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Recently, I found something interesting in a box of old books, which started me thinking about something new: cookbooks. I have been ignorant of cookbooks my whole life, treating them with an best cookbooks for my bookstoreattitude similar to how I view my chainsaw instruction manual. But as a bookseller, I have quickly learned that, for many people, cookbooks are as rich a source of reading pleasure as crime novels or romances are for others. My wife tells of a friend who, on a beach trip, was found lounging in the sand with a cookbook propped on her lap. She read it cover to cover, though unlike a mystery, even after reading it, don’t you have to wait until later to know how it turns out?  The book I found is called “New Orleans Creole Recipes” by Mary Moore Bremer, dated 1932 published in Waveland, Mississippi. The book is spiral bound, which I know makes it next to impossible to sell, so I brought it home. What caught my eye was the amiable advice and wisdom measured out with each recipe. Take for example, The Peace Maker, an Oyster Loaf for which “it is a foolish husband who doesn’t rely on it in case of need.” The first recipe we tried was Chicken Roosevelt, which, according to legend was served to Teddy and he liked it so well the name stuck. You take a fat, young hen and stuff it with a creole corn pudding before “putting it to bake.” The measurements are somewhat quaint, too: use a lump of butter about the size of a pigeon’s egg. We enjoyed the chicken so well I hope we’ll have it again before too long.

 

With cookbooks on my mind, I started looking into which ones are worth putting on my shelves. As it stands now, I have about140 cookbooks for sale, but in my store I can say that two cookbook authors are most in demand – Mollie Katzen and Julia Child. Katzen is the author of the Moosewood Restaurant cookbooks, which pioneered vegetarian cooking in the 1970s. Her books rarely last more than a few days when they come in, and the first edition hardback that I got back in January quickly sold for a premium. Child, though is the heavyweight of culinary lit. About two weeks ago a customer brought in a Julia Child treasure – a limited edition (one of 1,500 numbered copies) of her fourth book, 1975’s “From Julia Child’s Kitchen,” signed by both Julia Child and her husband Paul Child. I am selling it on consignment for $500, but judging by the awe and delight that people exhibit just touching the book, I might be better off if it never sells. I’ve set up an entire Julia Child shrine with 8×11 photos that I found inside one book I have and five or six other of Child’s books. Her 100thbirthday came last August and 2013 is the 50th anniversary of her television debut. She published 19 books, of which at least 10 are still in print, and is the subject of many more. And the popularity of the movie “Julie and Julia” reenergized Child’s book sales, and rebranded Child as a cool personality for a new generation of readers, many of whom never saw her on television. And it didn’t hurt to find out that Child had a sex life.

 

As popular as Child is, though, I was surprised to see that overall her top selling book ranks 23rd all-time on the list of best-selling cookbooks. Here is the list, adapted from www.thedailymeal.com :

 

1.      Betty Crocker’s Cookbook (originally called Betty Crocker’s Picture Cook Book) by Betty Crocker (1950) – approx. 65 million copies

 

2.      Better Homes and Gardens New Cook Book by Better Homes and Gardens (1930) – approx. 40 million copies

 

3.      Joy of Cooking by Irma Rombauer (1931) – approx. 18 million copies

 

4.      The American Woman’s Cook Book by Ruth Berolzheimer (1939) – approx. 8 million copies

5.      In the Kitchen with Rosie: Oprah’s Favorite Recipes by Rosie Daley (1994) – approx. 8 million copies

 

6.      Crockery Cookery by Mable Hoffman (1975) – approx. 6 million copies

7.      Fix-It and Forget-It Cookbook: Feasting with Your Slow Cooker by Dawn J. Ranck and Phyllis Pellman Good (2000) – approx. 5 million copies

 

8.      The Fannie Farmer Cookbook (originally called The Boston Cooking-School Cook Book) by Fannie Merritt Farmer (1896) – approx. 4 million copies

 

9.      Better Homes and Gardens Eat & Stay Slim by Better Homes and Gardens (1968) – approx. 3.9 million copies

 

10.  The American Heart Association Cookbook by The American Heart Association (1973) – approx. 3 million copies

11.  I Hate to Cook Book by Peg Bracken (1960) – approx. 3 million copies

 

12.  Moosewood Cookbook by Mollie Katzen (1977) – approx. 3 million copies

 

13.  The New York Times Cook Book by Craig Claiborne (1961) – approx. 3 million copies

 

14.  Better Homes and Gardens New Junior Cookbook by Better Homes and Gardens (1955) – approx. 2.6 million

15.  The Silver Palate by Sheila Lukens and Julee Rosso (1982) – approx. 2.2 million copies

 

16.  Taste of Home Cookbook (2006) – approx. 2.2 million copies

 

17.  Culinary Arts Institute Encyclopedic Cookbook by Ruth Berolzheimer (1948) – approx. 2 million copies

 

18.  The Settlement Cook Book by Lizzie Kander (1901) – approx. 2 million copies

 

19.  The South Beach Diet Cookbook by Arthur Agatston (2004) – approx. 2 million copies

 

20.  The New Basics Cookbook by Sheila Lukens and Julee Rosso (1989) – approx. 1.8 million copies

 

21.  Dr. Atkins’ Quick & Easy New Diet Cookbook by Dr. Robert Atkins and Veronica Atkins (1997) – approx. 1.5 million copies

22.  The Enchanted Broccoli Forest by Mollie Katzen (1982) – approx. 1.5 million copies

 

23.  Mastering the Art of French Cooking by Julia Child, Louisette Bertholle, and Simone Beck (1961) – approx. 1.5 million copies

 

24.  The Frugal Gourmet by Jeff Smith (1984) – approx. 1.5 million copies

 

25.  Weight Watchers Cookbook by Jean Nidetch (1966) – approx. 1.5 million copies

 

Of this list many books are no longer saleable. The cookbooks promoting diets do not endure, even if they sell spectacularly when they are hot. Celebrity cookbooks lose their audience as the celebrity wanes. No one is interested in Peg Bracken these days, and the Better Homes and Gardens cookbooks are only interesting in their early editions. Craig Claiborne and the Silver Palate books still have currency, as does James Beard (who didn’t make the list).  But Mollie Katzen and Julia Child are the ones whose books I am always on the watch for. And now, of course, Mary Moore Bremer, whose Gumbo Gouter is next on the menu.

Myles Friedman

Myles Friedman

Myles Friedman

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