Sunday, September 9, 2012

Mastering The Art of Bargain Hunting

$1 < $850 = AWESOME

The original

In order to feed and care for my blog about horrid cookbooks, Yuckylicious, I must constantly be on the lookout for new material. The best worst cookbooks can’t be found at normal bookstores. They pop up on the shelves of used bookstores, charity shops, library book sales and yard sales. The very best ones are donated when an old lady dies and no-one wants to be reminded of the awful dishes she once cooked from them.

I get a great deal of satisfaction when I come across a book from the early 1970s (a golden age for grotesque cookbooks) dedicated to one kind of food: cookies, say. There is no end to the horror of nastiness one can wreak on a family with dull or ill-conceived cookies. I even prefer that the books be obviously and lovingly used, with notes written in the margins, and spattered with crusty stains. Occasionally you’ll find recipes torn from newspapers and magazines stuffed between pages.


But among all those bad cookbooks are some real gems — the genuinely classic cookbooks real foodies love to have in their own collections. A Mrs. Beeton, say, or a Larousse, or a Ma Cuisine. More contemporary must-haves include one I picked up (finally) this week: Julia Child’s eponymous Mastering The Art of French Cooking, which is said to be responsible for changing the American food landscape from the ground up. I’m not sure that anyone actually uses it anymore as a recipe book, but its fame requires that it be there as a reference guide. It’s spawned a movie, Julie & Julia. It’s never been out of print, and the delicate fleur-de-lys cover is instantly recognizable; indeed, contemporary editions have done away altogether with the original dust jacket.

I’ve always put off seeking out this one, partly because I am not a huge fan of Mrs. Child, and partly because I like my books to come to me, rather than go to them. This is one people tend to hold on to, so you don’t see them that often in the kinds of places I hunt for books.

So it was with resigned interest that I spotted a copy of what became Volume One for sale for a whole American dollar at the library sale. It sat among copies of the New York Times Cookbook (Craig Claiborne’s classic) and something called The Book of Cheese. It was worn, the spine loose and supple, torn a little at the ends, and grubby, as if it had been picked up for fifty years or so by wet, work-stained hands. Inside, the yellowed pages bore the scars of many dishes whose ingredients had spattered across them, flung across stoves and countertops while the book lay open and exposed. Penciled notes dotted the margins and back flyleaf. It made me wonder if the person who donated it was the last of a long line of cooks, if the family that remained used only the microwave to heat up frozen meals from Trader Joes. It seemed shocked at being unwanted and a little lonely, separated, as it must be, from its former tomes. So I tucked it under my arm, paid my dollar, and brought it home.

Later that night I perused it in more detail. It turns out that this grand dame of a book is rather an aristocrat: a first edition. A quick but thorough bit of online inquisition told me it is worth over $800. Most people would consider the majority of my collection utterly worthless (“you paid 50 cents for that?”), so I am rather chuffed. I might even bring it out of retirement and add some stains of my own. 

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