Rare Books

A guide to collecting cookbooks

Move over Hemingway, Steinbeck and Twain. Humble cookbooks have become highly desirable in the book collecting world.

The American cookbook genre truly began in the 1700s with two titles that can claim to be America’s first cookbook – The Compleat Housewife by William Parks (1742) and American Cookery by Amelia Simmons (1796). The Compleat Housewife was derived from an English book, while American Cookery - which is still in print today - features recipes using solely American produce.

Many collectors are drawn to these older books because they catered for kitchens before electricity, microwaves, and refrigerators. Their recipes reflect dishes, ingredients and styles of cooking that have been forgotten.

Cookbooks from the 1700s to 1850s can command four-figure prices, but anyone interested in starting a collection can easily target the 1950s and 1960s - when America’s cooking culture exploded - without breaking the bank. By targeting these decades, collectible cookbooks can be snapped up for $50 or less.

The 1950s and 1960s saw countless cookbooks roll off the printing presses, most of which are now out-of-print, and that gives collectors huge scope. Aside from titles written by TV chefs like Julia Child, even food manufacturers, like Pillsbury, and appliance makers produced cookbooks to help market their products. These are highly sought after now.

Celebrities also realized they could exploit their fame through cookbooks and this led to titles such as A Treasury of Great Recipes by Vincent and Mary Price published in 1965 (copies range from $10 to $250 on AbeBooks).

Even the most widely used cookbooks from the 1950s and 1960s can command high prices. Good condition copies of Betty Crocker's Picture Cook Book are highly prized (prices range from $10 to $450 on AbeBooks). First published in 1950 and reprinted many times, buyers recall their mother or grandmother using the book so there is a sentimental attraction. The key is finding copies in decent condition because they were essential items in many kitchens. The Joy of Cooking by Irma Rombauer is another hot property - prices can exceed $4,000 for 1931 first editions.

One of the most appealing genres is locally produced cookbooks that have small print runs and are often published by church groups or charitable organizations. 1961 editions of The Gasparilla Cookbook, which features recipes from Florida’s west coast, by the Junior League of Tampa can be found for a few dollars. Prized for highly original recipes, these books often support an ethnic style of cooking, perhaps Polish or Norwegian cuisine, even though the readers were far from their ancestral homeland.

Collectible cookbooks can range from high camp, Liberace Cooks! Recipes from his Seven Dining Rooms by Carol Truax, to the downright bizarre, Lowbush Moose (and other Alaskan Recipes) by Gordon R Nelson.

Despite the demand for rare cookbooks, it is suspected many collectors do not actually cook from their purchases. They could be fascinated with recipes of the past (The American Lady's System of Cooking Containing Every Variety of Information for Ordinary and Holiday Occasions by Mrs TJ Crowen from 1850), attracted to beautiful illustrations (The Chinese Festive Board by Corinne Lamb from 1935) or simply interested in bygone lifestyles (A Thousand Ways to Please a Husband by Louise Bennett Weaver and Helen Cowles LeCron from 1917).

The sheer array of cookbooks is daunting to the first-time collector so it is advisable to specialize in a single genre or ethnicity, or to collect the work of a particular author or group of writers from a region or period.

The demand for rare cookbooks is fueled by the fact they are so hard to find, especially in good condition. Once a book has gone out-of-print, it becomes increasingly difficult to find and its value increases as it becomes more collectible.

Condition is the key factor. Look for a pristine copy that appears to have been lovingly read rather than one that has endured the heat, liquids and dirty fingerprints of a working kitchen. Is it signed by the author or someone of note? Does it have a dust jacket? Is it a first edition? Is it out-of-print? These are all important factors to take into consideration before purchasing.

Top 10 Most Expensive Cookbooks Sold on AbeBooks

  1. Mastering the Art of French Cooking: Volumes 1&2 by Julia Child - $7,500
    First editions of both volumes of this classic cookbook, this copy was inscribed by coauthor Simone Beck "Bon Appetit to Madeline Julia Child" and also by Child "Bon Appetit Julia Child."
  2. Les Diners de Gala / The Dali Cookbook by Salvador Dali - $5,000
    Published in 1973, this beautiful book was designed and illustrated by Dali. This copy was also signed by Dali in felt tip.
  3. Le Patissier Royal Parisien, ou Traité élémentaire et Pratique de la Pâtisserie ancienne et Moderne, de l'entremets de Sucre, des Entrées froides et des socles by Antonin Carême - $4,528
    The first book written by the man credited with the creation of haute cuisine. First published in 1815, it contained 32 plates and was bound in sheepskin. This book laid the foundations for the modern kitchen.
  4. The Art of Cookery made Plain and Easy by Hannah Glasse - $2,875
    A first American edition of Glasse's classic book. First published in 1747 in England, the American edition was adapted slightly for recipes suited for Virginia's warmer climate.
  5. Modern Cookery in All Its Branches by Eliza Acton - $2,712
    Described in the book's subtitle as "Reduced to a System of Easy Practice, for the Use of Private Families., In a Series of Receipts, which have been Strictly Tested, and are Given with the Most Minute Exactness." Acton introduced the now-universal practice of listing ingredients and cooking times for recipes.
  6. American Cookery, or, The Art of Dressing Viands by Amelia Simmons - $2,505
    First published in 1796, this was the first known cookbook written by an American, and contained the first printed substitution of American cornmeal for British oats. Only four copies of the first edition are known to exist. This was a later edition.
  7. Le Viandier de Tailevent by Guilaume Tirel - $1,950
    Published in two volumes, this association copy was signed in pencil on the half-title by the famous chef and owner of El Bulli, Ferran Adrea. Tirel (1310-1395) was the cook to the Court of France around the time of the Hundred Years War and Philip VI's head chef. This book contained the first detailed description of "entremets" (a small dish, dessert or action which signals the end of a course during a meal).
  8. Mastering the Art of French Cooking by Julia Child - $1,795
    First edition presented to the Pasadena Star News at the book's launch party in Pasadena, Child's home town. Inscribed by Child and coauthor Simone Beck.
  9. La Cuisiniere Bourgeoise by Menon - $1,751
    This was an anonymous translation of Menon's La Cuisiniere Bourgeoise (the French Family Cookbook) that was originally published in 1746. This is arguably one of the most influential cookbooks in history.
  10. The Cook's Own Book by A Boston Housekeeper (aka Mrs. N.K.N. Lee) - $1,750
    This classic American cookbook was published in Boston in 1832. A complete Culinary Encyclopedia for cooking meat, fish, and fowl, and composing every kind of soup, gravy and pastry preserves.

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