Sandra Lee Smith has lost track of the number of recipes she has for tamale pie. Smith, who lives in Arleta, has collected cookbooks for 30 years. The last time she counted there were 3,000--they fill shelves in practically every room of her house.
"The only place I don't have cookbooks is in my kitchen," she says. "They might get messed up there."
Smith loves all types of cookbooks, but her favorites are those put out by churches and charities to raise money for every cause imaginable, from supporting temperance unions to purchasing hymnals.
"When I first started collecting I would buy virtually anything I could get my hands on," says Smith. "A friend got me interested in community cookbooks--regionals, we called them back then. I put an ad in this collectors' magazine saying I'm interested in buying these old cookbooks and got more than 200 letters. I had no idea what I was getting into."
"People don't come in and just buy one cookbook," says Janet Jarvits, who owns a Burbank bookstore devoted entirely to used, out-of-print and rare cookbooks. "They'll usually buy a whole lot of them. They go into a feeding frenzy."
People collect cookbooks for various reasons. Some buy them as investments. Others simply want to try new recipes. For some, cookbooks provide good bedside reading. And there are those who acquire cookbooks for their historical and sociological value. Nostalgia is a big factor. Open an old cookbook and the past comes rushing back.
"I think a third of the cookbooks I sell are because people want to have the cookbook their mother used to have," says Jarvits, 28. "They remember what they ate when they were 10 years old."
Janet Jarvits, Bookseller, which carries 10,000 volumes, is a mecca for cookbook lovers wanting to add to their collections. Since opening in early June, Jarvits has purchased 5,000 volumes that belonged to the late cookbook author Helen E. Brown. Walk into her long, narrow shop and you'll find it crammed with everything from "The Joy of Cooking" to "The Gay Cookbook" to "Eating Together" by Lillian Hellman and Peter Feibelman.
"There are a lot of crossover collectors," says Jarvits. "Somebody that collects film might also collect cookbooks by film stars."
There's no shortage of celebrity cookbooks. Paul Newman published one. So did Vincent Price, Sophia Loren, Danny Kaye, Dinah Shore, film director Joseph Pasternak, singer Kate Smith, ZaSu Pitts, James Joyce, Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, mystery writer James M. Cain, Salvador Dali, Toulouse-Lautrec, even Elsie the Cow.
"Practically everyone writes a cookbook," says Marion Gore, who has been operating a mail-order used and antiquarian cookbook business for 35 years out of her San Marino home. Gore still searches for out-of-print titles, but not as often as she used to. "I like the authors who write and don't just give a laundry list of recipes. I've gotten to the point where I don't buy them unless I enjoy them."
Since no one can possibly own every cookbook anyway, most people select a topic and build a collection around it. The subjects are endless--food history, wartime cookery, California cookbooks, signed first editions, favorite authors, children's cookbooks, cocktail books, appliance cookbooks.
"I never thought I'd sell a fondue cookbook," says Jarvits, "but when I opened the store, it was one of the first requests I got."
John Biklen, a Pomona cookbook dealer, predicts diet cookbooks will become highly sought after. "It's the least collectible thing right now. Yet it's an area that has radically changed." Goodbye Adelle Davis, hello Rosie Daley.
With all the interest in collecting cookbooks, many dealers are now focusing on current authors, attempting to predict who will become the next Charles Ranhofer (the former Delmonico's chef who wrote "The Epicurean," published in 1894) or Irma Rombauer ("The Joy of Cooking," published in 1931). David Strymish, president and co-founder of the cookbook catalogue Jessica's Biscuit, buys huge quantities of remainders--cookbooks that didn't sell for various reasons--and stores them in a warehouse. He's waiting for the books to be rediscovered and become hot sellers.
"We do see fabulous cookbooks that grow steadily over time," says Catherine Van Orman, who buys books for Massachusetts-based Jessica's Biscuit. "For instance, when Paula Wolfert's couscous book ("Couscous and Other Good Food From Morocco") came out, it was met with instant acclaim within a small world of food experts, but not by the general cooking public. Her 'World of Food' was remaindered too. But now she's known across the board, and her books are immediately valued. They no longer get remaindered. People like her can go through a hot cycle if they live long enough."
Marion Cunningham was another author Jessica's Biscuit was quick to cash in on. "She's got two new books coming out next year, yet her 'Supper' book was remaindered four months ago," says Van Orman. "We knew how good it was and bought as many copies as we could."