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In the final days of the last century we had a home in Philadelphia. It was a little three-story house in Bella Vista, a neighborhood that included the city’s bustling Italian Market. Eventually, I came to work in the market, but before then when I was a museum curator, I was a regular at the shops, buying cheeses, fresh bread, olive oils, charcuterie, and all sorts of kitchen equipment that I use to this day. Food and cooking were a big part of my life.
Baking with Julia was a gift. As such, it held additional importance to me beyond its utilitarian use. Written by Dorie Greenspan, it was an offshoot of a Julia Child-hosted PBS series. Its well-crafted recipes for savory and sweet breads, pastries, flatbreads, pies, tarts, cakes, and the like kept me company for a few weeks one summer: I kept it on a nightstand for reading at night and toted it to the kitchen in the morning. It was, in short, a keeper.
Until it disappeared, that is. We’d driven to Montreal for a week or so and came back to find the book wasn’t where I’d been putting it. Looked around. Nope. Not anywhere. Gone. When I asked if he’d seen it, our houseguest mentioned that he’d had a friend over one night while we were away. This friend, he explained, had slept in our bed and was a bit of an amateur baker.
|Yes, it's bad to store books this way|
I went to change the sheets and found a black plastic straw under a pillow. It had been cut down to about 2 inches, one end dusted in a white residue.
Fantastic. A stranger in my bed, snorting cocaine, and poaching my library. The humorist in me mused “You can only have two of the three, Rowley” but the truth is, I wasn’t amused by any of it. Bastard probably snorted the coke right off the book’s cover. Poor Julia.
My cocaine-dusted Baking with Julia had been a gift from Blank, the chef I mentioned. Before he retired, he was owner of a high-end French restaurant in Center City named Deux Cheminées. At 10,000 volumes, his culinary collection was certainly larger than mine. In fact, his massive library made the 2,000 books in my own home seem…not the least bit crazy. It seemed to reflect the perfectly reasonable efforts of a connoisseur, not a lunatic hoarder. There was an important difference, though: while I kept my books to myself for research and pleasure, anyone who knew about it could ask to study in the dark quiet library on the second floor of his restaurant.
His openness got me thinking about my own miserly — and typical — approach to book collecting. The thief made me want to lock away my own library and keep it from anyone other than my family and me. I hated that fucker. People, clearly, were not to be trusted. Even friends with the best intentions had occasionally forgotten to return books I’d let them borrow.
|What's behind those books? Oh. More damned books.|
The thief brought into sharp focus how I want my library to be used. First and foremost, it’s my collection. I use it at all hours of day and night for myself. As far as I know, it’s the most extensive culinary library — private or public — in San Diego.
Secondly, though, I want others to use it. For the last ten years, I’ve let chefs, cooks, writers, historians, graduate students, journalists, culinary students, bartenders, charcutiers, and others come to my home and research whatever it is that interests them. No one may borrow books (remember — even friends, best of intentions, and all that), but those in the business of food and drinks may pull up a chair, take notes, and find answers to questions they sometimes didn’t even realize they had.
I like this so much better than my earlier book-hoarding ways. By using the library here, researchers aren’t taking anything from me. It’s not like they’re using all my sugar or drinking down my whiskey (though both sometimes happen). My pleasure in my collection is not diminished by their use of it. In fact, it’s not uncommon for visitors to bring samples and gifts. I don’t demand or even expect it and I certainly don’t charge to use the library, but how nice is it to receive bottles of spirits made by the distiller standing in my living room? Likewise, a box of benne wafers, a loaf of rye bread, a few dozen Amalfi lemons, homemade sausages and cured meats, a box of homemade beers, or even books inscribed by their authors make me glad that I’m making new friends and helping others.
|French confiture books wrap around the case|
I may no longer be a curator, but I still think like one.