Tuesday, November 23, 2010

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My Culinary Library: What Good Does It Do?

[I intended to call this post Julia Child, Dorie Greenspan, and the Coke Fiend in my Bed, but then decided it would be disrespectful to Ms. Greenspan, to the memory of Ms. Child, and to whomever is in my bed. The story has those elements, but it’s about how I use — and want others to use — my culinary library. So. Boring title rather than the titillating one.]

 * * * 

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.

I also had cookbooks. Thousands of them. And not just cookbooks, but bartending guides, ice cream manuals, corporate histories of food and drinks companies, biographies, sausage making texts, and many more. The books were in English, French, German, Spanish, and Dutch and spanned three centuries. I used them every single day for research. In the decade we spent in Philly, I nearly doubled the size of my culinary library. For much of that time, though, I didn’t allow anyone else to use the books — as I mentioned, it was my library. That changed, though, when I met fellow collector Chef Fritz Blank and when someone made off with my copy of Baking with Julia.

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.
On the other hand, the library would be useful to others in the field. Why should I be the only one allowed to use it? Despite my smoldering resentment at the thief (I never replaced the book, just so I can squint my eyes and seethe a little every time I see a copy), I realized that I could open my library to others without losing books. Well, not likely lose them, anyway.

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 once helped a chef rejigger her churros recipe by letting her compare recipes in a dozen books. As thanks, she assured me that I could come to her restaurant as often as I liked for free churros and chocolate. Another time, a meat curer came to research sausage recipes and ended up with ham cures he didn’t know he had wanted. More than one distiller has come to use the English and German distilling handbooks on my shelves.

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
Libraries ought to be used. If you have one, even if it’s not as large as mine, let others use it. In my experience, they’re not likely to take advantage of you, steal your books, rip out pages, or use bacon as bookmarks (talk to public library librarians sometime about what they find as bookmarks and take appropriate cautions). Set reasonable rules about what users may and may not do with the books and be clear about what those rules are. You will help others, you will earn new friends, and if you’re as interested in your subject matter as much as I am in mine, you will learn as much from your guests as they learn from you.

I may no longer be a curator, but I still think like one.


Liz Williams said...

Sharing your library is an important thing, Matt. You are doing a good thing and I am glad that it also gives you pleasure.

Matthew Rowley said...

Thanks, Liz ~ I'm not quite ready to do as Fritz or Louis Szathmary did and give away the books to a deserving institution, but that's probably the ultimate destination. The Southern Food and Beverage Museum probably has all the Southern titles I have, but if someone wanted to send books your way, is SOFAB still accepting book donations? If so, what are you looking for and where should they be sent?