by our Cookbook columnist, Sara Croft, Orphan Treasures, Riverside, CA, USA

In her first column, Sara tells you more about herself, and also reveals what cookbooks say about their owners.

Orphie the Cat

Orphan Treasures' resident cat Orphie.

My path to cookbook love took a roundabout way. In 1990 or so my husband and I were newlyweds, and as a hobby we could do together, we began going to estate sales. Before long we added yard sales, conservator’s sales, auctions and even thrift stores. We were spending up to 18 hours a week collecting stuff to sell on eBay. Soon we were also selling on AbeBooks and on our own Web site. In the meantime, our 6 daughters were all just getting out on their own. They needed a place to make extra money. So we hired almost all of them at one time or another to do data entry, packing, shipping and grunt labor. We called the fledgling company because we were selling merchandise of all kinds that needed a new home. We loved the thrill of this new underground economy.

Not only was it like panning for gold, but it was also fascinating to see how many things the sellers at these sales, especially the late estate owners, had been interested in, as illustrated by their books. I noticed the number of cookbooks in every kitchen. Every sale had at least 5 and many had hundreds! Even if there were no books in the rest of the house, there were always cookbooks. Gradually I stopped buying anything but books - especially cookbooks.

What a cookbook reveals about its owner
As a book dealer I buy hundreds of used books a year, and over 50% of them have never been read. Not true with cookbooks. Most of them will have at least a fingerprint or two. Whichever one was the favorite of the cook will be spotted, stained, tattered by dog ears, have extra recipes stuffed in, and badly in need of a face washing. I just love seeing a book that has been well used. It’s like it has fulfilled its destiny. You can even tell when the cook was married by the publication date of her favorite cookbook.

Not only that, but you can follow the trend of her life by her cookbooks. Did she have a baby in the 60s and make his food herself? Did she experiment with vegetarianism in the 70s? How many diets did she go on and abandon? Did she get a job or become a soccer mom in the 80s and need quick easy recipes? By the 90s, time was even tighter and she went to the Crockpot and the convection oven. Then she started on the Cooking for Two or empty nest cookbooks, and the gourmet foreign food recipes. Then the Illness diet cookbooks for cancer, or high blood pressure or Diabetes. You can follow the whole arc of her existence.

The Importance of Cookbooks
This is not just true of our fictional estate holder. Cookbooks are often very important to the owners. In my experience, they are the second most likely book to be handed down in the family after the Bible. If the family is too poor to own a Bible, the vital statistics are likely to be saved in the favorite family cookbook. I had one Searchlight cookbook that had 60 years of family trees jotted between the covers.

My degree is in Sociology, so before long, I realized that cookbooks not only reflected the life of the individual cook, but the social, emotional and economic state of the nation at large. For example, it’s easy to spot the happy 70s cookbooks with their pink, green and orange covers, and the recipe titles such as My Way apple pie or Love for Two Tuna. We’ll talk about that in future columns.

A Cornucopia of Cookbooks
Of the 14,000 books I now have listed, 1,600 are cookbooks. Because I’m a tiny bit behind, I have at least another 1000 cookbooks in the garage and living room (along with 18000 other books). Another 800 have passed through here in the last 10 years on their way to new homes.

So who buys all these cookbooks? People wanting to recall the simplicity of the past, or people moving into a new place in life. And a whole bunch of people looking for just one important recipe. One more thing about cookbook buyers: they tend to be more grateful to get THE book or THE recipe back than anyone except the children’s book buyers. I've received tear-stained letters from buyers thanking me for reuniting them with a treasured title.

Share Your Cookbook Stories and Questions
If you have any questions or comments on cookbooks, I'd like to hear from you. What was the most interesting cookbook you ever had? Does your family have a favorite cookbook that you all use? Is there one you are still looking for? I’d be happy to hear from you, and even to have you correct me if I’m wrong about something. Just don’t ask me about recipes, though. I don’t cook.

Featured Cookbooks From Orphan Treasures

Better Homes and Gardens Complete Step-By-Step Cook book
The best book I know of for beginners. See what Sauteing or folding looks like instead of just reading directions.

Elena's Famous Mexican and Spanish Recipes by Elena Zelayeta
Hands down the most popular Mexican food recipe book I know of. Despite her blindness, she became a renowned cook and expert.


The views of the author, expressed above, are not necessarily those of AbeBooks.

Do you have a question about cookbooks? [Ask Sara!]

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