As useful as the Internet can be for digging up obscure recipes or providing instant explanations of ingredients you've never heard of, cookbooks retain a special place in our hearts and on our shelves. "What you can find online is remarkable, but it's not the same as that well-loved, actual physical book that you have on your bookshelf in your apartment in Brooklyn, and before that Los Angeles, and before that, San Francisco," says Saveur editor-in-chief James Oseland. And as a cookbook lover who recently had to slash his own collection of nearly 1,000 books down by 70 percent, Oseland would certainly know.
Maybe you're a stalwart for cooking in a more "analog" fashion, preferring to reach for a bound collection of recipes and all those pages to thumb through, or perhaps you regard your library's contents more as historical relics revealing our shifting culinary trends through the years. Whatever the situation, your growing collection might benefit from some organizational help. Below, we queried three experts from various corners of the food industry: a librarian, an editor and a chef, on their own tried and true methods.
James Oseland, Editor in Chief, Saveur Magazine
Real estate constraits:
I moved recently and had to purge my collection — several hundreds — by about 60 or 70-percent. I now have a finite amount of bookshelf real estate, so the books I have now are a very truncated version of the collection that once was. It's probably about 150 to 200 books, versus four or five times that many.
Tried and true:
My categorization is the same as it's been for decades — it's by region, which isn't so different from what you'd see at Barnes & Noble. Books are cordoned off by country, not necessarily by author. Then I also have a section dedicated to food writing, or food-non-fiction, that's not a cookbook. Then I have another category for the big compendiums, like The Joy of Cooking, the New York Times cookbooks. They all go into one slot. Then there's also another category of go-to books by two favorite authors, all clumped together: James Beard and Elizabeth David.
America is one big category. For me it's ok to have the first Alice Waters Chez Panisse right next to the Sylvia's soul food cookbook. It makes sense to me as a cook, and there's something perversely satisfying about recalling the lines I draw between the two of them.
The editing-down process:
As far as the act of purging goes, one has to try to disentangle one's emotions from the process — except that goes against everything you stand for as a cookbook lover and bibliophile, myself included. So I say, go with God!"
Marvin Taylor, Director of the Fales Library & Special Collections at New York University
At the library, where there are more than 55,000 printed cookbooks:
We use the Library of Congress classification system, which is basically organized by subject. Interestingly, however, when the system was established, food was not a major topic of interest, so the schema is pretty weak and focuses on home economics. Given the current understanding about food, the schema would look very different if it were created today.
Cookbook storage at home:
I have about 100 cookbooks. My cookbooks are kept in a special bookshelf in my dining room. They're arranged by subject, with general cookbooks first. Then they're arranged by cuisine or cooking method, i.e. all the Italian cookbooks are together arranged by author. Following that, you find baking arranged by author, braising arranged by author, etc. What can I say? I'm a librarian.
Protect and preserve:
Don't put your cookbooks in the kitchen. The heat, oil, smoke and humidity ruins them. Find another place to store there where it is easy to access them an easy for you to peruse them, such as a dining room table. Take the book to the kitchen when you need it and reshelve it once the dish has been prepared. I'm a bit fastidious about my kitchen. I clean as I go, so there's not a huge pile of dishes to do at the end of the night. I guess all this comes from having lived in a New York apartment for so many years.
Mary Sue Milliken, Co-Chef/Owner Border Grill Restaurants, Los Angeles
Milliken's home library:
I have about 375 cookbooks at work, and another couple hundred at home — almost 200. I've probably purged several hundred also. I've been collecting them ever since I started cooking. I remember finding Ruth Reichl's first cookbook and it was hysterical — a snapshot of those hippy commune days from the '60s and '70s. She was like, a total hippy!
Topics and what's trending:
My husband's an architect, and when we designed our new kitchen — I have a pantry/office space just off my kitchen in the back, like another little kitchen — we put shelves above the cabinets. They're 36 inches across and 18 inches tall, and I have six or seven of them. I organize by topic. I'm really interested in seafood, for example, so I have seafood books all together. And books by same chefs tend to get lumped together. It's a loose organization.
It's like clothes: if you haven't worn or used it in a few years — let's say five years — it's time to go. Or books that just don't stand the test of time, because they're not evergreen, or simply because trends change. The Italian cooking of the '80s is so different from the Italian cooking now. Or even Thai recipes. Older Thai cookbooks are so limited in their scope because you couldn't get those ingredients. So they were once written in a way that recognized that."
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