You can collect a lot of cookbooks in 30 years of food writing. Trust me. That’s how I wound up with books tucked away in almost every room of my house. They were stuffed into shelves in my living room, study and guest house, and those that didn’t fit were heaped in great, towering stacks on the floor.
For years I had been promising myself that I would get around to making some sense of the mess. But there was never enough time.
Then, late last year, I retired from the Los Angeles Times and found that I not only had the time, I had the inclination. I was ready to explore new worlds. Getting rid of some of those cookbooks seemed like a good start to my transition. Like shedding an old habit.
And what a mighty habit it had been. I have always been powerless to resist the pull of a good cookbook.
There were the new books that seemed so promising, I just knew I was going to read them. Some of them never even got out of their wrappers.
There were the often obscure books that I told myself I had to have for stories I was working on. Internet shopping is a great enabler.
And there were the books that I just couldn’t resist buying. Good books have the same appeal for me as rescue pooches do for other folks. Did you know some cookbooks have big, brown eyes and can wag their tails?
So began several months of weeding out, getting rid of books I no longer could imagine the need for. “Deaccessioning” is the word used by archivists and museum people, and I suppose I fit into both of those categories.
I ended up loading enough cookbooks into my Prius to fill it to the roof and taking them to my local Long Beach Public Library, where, I’m told, they are establishing a culinary collection in my name.
There will be many more to come. Those 500 or so donated books represent only about a third of what I had. But they were a start.
So which books did I hold onto?
Let’s get the unseemly bragging out of the way first. As befits a book geek, the heart of my collection resides front and center on my living room shelves: signed first editions of the first books of my favorite authors.
I’ve got a slipcovered copy of Brillat-Savarin’s “Physiology of Taste” signed by its translator, M.F.K. Fisher; a couple of copies of “Mastering the Art of French Cooking” signed by Julia Child; a James Beard-autographed “Hors d’Oeuvre and Canapés” (as well as his later “Delights and Prejudices”); Helen Evans Brown’s “West Coast Cook Book”; Paula Wolfert’s “Couscous and Other Good Food from Morocco”; and Richard Olney’s “The French Menu Cookbook,” among others.
Sometimes tracking down the right book takes a little sleuthing: Did you know that both Marcella Hazan’s “The Classic Italian Cookbook” and Madeleine Kamman’s “The Making of a Cook” had been published by smaller presses before they hit the big time? I’ve got both of those early editions, signed.
But I’m still searching for a decent copy of Roy Andries de Groot’s sadly forgotten “The Auberge of the Flowering Hearth,” a book that was farm-to-table 30 years before that was a trend.
There are a few historical treasures: a 1903 French edition of Escoffier’s “Le Guide Culinaire,” a “Los Angeles Times Cook Book No. 2” from 1905 and an 1891 “The Table” by Alessandro Filippini “of Delmonico’s.”
The books I use the most live right by my desk in my study, where I can reach out and grab them when the need for inspiration strikes. This is where my cooking personality really dictates the collection: I’ve got most of the Chez Panisse books, most of Deborah Madison’s, Judy Rodgers’s “The Zuni Cafe Cookbook” and Richard Olney’s “Simple French Food.”
There are also a few oddities — mostly technical books of one kind or another. I’m a nerd, so there are a few food science books. (Pro tip: Books from the 1960s and earlier are less industry-driven and more applicable to the home cook.)
So much for the easy choices. After that, the decisions came down to some combination of necessity and obsession.
Many of the books I kept are American regional, primarily about the areas in which I have special interest: the South, New Mexico and California.
Chef books? Not so much, unless they are based in home cooking (such as the Chez Panisse books or Suzanne Goin’s terrific Lucques and AOC books). I probably have seen enough pretty pictures of food to last a lifetime, and my sous-vide machine is so far back in my pantry I can’t reach it.
I kept fairly deep collections of French and Italian books, because those are the cuisines that have interested me the longest. There are a lot of books from the Middle East and Spain, as well — areas in which I’m getting more and more interested.
And I kept a lot of books from the 1950s and ’60s, because I love the way food writing in those days was a passion, not a profession.
It was surprising to me how many culinary memoirs I shipped out. They were quite the fashion at one point, but in retrospect it’s a tough form to do well. Even the sainted M.F.K. Fisher had her ups and downs.
I kept my collection of vintage California Department of Fish and Game pamphlets, because, really, I can’t read enough about the histories of the Dungeness crab, spot prawn and abalone fisheries.
As my wife has so often reminded me, it’s not a matter of deciding which books you give away. It’s figuring out which books you absolutely need to keep.
I’ve still got about 1,000 to go.
Parsons is a longtime food journalist and author of “How to Read a French Fry” and “How to Pick a Peach.” He’ll join Wednesday’s Free Range chat at noon: live.washingtonpost.com.