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a home + living guide for the post-college, pre-parenthood, quasi-adult generation

09.17.2001

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why i collect cookbooks
by Alice Dick | 1 2 3
continued from page 1

Then, on a trip to England in my last year of medical school, I found a battered copy of Claudia Rodenís A Book of Middle Eastern Food in the house where I was a boarder. Roden is a Sephardic Jew from Cairo who emigrated to England as a teenager, and has made it her lifeís work to compile as complete a collection as possible of dishes from all over the Middle East. The Book of Middle Eastern Food gave me a new reason to keep reading and collecting cookbooks, as I learned that the cuisine of a country or region could offer many clues to its background and history. Rodenís book, far from offering only recipes, contains a wealth of detailed information about the various countries, ethnicities and religious groups that exist in this part of the world. Its highlight is her explanation of how these varied cultures have interacted and combined through their national dishes, many of which are claimed by more than one country; theyíve been adopted and passed around so thoroughly that itís hard to tell where they originated. I learned more about the Middle East from reading this book than I had in a lifetime of watching the news or reading the paper. For the first time I saw that this part of the world is made up of people who take joy in living, eating, drinking, and family life, that itís not just a collection of bombings and war zones. As luck would have it, the revised edition had just been published in paperback and was readily available; I headed to Londonís nearest big bookstore and promptly bought one.

After reading some of Laurie Colwinís essays in my motherís copy of Gourmet magazine, I lucked onto her two cookbooks, Home Cooking and More Home Cooking. These, I saw at once, were the cookbooks to end all cookbooks. Seventy-five percent essay to twenty-five percent recipes, theyíre the ultimate in relaxing reading about food. Moreover, the essays provide as much inspiration as the recipes, as theyíre full of casually mentioned cooking ideas that encourage the reader to go out and experiment. In a chapter about corn, for example, she mentions corn salad made with "cooked or uncooked corn, chopped roasted red peppers, string beans, and plenty of dressing heavy on garlic and lemon juice." No proportions given. Interest piqued, I decided to give it a try, realizing that any combination I came up with would probably be okay; it was so astoundingly delicious that itís now become my summer specialty.

Laurie Colwinís writing completely changed not only the way I cook, but also the contents of my cookbook collection. I noticed that in her essays she frequently mentioned her cookbook reference shelf, the contents of which were described as out-of-print books, some at least sixty years old. This alerted me to the existence of vintage cookbooks. At about this time I had moved to Los Angeles, and one day an article in the food section of the L.A. Times mentioned the cityís public library as a wonderful source of old cookbooks, many of which are no longer in print. 

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