus the Great Cookbook Purge of 2009 has ended. The carnage will soon be cleared (off to the Strand I go) and when the blood and debris have been swept away, I’ll be left alone with my favorite cookbooks and ready, more so than ever, to cook in my brand new kitchen. May the same happen for you.


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