When Moses came down from the mountain with those Ten Commandments to give us, he also brought other written instructions: How to Parallel Park a Feisty Camel, Festive Robes for Every Occasion, Getting the Best Seats at the Coliseum, and How to Cook in Desert Climates. I admit it: I made a deal with him and bought the cookbook (first edition). Naturally, it took some negotiating, and it was the beginning of my cookbook addiction.
Over the years, my addiction has not abated: Red Sea: Fish Fry's All-Time Hits, Leonardo da Vinci's Last Supper Recipes, Attila the Hun's Cooking on Horseback, What to Eat After the Mayflower Docks by John Alden, and, my favorite, The Witches' Book of Brews by A. Salem Coven.
In 1999 in New Orleans, my daughters and I opened a cookbook shop with 5,000 books, manuals, ephemeris, and tomes that I had collected. You may remember, it was called The Kitchen Witch. It grew in 20 years to 10,000 books and no daughters (they both left me for younger men). But I did gain a partner, lover, and eventual wife (Debbie).
There have been a gazillion cookbooks printed in the last centuries, the earliest (besides Moses's tablets) written by a Sicilian (yay!) around 350 BC. I never did get a copy of that one, although I have gotten some terrific, wonderful, and sometimes- scary ones. I've had everything from cannibalism, insect cuisine, canine cooking, drag-queen brunches, aphrodisiacal, historical, futuristic, and, my favorite, Billi Gordon's You've Had Worse Things in Your Mouth. I've had copies by Salvador Dali, Dinah Shore, Vincent Price, Liberace, Minnie Pearl, and Paul Newman. With my experience, I've been ready with discourse on authors such as Alice Waters, James Beard, Julia Child, Charlie Trotter, Jacques Pepin, Elizabeth David, M. F. K. Fisher, Charles Baker, Irma Rombauer, Leah Chase, Paul Prudhomme, Apicius, Darra Goldstein, Yotam Ottolenghi, Edna Lewis, Jessica B. Harris, John Folse, and Austin Leslie, to name a few.
Cookbook authors range from prostitutes and poets to philosophers and prima donnas. You name it, someone has written it, and someone has written about it: vegan, vegetarian, slaughterhouse, hunting exotic animals, keto, high-carb, low-carb, martini diets, church suppers, and dumpster diving. In my years, nothing has surprised me.
What makes a good cookbook—one worth buying, reading, using, putting on your overcrowded bookshelf, and/or gifting someone? Depends. Depends on you. That's why I opened a cookbook store. That, and an excuse to buy, read, and use yet another one. It's not their price, which can range from pittance to plenty (first editions can run into thousands of dollars). It's not fads, which can range from How to Crochet a Cauliflower Casserole to Gutting a Tarpon and Eating Its Still-Quivering Liver. (Alice B. Toklas has a great hashish brownie recipe.) It's about you and what you want to cook and keep cooking.
There are people who will buy a cookbook, use it once or twice, shelve it, and give it to charity the next spring. There are those who buy cookbooks and shelve them and never cook from them, reading them like novels in bed, with their hair in curlers and a box of bonbons on the bedside table. There are serious collectors who will not flinch at laying down hundreds for a first edition, first printing of The Gastronomical Me (1943; used: $400 - $600, a signed copy going for around $5,000).
The Modernist Cuisine, weighing in at 46 pounds and selling for half a grand to start, is one that you wouldn't purchase on a whim, but who can pass up that Fondue Magic for half a buck at a garage sale? I've pretty much had them all, and I still have a bucket list.
My advantage is that I cook every day and mostly for a living wage (sometimes, a little less than a living wage). The point is that I read and use cookbooks, and I will buy cookbooks that are on subjects that may be of interest to me. Baking formulas, cheesemaking instructions, plant-based methods, spice studies, and local Creole and Cajun cooking line my shelves today at home.
I have since left the retail sales cookbook business. Selling books of any kind from a brick-and-mortar location is not a way to make a living, and here's why.
First of all, if someone wants to buy a book these days, where do they go? Directly to their computer. If someone wants a recipe for pickled pig lips, where do they go? Same answer. If someone wants a cheap copy of How To Cook a Wolf? Guess.
However, who can resist passing a book shop and not dropping in to browse? Maybe some fool who's in a silly hurry, but not your average Joe, Jane, Jim, or Jacqueline.
What the browsers don't see is the expense of having a brick-and-mortar located in their path: the rent, the lights, the staffing, etc. I've actually had a chef come into the shop, pick up a cookbook, and say to me, "I can get this cheaper on Amazon." Oh, my heart. I felt like saying, "Yeah, and I can pick up lettuce at the store and make my own damn salad," but I didn't.
Rent is another thing, and rents are not going down—neither is the insurance, upkeep, and maintenance of properties, which the landlord wants to include in your lease. Those days are behind me, and I can't say that I don't miss the struggle, pride, and exhaustion of owning a cookbook shop. A wonderful shop spanning two decades, three landlords and locations, and a hell of a lot of work. Some people actually miss The Kitchen Witch.
Me? I'm on the trail of making vegan croissants, Indian samosas, and a Korean spice mixture called yangnyeomjang (it's in a book I just bought). Bon appétit.