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Internet Feeds a Hunger for Cookbooks

First Person

July 24, 2000|RUSS PARSONS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

I don't need another cookbook. That is for sure. At this point, I've got several sets of bookshelves in my study filled with them--easily a couple of thousand. This is to be expected; I write about food for a living, and a good part of my job is searching through cookbooks for facts odd and obscure, and recipes from many different places.

But at a certain point, you would think I would have enough. My wife certainly does. She laid down the law recently: No more new cookbooks until I get rid of some of the old ones. This is fair, I suppose. But of course, it only applies to my work cookbooks. My pleasure cookbooks are another matter.

While my study is full of books that I need, there's a special bookcase in the heart of my house that is full of the cookbooks I want. Like I said, they are another matter. I'm a collector and that is the way we justify things.

I don't care whether you collect cars or coins or cookbooks, we're all brothers under the skin. Only the objects of our desire are different. The need for more is shared. It's probably something that is hard for others to understand.

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What makes everything worse is the Internet. As long as my book hunting was restricted to used book stores--places I had to visit physically--my natural laziness kept my need in check. Once a month at Acres of Books in Long Beach, occasional stops at Caravan Book Store downtown, the damage was limited. All it took to bring the seed of greed inside of me to full flower was a modem and a credit card.

Specificity is another thing about us collectors. The cookbooks I want--no, the cookbooks I must have--are old, but not so old as to be antique. Most of my collection was published after 1950. It would be easier to understand, I suppose, if I was collecting something rare and important. But I have neither the money nor the patience for that. I rarely spend more than $30 for a book, and while I am willing to wait months for the perfect volume, years are beyond my threshold.

Here's why I collect these books; it doesn't take a couch to analyze what's behind it. I collect books by authors who have been important to me. I collect them because I'm afraid if I don't, these books will go away.

The thing about cookbooks is that they are about as temporary as anything that's ever been published, outside of software manuals. Books are a business, and publishers have figured that cookbooks--even the most popular ones--will only sell a certain number. They keep print runs low, and as soon as a book begins to lose momentum, it gets put out to publishing pasture. Bam! As one chef might say.

Walk into almost any bookstore and 90% of the cookbooks have been published in the last two years. Most of them in the last six months. Cookbooks have a shelf life shorter than many of the ingredients they call for. You'll always be able to find the complete works of Shakespeare; Helen Evans Brown is harder.

I can't stand that. I know what work goes into a cookbook, and I know how rare a really good one is. That Brown's "The West Coast Cookbook" is almost unknown today is wrong. The same is true of the neglect of any number of other books, particularly those by Brown published in the '50s by Ward Ritchie Press. These are exquisite little things--collaborations of a fine writer and a fine bookmaker.

I probably have a dozen books in that collection that may be better than anything that will be published this year, and yet all of them are nearly unknown. Joseph Wechsberg's "Blue Trout and Black Truffles," Julian Street's "Table Topics," Marcel Rouff's "The Passionate Epicure," the great Ludwig Bemelman's "Bemelman at Table," and Sheila Hibbens' "American Regional Cookery." One can only sigh.

One of the subsets of my collection is signed first editions of the first books by the authors who formed me: Richard Olney's "Simple French Food," a slipcovered edition of M.F.K. Fisher's "Physiology of Taste," James Beard's "Hors d'Ouevres and Canapes," titles by Madeleine Kamman, Marcella Hazan and Julia Child.

There is something special about these first books, published when the writer was no more than a mixture of frustrated passion and a prayer. To hold them in your hand is to connect to raw potential. To the author's eternal hope. To the promise that every brilliant career started with this fragile bundle of wood pulp and dreams.

So you can see what kind of situation I'm in. To collect is to own, and to own is to want to own more. I have this, but I don't have that. I want that. I need that. It will fill out my collection! (The ultimate battle cry of the collector.)

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