The Culture of Food and Drink

Home / People  / Contributors  / Recipe Collecting Expresses a Cook’s Passion

Recipe Collecting Expresses a Cook’s Passion

A cook's recipe collection. Credit: Barbara Haber

A cook's recipe collection. Credit: Barbara Haber

I don’t think of myself as having a mania for amassing stuff, especially when I compare myself to those hoarders depicted on television reality shows, people who can’t get near their stoves or their bathtubs because of the menacing mountains of clutter that obstruct any approach. But while I may not be a hoarder — someone who collects absolutely everything in a pathological way — I am a serious collector of recipes. This recipe-collecting quirk of mine may seem to some to have gotten a little out of hand.

To start with, I have a large and growing collection of cookbooks that are neatly arranged in bookshelves all over the three floors of my house. I also subscribe to food magazines that I can never bring myself to discard, even after reading them, for I have put Post-its on all the recipes I hope someday to try. Then I routinely read several newspapers, all of which publish recipes, and I clip and save the ones I like. I also check out cookbooks from my public library and photocopy recipes that look good to me. While reason tells me that I will never be able to cook all of the dishes whose recipes I have gathered, the thought of discarding any part of my recipe collection seems to me out of the question. And I know I am not alone.

Where have all the Gourmets gone?

When I was a professional collector of cookbooks, working in a library with a specialty in food history, I would often hear from people wanting to donate their collections of Gourmet magazine to a respectable institution to be preserved for posterity. These offers usually came up when people were moving into smaller quarters and no longer had room for old copies of the magazines. The would-be donors generally had around 20 years worth of Gourmet. This was a reflection of the owner’s peak cooking years, and not a whole set. But because my library already owned two complete and bound sets of Gourmet, I had to turn down these offers much to the dismay of the would-be donors. Parting with the magazines was hard enough, but the thought of dumping their collection into a paper recycling bin was impossible to face. To give them solace, I let them know that they were not alone in their attachment to the magazine, and would describe to them a New Yorker cartoon I had once seen that captured their concern. It shows a woman dressed in mourning speaking to a lawyer who says, “That being your mother’s wish, I see no reason we can’t arrange interment with all her old copies of Gourmet.”

Such fidelity strikes me as ever so human. Those old magazines were filled not only with enticing recipes, but articles about trips to exotic places and what to eat once you got there. By discarding their Gourmets, people were effectively giving up the dream of finally cooking all of those dishes and going to all of those wonderful places, and who wants to give up such a dream?

Recipe collecting in the Internet age

Nowadays, however, this need to cling to cookbooks, food magazines and newspaper clippings does not grip everyone interested in recipes. The ease of finding recipes on the Internet has caused some people to discard all of their paper sources because they know they can easily find virtually any dish they want online. I too search online for dishes, but this does not reduce my paper collection, for I immediately print newfound recipes and add them to my already bulging files. In any case, I find that online recipes are no substitute for cookbooks, the best of which are more than just batches of recipes. Like other good books, they have a voice, an author passing on wisdom and knowledge for the benefit of readers. To my mind, the best cookbooks should be read straight through before donning one’s apron and heading for the kitchen.

After scrutinizing my behavior, I have finally decided to accept the fact that I am a collector. Unlike hoarders, I do not find meaning and value in absolutely every material object that comes my way, but I sure do find meaning and value in recipes. Some people collect porcelain figurines of dogs, while others are on the lookout for antique toys or snuff boxes. The objects of our passions differ, but we collectors are all alike in that we love the thrill of the hunt, and find that discovering a new addition to our collection can be as much fun as having and keeping it. In my case, I keep my favorite recipes — newspaper clippings, printouts and handwritten jottings — in a shabby green folder in my kitchen, and am reminded that each of those recipes came from a different source. If I hadn’t tracked them down, saved them and cooked from them, I am sure that the pleasures of my family table would have been diminished.

Top photo: A cook’s recipe collection. Credit: Barbara Haber

Zester Daily contributor Barbara Haber is an author, food historian and the former curator of books at Radcliffe's Schlesinger Library at Harvard University. She is a former director of the International Association of Culinary Professionals, was elected to the James Beard Foundation's "Who's Who of Food and Beverage" and received the M.F.K. Fisher Award from Les Dames d'Escoffier.

  • E.M. Parsons 6·4·13

    Thanks for this great article. Now I can tell my husband that it’s not just me!

  • Barbara Lauterbach 6·4·13

    Thank you Barbara, for relieving me of guilt about my bookcases filled with treasures I have collected over the years. The manila folders of recipes “to be filed”, the little newspaper clippings from the food edition (usually Wednesday) of newspapers all over the country, reminding me of various places I have lived. And yes, where have all the Gourmets gone?
    Beautifully expressed. Again, thank you!

  • ray 6·4·13

    Hi Barbara, great article and so darn true! I have 2 bookcases full of old/new cooking magazines and books which I can’t justify to give or throw away. Some of these recipes are hard to find and I have not seen any reprints anywhere. I guess I can call this my collection and not junk. Thank you again.

  • Suzanne Florek 6·4·13

    I feel you pain and as a chef, graduate of the CIA, mother of three healthy eating teenage boys; I decided to tackle the problem. I created a WEB site to solve this problem.
    Handwritten recipe cards can be scanned an uploaded, recipes are saved with a source url. The entire site is designed to promote the indie food voices and yet at the same time allow people to save their food traditions and pass them down to the next generation in tidy e-books. Check it out! I know if I hand over my “shabby green folder” to a daughter in law, it will never be looked at. I appreciate any feedback. Cheers!

  • Nancy Zaslavsky 6·4·13

    Barbara, I feel your pain. My love/hate relationship with overstuffed recipe files is mostly this collector’s joy.

  • Al Cutler 6·4·13

    Yes, collecting cookbooks can be addictive…. but the joy of reading them (and cooking from them sometimes) … inheriting my gourmet uncle’s collection & a friends’s mother’s set of “Grand Diplome Cooking Course” makes it all so personal.

  • Janet 6·4·13

    Barbara, enjoyed the article. Have decided at times to thin out my books in yard sale, or giving to my daughter. End up taking back the ones I’ve put out for sale, and if one does go, find myself going to Half Price Books, and finding another copy. In many of them, there may be just one recipe I treasure and it seems I should copy it off and then dispose of the book, but I love books too much. Can’t do it.

  • Christine 6·4·13

    My personal fascination is with family recipe collections. They’re such rich sources of history. One of my favorites, the Harper Family Cookbook, includes entries from Ma Harper’s diary — what they earned from selling their hogs, what they paid for barbed why, the year all-day rains forced their Easter celebration with 35 people indoors.

  • Helene 6·4·13

    I too love to read cookbooks and keep getting more and more. I love them all.

  • Susan Haymer 6·4·13

    I can truly relate. I hope I will make them all some day.

  • joyce hendley 6·5·13

    Thank you SO much for this, Barbara. I can finally relabel myself as a “recipe collector.” And yes, I will actually make all of the recipes…someday.

  • Barbara Haber 6·8·13

    I loved hearing from everyone who shares my lust for recipes. And I am so glad that thinking of ourselves as “collectors” instead of, say, “packrats” is a label we can claim. We all seem to love the hunt for a new dish that turns out to be great, and that gives us all the more reason to keep on doing what we do. We are appreciators!

    • barbara lauterbach 6·8·13

      Brava Barbara! Henceforth, I am a “collector”.!