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.