A small portion of my cookbook library, including most of the Asian cookbooks.

And so, Steph over at Da*xiang tapped me with this meme about cookbooks that seems to be floating about the food blogosphere, and like the good sport that I am, I decided to answer the questions, and in fact, even post a picture so folks could have visual proof about how obsessed I really am!

So, here goes nothing:

1. Total number of (cook) books I’ve owned:

Are you ready? Are you sure? Do you really want an answer to this question? Positive?

Okay, here goes. Sit down and take a deep breath, in through the nose, and let it out, slowly through the mouth.

Currently, at this moment, I own 403 books on subjects related to food. These include cookbooks, reference books, textbooks, and non-fiction books with essays on the subject of food and cookery. There are books on the history of food, nutritiuon, and books on all aspects of food preparation including preservation, brewery, fermentation, cheesemaking and winemaking. There are rare, out of print tomes and oddities of historical value, along with reprints of historically significant works.

In the recent past, that number probably was closer to 450 books. Just before moving, I weeded out the books I decided were not useful to me. Let us just say that Half-Price Books is my friend and ally.

Since I collect cookbooks on Chinese cuisine in English, particularly rare titles, those of historical significance and those which are out of print, the total number of cookbooks I own is constantly going up, not down.

I did not count any of the several file boxes worth of back issues of Fine Cooking Magazine, Cook’s Illustrated, Eating Well Magazine, Chocolatier, Vegetarian Times, Chile Pepper Magazine or any other magazines having to do with food. I have no idea how many of those I own.

Here is a photograph of one of the bookshelves of my books, showing most of my collection of Chinese and other Asian cookbooks.

Last (cook) book I bought:

I am giving two answers here, one for an out of print/used cookbook and one for a cookbook that I bought new.

The out of print book I most recently aquired would be Classic Deem Sum: Recipes from Yang Sing Restaurant, San Francisco by Henry Chan, Yukiko Haydock and Bob Haydock, published by Holt, Rinehart and Winston in 1985. The photographs and recipes for dim sum in this book are excellent, and I am amazed to see how much lard is mentioned as going into these delectable snacks. More recent books on the subject tend to downplay the role of lard in making dim sum specialities which are moist, rich and delicious.

The most recently purchased new cookbook would be one I just ordered from Amazon yesterday: American Farmstead Cheese: The Complete Guide to Making and Selling Artisan Cheeses by Paul Kindell et al. As I have not read it yet, I cannot really comment upon it, but I do hope it gives good instruction for making cheese as I want to try my hand at it.

Last (food) book I read:

I take it this means last non-cookbook food book I have read. That would be Best Food Writing 2004 edited by Holy Hughes. I enjoyed this book greatly, even if the editor decided she needed to take a cheap shot in her introduction at all the food bloggers who write not for money, but for the sheer joy of it. I particularly enjoyed Paul Bertolli’s essay, “Cooking is Always Trouble,” John Thorne’s “Conflicted About Casseroles.”

Five (cook) books that mean a lot to me:

Allright, here there will be two answers as well. I will give answers for cookbooks, and then books about food that are not cookbooks, but relate to cooking in some way. These are not in order of importance, rather, they are listed chronologically–in the order in which I encountered them.

The Cookbooks:

Mediterranean Cooking by Paula Wolfert–This was the first cookbook I ever bought for myself, (I was thirteen) and it introduced me to the wonderous world of fruity olive oil, tart lemons, ripe Roma tomatoes, anchovies and lots and lots of garlic. For a girl who grew up on hearty, but not overly seasoned farm fare and Appalachian cookery, this book was a key to an entirely different realm of flavors. Wolfert’s evocative prose led me towards the ideal of seeing food not only as bodily sustainence, but as a transmitter of human culture. The original book is out of print; Wolfert came out with a revised edition in 1994 which replaces many of the richer recipes with more low-fat versions that represent the “healthier” cooking styles of the region.

I prefer the original text, but then, I am biased being that it is my very first cookbook.

Alice’s Restaurant Cookbook by Alice May Brock–Yes, it is a cookbook written by that famous Alice from that famous song by Arlo Guthrie. I came across it when I first went to college back in the fall of 1983, in the stacks of the library at Marshall University. I checked the book out and kept it checked out for months. It became a touchstone for me, not because Alice’s recipes were so good, but because I loved the way she wrote and her philosophy of the kitchen, which is essentially this: cooking is love on a plate, and should be fun and playful as well as taste good. My favorite quote from the book, which is the entire text of chapter ten, which is entitled “Foreign Cookery,” is this:

“Don’t be intimidated by foreign cookery. Tomatoes and oregano make it Italian; wine and tarragon make it French. Sour cream makes it Russian; lemon and cinnamon make it Greek. Soy sauce makes it Chinese; garlic makes it good. Now you are an International Cook.”

