Collecting Cookbooks

By Paula Kirwan


Chances are that you are already a genuine cookbook collector without even trying.  A look around your kitchen will probably reveal several, or more, cookbooks that have caught your fancy over the years.  I still have a tattered and torn copy of “Betty Crocker’s New Picture Cook Book,” copyright 1961, and even today it remains one of my favorite go-to cookbooks for recipe and menu ideas. 


My personal collection has morphed over the years since I began buying cookbooks as my souvenir of choice in my travels.  I am now the happy owner of cookbooks from many places I’ve visited, including Germany, Japan, Estonia, Barbados and Greece, as well as from cities and states much closer to home. 


Cookbooks offer one of the simplest collecting genres you can choose, and you can make your selections as frivolous or as serious as you wish them to be.  You can pick cuisine type, country, region, ethnicity, celebrity authors, famous chefs, books that have recipes using only five ingredients, or those that feature fish or game meats or even broccoli or tofu.  The choices are almost limitless.


Collecting cookbooks by country not only offers delicious recipes, it gives you a sense of the country and its people. Julia Child’s “Mastering the Art of French Cooking,” copyright 1961, is on many top collectible cookbooks lists, as well as the two-volume “The Classic Italian Cookbook:  The Art of Italian Cooking and The Italian Art of Eating” by Marcella Hazan.    


Cookbooks created by churches, communities or organizations, such as the Junior League, are very popular collector’s items.  You can count on these cookbooks to contain recipes that the contributors have experimented with and tweaked over time until they became special enough to share with the world.


Regional cookbooks from your hometown or from places you’ve visited are great reminders of good times and good food, and just leafing through them can bring back wonderful memories of special and nostalgic times.


Some people collect advertising cookbooks from food companies like Jell-o, Lipton, Campbells or Pillsbury, or cookbooks for specific appliances like slow cookers, bread makers, pressure cookers or woks.  Many, many Jell-O molds were made in the 1950s and 1960s and served as a special dish, even at fancy dinners, and delicious desserts from the Pillsbury Bake-Off editions have been seen at bake sales and afternoon teas through the years. 


Then there are the countless casseroles that have been made with Campbell soups over time and have made even new brides look like they know their way around the kitchen!  Vintage product cookbooks have been part of our culinary lives for a long time and can still be found at reasonable prices.


Cookbooks for children, dieters, vegetarians, fish lovers, cookie lovers and chocoholics are also good choices for starting a special collection.  If you can think of a type of food, you will find cookbooks for it.   


Although printed cookbooks can be traced back hundreds of years, the cookbook as we know it today was developed in the late 19th century by Fannie Farmer.   She implemented uniform measurements and recipe arrangements that are still in use today.  Gone were the instructions that said “a pinch of this” or “a sprinkle of that,” so both beginning and experienced cooks could follow a definitive recipe and hopefully expect a similar outcome. 


In the 1950s and 1960s, America’s cooking culture blossomed, and there are many collecting choices within this time period.  Although many of these books are out of print now, some can still be found at reasonable prices at antique stores such as GasLamp.  If you are interested in classic cookbooks that became popular through the years, you may want to include “The Joy of Cooking,” “Better Homes and Gardens New Cook Book,”  “I Hate to Cook Book,” “The Settlement Cookbook,” or “The New York Times Cookbook.”  You may be able to find first editions or signed copies of these and other books, but they will be pricey.  As expected, the rarer the book, the higher the price. 


Price factors also include notoriety of the author, how many books were printed, and of course, condition, which is definitely a key factor.  If, however, you just want to include certain titles in your personal cookbook library, later editions are perfectly acceptable.  This type of collection should be about books that bring you pleasure, unless you are also collecting for investment purposes.


Even in this age of electronic devices that dispense all sorts of information on anything and everything imaginable – including recipes – “real” cookbooks give us a tangible, touchable connection to good food and happy times.  There is something comforting about flipping through a cookbook from page to page, looking for ideas, remembering special meals and finding inspiration for trying something new. And to top it all off, cookbooks are not only fun to collect, they are also practical and useable in our everyday lives!









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