Confessions on the Subject of Books

I know that I have already done a post on the subject of Kitchen Confessions, but I suspect that I hardly owned up to half of my oddities, questionable habits, strange tastes, shameful secrets and bizarro beliefs in the realm of all things culinary.

And while, in that post, I did touch upon the fact that I rarely cook directly from a cookbook (meaning, that I cook the recipe as written without changing anything) and when I do there are usually semi-disasterous consequences, I really only touched the surface of my peculiarities involving books.

So, here I am, entering the confessional once more.

I am almost compulsive when it comes to collecting books.

I have a huge number of books, on a great many topics, and I find it hard to get rid of them once I read them. Instead of getting rid of them, I tend to hold onto them, forming a personal reference library that rivals most people’s I know.

However, I did do the unthinkable, before we moved into this house, and went through our books, including my cookbooks, and got rid of a huge number of them–about eighteen large boxes full in all ended up at Half-Price Books, along with about eight boxes of assorted CD’s, DVD’s and videotapes.

But even after being weeded out, I have so many books that a friend once said as she looked at our living room after we had started packing, and said, “Without books, your house looks barren–they are a major decorative theme in your house.”

Did this process of finally going through my books and ridding myself of the dross stop me from purchasing more books after we moved?

Not at all. If anything, it has only encouraged my bad habits, as it means I have more room for more books.

No–just yesterday, I received two used books, both on subjects culinary, though neither were cookbooks: one was an anthology on the subject of Chinese food in North America, and the other was a food history book. Then, after lunch downtown, I picked up a bargain book at a bookstore–a biography of T. E. Lawrence–one of my own personal heroes of the past. (I note that just so y’all know that I don’t just read about food. If I did just read about food, I would be worried that I suffered from obsessive compulsive disorder, which I don’t think I do, though some of my past posts, on the subjects of spices and beans might give steadfast readers ideas to the contrary.)

What do I do with all of these books, one might ask?

Well, the short, rather obvious answer is that I read them.

And I do read them.

Well, most of them, I do read. Some, I skim. Others I pick through, because they are reference books, and some, I am ashamed to say, have only received a cursory glance, because they are part of a completist’s collection, and contain very little new information. (There are quite a few of those in the Chinese cookbook collection, but not too many.)

As for the cookbooks–if I cook from very few of them, why are they there?

That is a great question, and one which I do have an answer for.

The short, rather snippy answer is that I read them, which, again, I do, but that is hardly a complete explanation of their pride of place in my kitchen.

I may not cook from them directly, in the ideal sense of following a recipe from beginning to end unchanged, but I do gain a great deal of inspiration from them. I learn from them–if not specific recipes, techniques and ways of doing things that I cannot easily learn in any other way.

For example, I taught myself many years ago how to decorate cakes by reading books on the subject over and over, until by the time I picked up a decorating bag filled with icing, I was already able to see the motions I needed to do with my hands in my head. This meant that I began turning out beautifully piped garlands and flowers much sooner than most people, even though I had never taken a class in the subject.

I also use my cookbooks to help me teach others how to cook.

Seeing how others explain a technique or recipe or bit of food history in prose has given me a better ability to communicate my skills to others in a classroom setting. Julia Child’s obsessive grasp of detail and the ability to write about a subject so thoroughly has infinately helped me teach the complexities of Chinese food to students, even though she was writing about French food. It is from her that I learned the value of being conversational and approachable in my writing and speaking, but to also be fluent in noticing details of how food should look, taste, feel and smell so that I can give students these pointers to understanding whatever technique I am teaching. (Even though I cook very little Italian food, Marcella Hazan’s very detailed and witty explanations of how things are done have similarly helped me in teaching Asian cuisines to non-Asians.)

In a less rational and sensible way, however, the cookbooks are my friends. They contain the voices of authors whom I may have never met (though I gazed once upon Julia Child from afar and cooked something that she herself ingested while I was in culinary school), but who, through their prose, have become close to me, and meaningful to my kitchen journeys. I feel somewhat better, just knowing that behind me, in the bookcase on the wall, Julia Child is there, watching me work at the stove, and that Grace Zia Chu’s words are just a few paces from my fingertips. They are my muses, my angels, my saintly guardians of the temple which is my kitchen.

I think that is part of why cookbooks in particular are difficult for me to let go of. They represent the collected knowledge of whole cultures and families, and to turn my head away from that seems like a rejection of values that I find most akin to mine–values of hospitality, sharing, fellowship and love.

I have to confess to having nearly as many food-related non-cookbooks as I have cookbooks, and I value them just as much, or perhaps even more than my cookbooks. These take the form of food memoirs, food histories, sociology, women’s history, agricultural histories, socio-political treatises, food politics, and agricultural techniques, and plain old essays on the joys of cookery, eating, food and drink.

The shelves that house this portion of my book collection are overstuffed and sagging, and I have read many more of these tomes than I have reviewed here in my blog.

And this is where I come to another confession: I keep meaning to write more book reviews, and I keep ending up not doing it.