Alice gave me the guts to just jump in and cook, even if I thought I didn’t know what I was doing. She taught me that sometimes bravado is more important than knowledge, and I am happy to have since found out that none other than Julia Child agreed with her. Though it is out of print, I am happy to say that you can pretty easily find copies of this book on Amazon used for a not too high price. Included in the back on a floppy bit of vinyl, is a recorded introduction by Arlo; mine has the little “record” intact, but I have never listened to it, being as I don’t have an old-fashioned turntable with a needle anymore.

An Invitation to Indian Cooking by Madhur Jaffrey–I first encountered this book at the public library in Huntington, West Virginia, and even though I had never tasted Indian food in my life, reading this book helped me get up the gumption to cook it anyway. The first dish I cooked following Madhur’s instructions was rogan gosht. I had no idea if I did it right, being as I had never tasted the dish in my life, but the result tasted fine to me, and my friends all ate it up with great glee and gusto, so I guessed that I did it right. Later on, I bought my own copy of it, and have cooked many dishes from its pages with great success. This one is still in print, with its orginal text intact.

It Rains Fishes: Legends, Traditions and the Joys of Thai Cooking by Kasma Loha-Unchit–I have lots of Thai cookbooks, and this is my favorite. Many have more recipes, but none of them capture the culture of Thai’s cooking traditions the way Kasma does. Illustrated with charming watercolor paintings, the text not only describes in full detail how to cook authentically Thai foods, it places these foods within their cultural context through the use of mythology, personal stories and folklore. The writing is very clear, but also poetically rendered, such that I imagine that Kasma is standing next to me, telling these stories as we cook together in a kitchen filled with the floral scent of lime leaves, the sharp pungency of shrimp paste and the sweet aroma of freshly grated coconut.

Land of Plenty by Fuchsia Dunlop–I have praised this book more than once in my blog, but I have to do it one more time. Fuchsia transcribed the flavors I held close in memory of Huy’s kitchen, and put them down in words that I could follow. Between her clear instruction and my memory for flavors, I have been able to recreate dishes that I often only tasted once at Huy’s table, and this is a gift beyond price to me. The dishes he cooked for us after hours–those are the essence to comfort for me now, because he did this for me at a time when I felt as if I was alone in all the world. I don’t know if he will ever understand how important that was to me then, but it was. And this book makes all of those memories come to life and dance on my tongue again.

Non-Cookbook Food Books

Larousse Gastronomique edited by Jenifer Harvey Lang–This should come as no surprise. It should also come as no surprise that I read about it in childhood, terribly distraught that I could not find a copy of it in West Virginia. I read copies of this encyclopedia of the culinary arts in college, however, in the reference section of the library, and later, right before going to culinary school, I bought my very own copy and read it cover to cover in a week. Yes, a week. Yes, I read fast. Yes, I am obsessed.

On Food and Cooking by Harold McGee–This book I read years before culinary school, when I first lived in Athens, Ohio. I had gone back to college to finish my degree, and found it in the cookbook section and proceeded to keep it checked out for a couple of months while I read it cover to cover two or three times. When I found a copy of it in a bookstore, I snatched it up. I recently replaced that dogeared copy with the new revised edition that just came out last year. This book completely explains the science behind cookery has probably been the most influential food book upon my psyche ever–even more so than Larousse. My cooking improved drastically once I began to grasp the physics and chemistry that are the basis of all culinary expression. Understanding these processes has also made me a better cooking teacher. I owe a lot to McGee.

Why We Eat What We Eat by Raymond Sokolov–This book is in part, a history describing the impact of the discovery of the foods of the New World had upon the cuisines of the earth. Sokolov’s thesis is that every cuisine around the globe was fundamentally changed with the discovery of the foodstuffs of the New World, and that once the culinary borrowing and trading back and forth between cultures on either side of the Atlantic began, the foods we recognize in our modern world began to develop. Chile peppers, potatoes, tomatoes, pumpkins and various squash, turkeys, wild rice, and cranberries are just some of the foods he discusses in this book that happened to get me into a spot of trouble in culinary school when I contradicted a chef who was trying to tell the class that potatoes were native to Ireland.

