Since Washingtonians like to think they take good books and good food seriously, this area would seem like a cookbook publishers' dream market. And since this is the peak time of year for the unveiling of new cookbooks, so cleverly timed for the holiday season, it shouldn't be hard to find an unusual cookbook to present to a loved one.
So here's the bad news. As any food fancier knows, bookstores traditionally give cookbooks short shrift, usually tucking them away in the back of the store and rarely giving them more than a few shelves to occupy.
The large chain and discount bookstores tend to focus solely on bestsellers and mainstream cookbooks, like the "Joy of Cooking," the Silver Palate books and Julia Child's greatest hits. The stores' appeal to novice cookbook buyers lies in the fact that they, like McDonald's, are cheap and have the same menu everywhere. Kitchenware stores like Williams-Sonoma and Kitchen Bazaar, and specialty markets like Sutton Place Gourmet, also offer mostly the newer, "hotter" gift books.
And that doesn't help a Santa with imagination.
But there are bookstores stores around the area, usually the independents, that are used to catering to unusual tastes, where the many people who have the basics can go to find an offbeat volume.
The people who have served everything by Craig Claiborne and Jacques Pe'pin are looking for books on food history, food science and food vocabulary that put their dinner in perspective. They want to read about recipes from this century and the last, descriptions of what Thomas Jefferson had on his table and the absurdist menus recommended in the 1932 "Futurist Cookbook," a book of tongue-in-cheek essays by Italian writer Filippo Marinetti.
What follows, then, is a list of some of the best places to go when you're looking for more than the usual suspects. These stores may not have the biggest selections, and may not be the only outlet for that odd book. But they usually do carry at least one volume you don't see anywhere else in this area, and they have a more civilized and eclectic atmosphere than the big book barns.
Bick's Books, 2309 18th St. NW, 202-328-2356 -- The cookbook section is small but stacked to the ceiling (some titles, like Patricia Quintana's "Feasts of Life," were uncomfortably out of reach), but the best bets were located at floor level, anyway. A paperback version of Alexandre Dumas' 1873 "Dictionary of Cuisine" was next to "The Joyce of Cooking," a look at the food in the works of James Joyce. There was also a guide to Asian noodles and a copy of Mary Laird Hamady's "Lebanese Mountain Cookery," a great book that isn't easy to find.
Borders Bookshop, 11500 Rockville Pike, Rockville, 301-816-1067 -- The best of the lot, this Washington branch of a national chain is spacious, well-lit and comfortable, even when it packs them in on the weekends. There's a whole wall devoted to wine and food, as well as another section devoted to diet and health. There are invariably several books in each category, whether it be Thai, Caribbean, French, baking or microwave cookery. "Thomas Jefferson's Cookbook" is here, and a section on entertaining, wines and spirits; even Junior League books from around the country, and four different volumes of "Hints From Heloise." This well-planned store has chairs and benches scattered about if you want to look a book over, and bathrooms. You may never leave.
Calliope Bookshop, 3424 Connecticut Ave. NW, 202-364-0111 -- Anyone who has stood in one of the endless lines at the Uptown movie theater has probably at one time asked someone to hold their place while they ran in for a look at this tiny bookstore. The selection of cookbooks here is as small as the store, but there are an unusual number of books on single subjects, from omelets, oysters and asparagus to shrimp and cheesecake. Clearly this is a cookbook store for people who know what they like, and the people who work there are always very friendly.
Chapters, 1512 K St. NW, 202-347-5495 -- Chapters bills itself as "a literary bookstore," and makes the point with two cookbooks on the shelves, "Dining With Sherlock Holmes" and the "Barbara Pym Cookbook," that make great eating companions for the mystery books. This recently relocated store is spiffier than the old one, but it's more of a squeeze to get to the cookbooks than it was before. Still, take a peek at books on Scandinavian baking, Basque country food and a guide to ginger, peppered through the popular titles.
Kramerbooks, 1517 Connecticut Ave., NW, 202-387-1400 -- The worst part about looking for cookbooks here is that they are located in the most cramped section of store; the best part is that if you get hungry while you're browsing, you can get something to eat immediately at the adjoining cafe. You'll find a substantial and varied vegetarian section, that ranges from books for the committed to those who want to ease into an animal-free lifestyle. Also look for the "Africa News Cookbook" for recipes from around Africa, and the beautifully bound "The Book of Tea," a 1906 book written to introduce Westerners to the Asian tea ceremony.
Olsson's Books and Records, 1307 19th St. NW (and five other locations around the area), 202-785-1133 -- Even though the Olsson's stores are part of a chain, they still have the feel of the smaller bookstores. Some locations have bigger cookbook sections than others; the Dupont Circle store's selection is small but varied. Among the usual titles is a book on the history, art and politics of absinthe, the "Futurist Cookbook," Calvin W. Schwabe's "Unmentionable Cuisine," a guide to the preparation of horse meat, mudfish and mountain oysters, among other delicacies; a book on throwing croquet and Christmas parties in true Victorian fashion, and a cookbook for Ben and Jerry's Ice Cream.
Politics and Prose, 5015 Connecticut Ave. NW, 202-364-1919 -- The cookbook section is substantial and sophisticated and not relegated to a corner, which is always a good sign, especially since the quality of the help here can be indifferent. Mixed in with the best sellers and worth taking a look at are "The Feast of Santa Fe," and Nancy Silverton's "Desserts," and, for something new, "Transylvanian Cuisine," marked down from $15.95 to $7.99.
If you're willing to take a weekend trip to Baltimore, or if you're heading as far north as New York, there are two excellent resources for cookbooks at hand:
Books For Cooks, Harborplace, 301 South Light St., Baltimore, 301-547-9066 -- It's a small niche off the eating hall in one of the three Harborplace buildings, but with about 3,500 titles, it's wall-to-wall cookbooks. Among the popular offerings is a large selection of wine books, a fair-sized ethnic and vegetarian section and volumes on food essays and history. There is also a book on food in Willa Cather's novels if you want to recreate the prairie meals in "My Antonia" and "O Pioneers!" Be sure to look under the shelves at knee level where some books are tucked away. The store does not sell out-of-print books off the shelves, but does have a book search service for a cost of $3.
Kitchen Arts & Letters, 1435 Lexington Ave. (between 93rd and 94th), New York, N.Y., 212-876-5550 -- Cookbook heaven. With about 6,000 in-print titles, you'll find everything you ever wanted here, and if they don't have it, they'll find it for you. Owner Nahum Waxman is well-respected by food professionals, whom the store was originally designed to serve. Consequently, there are few Betty Crocker titles, but you will find, next to authors Waverly Root and M.F.K. Fisher, books on the religious significance of food to medieval women and food in literature. "We draw a lot of people who couldn't be less interested in recipes," says Waxman, but the recipe books still outnumber the literature. Among the American regional cuisines represented are cookbooks from Iowa and Maine, and Shaker, Amish, Hawaiian and Alaskan cooking. There is a section of out-of-print books, like "Macy's Salad and Dessert Book" and a 1924 "New Book Of Etiquette." There are cookbooks in French, German, Hebrew and Japanese, an Azerbaijani cookbook, and wonderful postcards with food themes. The store doesn't take credit cards with phone orders but will accept checks, giving you the total over the phone and sending the books after the check is received; there is no check minimum. The store specializes in tracking down old cookbooks, and has called a customer as long as six years after the initial request. A search for out-of-print books is done free of charge and without an obligation to buy the book.