California Forum

The dilemma of an overflowing cookbook collection: Sell, shred or build more shelves?

Cookbooks pack the floor-to-ceiling shelves across Elaine Corn’s living room, with one shelf devoted to Chinese books and another holding books signed by the authors.
Cookbooks pack the floor-to-ceiling shelves across Elaine Corn’s living room, with one shelf devoted to Chinese books and another holding books signed by the authors. Special to The Bee

My original cookbook collection doubled when I married a chef. The books occupy floor to ceiling shelves across 11 feet in the living room. An entire shelf is devoted to Chinese books, old, rare and new. Another shelf holds books signed by the authors – Julia Child, Jacques Pepin, Alice Medrich, MFK Fisher, Martin Yan, Paul Bocuse.

An interior decorator called the books my wallpaper. Texture.

There’s more in the bedrooms and on a shelf in the kitchen, easily more than 1,000.

Enough.

Eventually, too many cookbooks are like tools in a guy’s garage. At some point, some have to go.

Having too many cookbooks may not rise to the level of international crisis. But they carry emotional attachment, a timeline of a life in food, and when too numerous, an unexpected amount of stress.

Darrell Corti says he has about 1,000 just in his home (my guess is that’s a lowball number) and dozens more boxes of books, mostly about wine, stored at UC Davis. He expects many will end up in the California State Archives. He has never considered downsizing.

Neither has Ken Albala, professor of history at University of the Pacific who also teaches food history in San Francisco. He says eventually most everything will be digitized. Still, he’s surrounded physically by more than 1,000 books in a collection that keeps growing.

“Why would you want to part with a book?” he asks. Food policy goes here, food history goes there. Titles pile on the floor. “If I get more books I just build another bookshelf.”

Former Los Angeles Times food editor Russ Parsons acquired countless cookbooks over more than four decades in his career. Hot-off-the-press books arrived weekly. When Parsons left the Times, he’d amassed 1,500 to 2,000 cookbooks. Several months ago he wrote a story for The Washington Post about his attempt to cull his cache.

He managed to purge 400.

His system bore an uncanny resemblance to the methods described in Marie Kondi’s “The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up.” He kept what he wanted first. “There are books for research, books I cook out of, and books I collect as a book collector,” he told me. “You become attached to them as objects.”

If he hadn’t opened it in five years – gone. Then came a brutal culling of vanity cookbooks mostly ghostwritten for chefs. “They’re the bound equivalent of baseball caps.”

You don’t have to be a food editor to load a house from basement to attic with food literature and ephemera. Maryellen Burns, author of “The Lost Restaurants of Sacramento – and Their Recipes,” realizes almost to her dismay that it’s time to face the fate of more than 4,000 cookbooks. Some date to California’s early days. Some, admittedly, are unvetted junk.

Burns, who lectures to clutterers, still has the first cookbook her mother gave her on her 10th birthday, “Betty Crocker’s Cook Book for Boys and Girls.”

Depending on its condition, that book could be worth about $55.

Before you think you’ll get rich selling your cookbooks, you’ve got to have some exceptionally rare tomes and in excellent condition. At Omnivore Books in San Francisco, a copy of “Friends of the UCLA Library. A Taste of California” sold for $950. A scarce 1953 first edition of “The New Joy of Cooking,” with dust jacket intact and in such good condition that it’s doubtful its owner ever cooked or knew what it was for, sold for $200. An early 1964 “Mastering the Art of French Cooking” signed by Julia Child with “Bon Appetit!” above her signature, is listed at $1,200.

From Sacramento, “The Way to Cook Chinese Meal,” published in 1950 and entirely in Cantonese, was written by King Lee and his son, owners of the Rice Bowl restaurant, still in business in the Florin Square Shopping Center. It sold for $50 – to Darrell Corti.

Parsons now has a cookbook collection named in his honor at Long Beach main library. American River College in Sacramento has a similar plan for Corti’s books.

Brian Knirk, director of the Culinary Arts & Hospitality Management at American River College, says his department eagerly takes donations. He prefers contemporary cookbooks to keep student chefs current. “What we don’t want are 800 Bon Appetits, a bunch of Betty Crockers or spiral-bound church cookbooks.”

Those community club cookbooks may be of little use except to history buffs (and anyone who likes to bake sugar cookies), but they retain surprising value. They were the favorite finds of James Beard, who collected them with such passion they’re still on display in the front room at the James Beard House in New York City.

Used book dealers will pay you cash for books they think they can resell. But don’t get too excited. Julia Child went to thousands of events and signed perhaps nearly a million books. The plain signed ones are worth more than those inscribed with “for your wedding.” Its worth wouldn’t cover your monthly Netflix bill.

I haven’t decided what should stay and what should go. It’s not like having too many cars, but it is a lot like having too many shoes. I’ve got books I’ll never use again, didn’t like, have recipes that don’t work, or are outdated single-themed period pieces, like five books on pizza. All I need for pizza is one recipe for a good crust. It’s stashed in a notebook.

Most days, I cook without referring to a single recipe. I don’t need a recipe to marinate chicken, bake salmon or finish spaghetti sauce. I can make pork chops with apples, or risotto, garlic spinach, just about any soup from bean to borscht, enchiladas, lasagna, Indian curry and pie. I can make biscuits without looking and I suppose, if challenged, kung pao chicken.

I do need recipes to make Japanese, Thai, Indonesian, Basque, Spanish or Hungarian food, should the craving strike. The exactness of baking is mythologized, but of course desserts require some consultation from the experts. And I’d be dead if I had not obediently followed exact proportions and timings for canning and pickling.

If I were to suggest books to always have on hand, keep at least one of the Good Housekeeping variety. Mine is the “Settlement Cook Book.” I prefer it to “Joy of Cooking” because my eyes never adjusted to Joy’s graphics.

Those with a cookbook collection carefully chosen with a set of needs, those attached to sentimental moments, or are of ancestral importance have fewer crises when the time comes to toss. These are irreplaceable.

Or, as author Georgeanne Brennan of Winters says, you can leave them until you die and let your heirs figure out what to do with them.

They might choose the shredder.

Elaine Corn is an award-winning author and former food editor who also reported about food for public radio. She is founder of the Sacramento chapter of Les Dames d’Escoffier. She can be contacted at ElaineCornInForum@gmail.com.

What to do with your cookbooks?

If you think you’ve got a rare cookbook, check values at Omnivore Books in San Francisco, American Book Exchange, bibliofind.com or alibris.com. Easiest of all is to donate cookbooks to a public library, making their value tax deductible. When libraries stage book sales, cookbooks are among the best sellers.

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