If you have been collecting cookbooks for any length of time, or gravitate towards any articles or references to cookbooks that you find on the Internet, in the newspaper –or anywhere else—you may have seen the oft-repeated comment from collectors, “I read cookbooks like novels” in a sort of perplexed way, like who does anything like this? The answer is WE ALL DO and our number is legion. I might have made a comment like this myself back in 1965 when I first started collecting cookbooks and really didn’t know where to go about getting started.
There was a magazine for penpals called Women’s Circle (not to be confused with Woman’s Day or Family Circle) – I wrote a letter to Women’s Circle trying to find a little Hungarian cookbook for a friend and as an afterthought, wrote that I wanted to start collecting cookbooks and would buy or trade for them.
I received over 200 responses when my letter was published; I found the Hungarian cookbook published by Culinary Press (ck) and bought one for my friend and one for myself. Then I began buying anything anyone offered me and it was the nucleus of my collection. I also began finding cookbooks in used book stores—I hadn’t been living in California long enough to be familiar with used book stores such as one in West Hollywood that was a treasure trove of cookbooks, many for only $1.00 each. It was there that I acquired a handwritten cookbook that the owner of the book store offered to me for $11.00. Now that is a cookbook I have read from cover to cover many times. I have also written about it on this blog (see Helen’s Cookbook first posted June 16, 2009, along with Helen’s Cookbook the Update and Helen’s Cookbook the Sequel) – now this was a revelation. I have been collecting recipe boxes for years and had discovered filled recipe boxes—recipes collected by someone else, like a kitchen diary) – and I began wondering if there might be more self-written cookbooks like Helen’s. Aside from the very famous hand-written cookbooks such as one created by Martha Washington or Thomas Jefferson and other notables, over the years other handwritten cookbooks have come my way, thanks to friends who know about my addiction to cookbooks such as these.
Each discovery is like traveling down an amazing road and every time you come to a crossroad—it leads to more incredible and fascinating discoveries, all due to starting a collection of cookbooks.
In 1965, I was barely starting a collection. It was a stellar year. I learned how to drive that year, and also acquired an Australian penpal, Eileen, and a Michigan penpal, Betsy, who are still both a part of my life. That was also the year I met Connie, who initially babysat for me—but became a lifelong friend who was also the godmother to my youngest son, Kelly. Her children were as much a part of my life as my own sons. Connie began collecting cookbooks too.
It was right about this time that I became interested in former Presidents and the White House, and Connie and I bought a “lot” of White House, American presidents, sight unseen, from someone for $100.00. We scraped together the money and when the books arrived, divided them between us. (My discovery that cookbooks and the White House/American presidents were connected – came much later and now those books take up several shelves in my bookcases).
So, it wasn’t very long before I was collecting not only cookbooks—but books about the White House kitchens and chefs, books about American Presidents and their families, and books about First Ladies (these take up an entire bookcase).
I’m not sure when I first became aware of an antiquarian bookseller in San Gabriel…she compiled an annual booklet, “200 Years of Cookery” and I bought some books from her—this was another revelation; the booklets were reasonably priced and became my wish books. I remember visiting her once at her home in San Gabriel; I don’t remember the year—or who drove me there. I can’t imagine Jim taking me there—and Bob was familiar with San Gabriel. I still have a 1974 copy of “200 years of Cookery” and only thought, last night, to look up Marian Gore on Google. I learned that she passed away in 2009 at the age of 95. It’s quite possible that I met her, at her home in San Gabriel, with Bob accompanying me. I met him in 1986 and around that time had begun to focus on cookbooks compiled by women’s clubs and churches.
However, I discovered that I was as interested in reading cookbook catalogues as I was in reading the cookbooks themselves. Edward R. Hamilton publishes catalogues of books –including those devoted solely to cookbooks.
I would begin collecting L.A. County Fair cookbooks in the 1980s when Bob and I began entering my jellies, jams, pickled cherries and cantaloupe in the annual fair competition. If your recipes won a first, second, or third prize ribbon, you were invited to submit your recipe for the next fair competition the following year. My curiosity was piqued and I began searching for the L.A. County fair cookbooks published before I began entering it – and I did find them….but I stopped collecting the books when I was no longer able to enter the fair or get to the fair when it was being held at the Pomona Fairgrounds.
But I was still curious – what about cookbooks published by other county fairs? And what about STATE FAIR ANNUAL COOKBOOKS? (To the best of my knowledge, Texas publishes the best State Fair cookbooks…at least they did when I was broadening my search for anything fair related). The glory of fair cookbooks is that they are always reasonably priced. And this, my friends, was one of those crossroads I mentioned earlier.
As for Helen’s cookbook, also mentioned previously—it was through a penpal living in England that I learned who Helen was and something about her life; she and her husband never had any children of their own, which probably explains how her exquisite handwritten cookbook ended up in a bookstore. What charmed me most were the detailed descriptions of her dinner parties, who was invited, how everyone was given a task to perform, and what she served to them—including the recipes.
And it was because of Helen’s cookbook that I began compiling 3-ring binders of recipes…some clipped from magazines, others from other sources—until there are now over 50 of these 3-ring binders stuffed full of recipes. There are twelve binders full of cookie recipes alone. But back in the 1970s I began keeping descriptions of MY own dinner parties, who was invited, what I served and how I prepared the various dishes. I think I kept these dinner party descriptions up until the 1980s when I came to another crossroad.
For years I collected gingerbread house recipes from magazines (all of which ended up in one of my 3-ring binders) until one year Bob and I decided to build our own gingerbread house; the first house we created wasn’t too great but the next one we built was a beauty. When a visiting four-year old great-niece broke off pieces of the chicklet fence, we decided not to re-build and fed it to the birds. Bob was a genius at working on graph paper to copy designs in the magazines to a bigger size. He would make and cut out all the pieces to the gingerbread house. Together we would create gingerbread dough and roll it out to lay the pieces down on the gingerbread dough, cut the pieces out and bake them. It was an enormous undertaking! I’m sorry now that we didn’t attempt to enter THAT into the L.A. County Fair. Well, that’s how I started collecting cookbooks devoted to the topic of gingerbread houses. There were a multitude of other gingerbread creations you could make, not just gingerbread houses. One year we attempted a gingerbread dollhouse that was featured in one of the houses. That was an unusually wet winter and the house sort of collapsed from the dampness. Since then, I buy kits for my grandchildren and me to put together and decorate. And I still like to read the gingerbread house cookbooks!
Do I read cookbooks like a novel? Absolutely. Doesn’t everybody?
–Sandra Lee Smith