I am not entirely certain, though it probably has to do with the rather unfocused nature of Tigers & Strawberries. It is a food blog, to be certain, but because of my own eclectic magpie personality (meaning, I like bits and pieces of everything and get caught up in whatever interests me at the moment, and thus that is what I will write about), there is no real focus on what it is all about. I mean, sure I mostly cook Asian foods, so there is an obvious slant in that direction, as I post about various recipes and cookbooks related to Chinese food, with forays now and again into Japanese, Thai and Indian cuisines.

But it isn’t just about Asian food, because just when I have gone a couple of weeks of posting about nothing other than Chinese food, I turn around and write about Shepherd’s Pie and chocolate chip cookies. It isn’t just about recipes, because I write about books. It isn’t just about sustainable or organic food, because then I will write about food additives. It isn’t just about food news or reviews, because then, I will turn around and write about foraging wild foods or specific ingredients or spices.

I suppose that like my book collection, which is wide-ranging and eclectic in nature, so my blog is a reflection of my own self. I am interested in everything, so everything ends up on my bookshelves and in my blog.

I guess that is fine–I will keep collecting books, and post about them here and there, when I get around to it. I will keep reading and writing and let my kitchen angels in the form of cookbooks watch my back while I go about my culinary adventures, and hopefully, it will all be as interesting to others as it is to me.

That said–has anyone read any good cookbooks lately?

I have a few spaces left on my new shelves….


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  1. Barbara:

    I’m a librarian and a compulsive bibliophile, and I’ve given up on decorating in anything other than Book. I’m currently lugging about 2.5K books around with me, which makes me reluctant to move again unless it is into my own house.

    Cookbooks. I don’t use many. My favourite food-related book at the moment is My Year of Meats by Ruth L. Ozeki. It’s fiction, but fascinating.

    Comment by Kris — November 15, 2005 #

  2. I was totally intrigued by your cookbook confessions. I also find that I don’t always cook from the books, but I do learn from them and am sure that during my routine cooking I use something of what I read without thinking about it.

    Comment by Sylvie — November 15, 2005 #

  3. Hello again, Kris–good to see you hear again! I have no idea how many books I have total–but at one point, the cookbooks/food books/food references were coming in around 400-600 titles.

    That isn’t even counting my history books, women’s studies, fortean studies, spirituality, fiction, art, and Asian studies books. Nor is it taking into account Zak’s or Morganna’s books. I would be scared to know a total.

    Maybe it is something that man was not meant to know.

    Sylvie–good to see you here, too–I like that you use Ziggy as your icon!

    I am sure that your reading has informed your cookery–it is inevitable. All that we read is stored in our subconscious mind, whether we consciously remember it or not. And I don’t know about you, but when I cook, I sometimes move into a zone where there is no thought, only doing–only action. My conscious mind is focused, but blank, and there is only the flow and movement of my body as it manipulates ingredients and works the utensils. At times like that–which are very meditative and quite Zen, I suspect that my subconscious mind guides my hands more often than not.

    Perhaps much is the same for you.

    Comment by Barbara Fisher — November 15, 2005 #

  4. This compulsive book thing may be endemic to cooking bloggers. I’ve currently got 13 bookcases stuffed with books not counting the short bookcase I have for cookbooks.

    Before we moved in May, I ditched 13 shopping bags of cruft to various charities and bookstores. I have two bags I haven’t gotten rid of yet that are sitting in the closet.

    Now I can point to this entry and prove to my wife I’m not alone in this obsesion.

    Comment by — November 18, 2005 #

  5. It might not just be food bloggers–but bloggers in general who are well-read to the point of obsession, Barrette.

    I do come from a long line of bibliophiles, however–my father’s family were all avid readers, as is my Mom’s younger brother. Books are always good gifts for our family–it is something that pleases us all.

    And the best way to spend an afternoon for many of us is a long browse in a bookstore or used bookstore.

    We all have shelves overflowing and read several books at a time–I really do think it is genetic. My daughter is the same way, too.

    But yes–feel free to point The Redhead here–so she can know you are not the only book-loving freak in the world!

    Comment by Barbara Fisher — November 18, 2005 #

  6. I don’t think it’s possible to have too many books, only too little space for the books you have. My dream home would have bookshelves in every available space.

    Having said that, I should also say that for the past three years I’ve lived a block away from a public library and have been borrowing cookbooks from it regularly. This is a blessing and a curse. A blessing because I save money and space (well, at this point there is no more space, but anyway). A curse because sometimes I want a recipe from a book I no longer have on hand.

    As for good books I’ve read lately, right now I have the Zuni Cafe Cookbook out of the library (for the 2nd or 3rd time) and I think it’s really great though I have only made one or two things out of it. I want to make her short ribs braised in Chimay ale.

    Comment by mzn — November 18, 2005 #

  7. My dream house would probably have built in bookshelves everywhere!

    When I was in high school, I used to go to the library twice a week, and much of what I checked out were cookbooks. I didn’t cook out of most of them–most of them, I read. I wouldn’t have been allowed to cook out of most of them–nor could I have found the ingredients–they were usually Asian or European and required things that our grocery stores would never have heard of.

    Now, of course, things are different, even in West Virginia. There are ethnic ingredients in all the Krogers stores and ethnic markets in the larger cities.

    That Chimay ale braise sounds really good.

    Comment by Barbara Fisher — November 18, 2005 #

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