Of course, they are not–they are native to Peru, which I already happened to know, but it was fresh on my mind, because I had been in the midst of reading this book. To make a long story short–the chef did apologize to me the next day and he praised me for correcting him, though he apparently lost face in front of a few other chefs in the process. Ooops.

Perfection Salad and Something from the Oven by Laura Shapiro–These books are social histories on the subjects of food and women in the United States. The first book tells what could be an irritatingly boring story of the development of home economics as a profession and the rise of nutrition as an academic subject from the latter part of the nineteenth century through the middle of the twentieth. The second book picks up the tale in the 1950’s and shows how the rising status of women and technological advances in home appliances and food marketing began a revolution at the dinner table.

Both books are so well researched that they should be dry, dull and pedantic, but because Shapiro is such a facile and engaging writer, they read less like a textbook and more like a novel. They are full of characters, personalities and wit, unlike most social histories, and are not to be missed.

Which 5 people would you most like to see fill this out in their blog?

Dagmar at A Cat in the Kitchen
Alan at The Impetuous Epicure
Zarah Maria at Food and Thoughts
And Foodgoat and Ladygoat at Food Goat

Tag, folks, you’re it!


RSS feed for comments on this post.

  1. Barbara, this was a fascinating read, and now I have a few titles to add to my growing collection of cookbooks and books about food.


    Comment by Kris — June 8, 2005 #

  2. Hello, Kris! Glad you liked the entry–I am thinking I should probably feature one food book a month or week or something, since I have so many good ones that maybe more people would read if they were suggested to them by someone whose taste they trusted.

    Hrm. Mayhap I should do that. I had started writing a reasonable number of book reviews, then got away from it.

    Hrm. Mayhap I will.

    Comment by Barbara Fisher — June 8, 2005 #

  3. Wow Barbara, that is A LOT of books! You are the reason I had to get Harold McGee with my last order from Amazon, you made it sound like a book one just could not live without. I do love it, I haven’t gotten through that much of it yet though, what with exams and everything – which bring me back to you tagging me: I’ll do it as soon as my exam is over, I can’t wait to re-visit all of my books after the last month’s general neglect…

    Comment by Zarah Maria — June 8, 2005 #

  4. Oh no… not me 🙂

    Great post! My humble collection is nothing compared to yours… But I’ll try to write something anyway 🙂

    Comment by Dagmar — June 8, 2005 #

  5. Zarah, good luck with exams!

    I am glad that you are enjoying McGee–he is a hell of a read. Have fun with it!

    Dagmar–I’ve been collecting for years and years, with an eye toward building a library. It is just proof that I am obsessive, but at least, I like to think, in a good way!

    I look forward to hearing about your books.

    Comment by Barbara Fisher — June 8, 2005 #

  6. Hi,

    This is my first visit to your blog and I’ll be checking your site often now. I am so glad I have finally met someone with a lot of cookbooks. I’m always embarrassed to say that I own over 350 cookbooks or books on food and eating.

    I am finding this post most interesting and will be checking eBay and the Los Angeles Public Library for a few titles you have mentioned.

    I can’t wait to read more of your ideas about the art of eating.


    Comment by Terila — June 12, 2005 #

  7. Hello, Teri–nice to meet you!

    I am not embarrassed by the number of cookbooks I own, well, not too much, really. Part if it is because I do culinary instruction as a profession and partly because education and knowledge are never wasted.

    I’ll be writing more in the next few weeks on a variety of topics–stay tuned!

    Comment by Barbara Fisher — June 12, 2005 #

  8. Very nice work on your blog, It was fun to read! I am still not done reading everything, but I bookmarked you! I really like reading about culinary school and I even have an culinary school secrets blog if you want some more content to discuss.

    Comment by sarah — September 12, 2005 #

  9. i really don’t know how many cookbooks and food writing books I own as I just sold quite a few that I
    rarely or never used. I also own the same thai cookbook as you, and I too think it’s lovely. Laurie Colwin makes me happy too. So does Nicholas Freeling, so does the Penguin Companion of Food. You have created a great site.

    Comment by Marjorie — March 11, 2006 #

  10. Thank you, Marjorie–I am glad that you enjoy Tigers & Strawberries. I hope you come back again.

    Comment by Barbara — March 12, 2006 #

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