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Cooking the Books

Et tu, Julia Child? Cookbook lovers suffer buyer’s remorse over revised versions of old favorites.

by Yvonne M. Jones for Comcast.net

Posted July 20, 2007

Woman Cake BatterIt took Stephanie Thompson, an education consultant from New Brunswick, NJ, months to figure out that her copy of Mollie Katzen’s Still Life With Menu cookbook was a newer edition than the one her former roommate had used.

“Mollie Katzen eliminated entire recipes when she updated the book. I thought I was nuts because I kept remembering recipes my roommate had made, and then when I looked them up in my copy of Still Life, I couldn’t find them.”

It wasn’t Thompson’s memory that was at fault. In recent years, authors like Katzen and publishers of kitchen classics such as The Joy Of Cooking, have responded to changing times and health concerns by altering many recipes or removing them altogether. This has induced buyer’s remorse in many a cook seeking to replenish their collection or introduce an old favorite to a friend or loved one.

“People want that carrot cake just how granny used to make it,” says Jeremy Emmerson, executive chef of San Francisco’s Four Seasons Hotel, founder of GlobalChefs.com, and an avid cookbook collector.

Call it nostalgia if you like, but there were recipes in the older versions that people loved, and many cookbook lovers are slowly realizing they may not find them in revised versions of cookbooks published during the last 25 to 50 years.

“I have a 1946 edition of The Joy of Cooking that I would take to a desert island with me,” affirms Liz Waters, editor of The Cooking Club, an online hub for home cooks. “Of course I practice the normal safety precautions, and alter ingredients as needed for health concerns. But I still use the old recipes.”

Amateur and professional cookbook collectors like Waters and Emmerson know the value of culinary nostalgia. While more whimsical kitchen tomes like the 1954 Alice B. Toklas Cookbook, which includes the author’s infamous recipe for hashish brownies, can fetch up to $200, readers like Thompson crave original editions of more populist cookbooks — like the most requested out-of-print cookbook in Betty Crocker history, 1963’s Betty Crocker Cooky Book–and not just for what they can fetch on the open market.

But revised cookbooks are not always a bad thing. From Julia Child’s 1984 update of her iconic Mastering the Art of French Cooking to accommodate the invention of the food processor to Katzen’s recent revisionism, cookbook authors and publishers often have good reasons for changing–or deleting–what is often someone’s favorite dish.

“No one is perfect,” says Waters, “and sometimes a writer discovers a better way to do something after the original is published, and finds a revision necessary. There are times, however, when cookbook revisions are simply a means to profit again from previously successful material.”

Emmerson agrees. “We don’t remove classic literature from our lives, so why do it with cooking? If the publisher wishes to generate market appeal, I feel that they should consider re-photographing the book to give it a modern feel and offer substitutions for healthier eating.”

So what’s an old-school cookbook lover to do when the cookbook section of their local bookstore bulges with the “new and completely revised”? Thrift stores and flea markets often turn up hidden treasures, but can be hit or miss for someone seeking out an original copy of, say, Pates and Terrines.

Cookbook stores such as The Cook’s Library in Los Angeles or Kitchen Arts and Letters in New York are a great start, but the Internet is a better one. Sites like Bibliofind.com, Powells.com, and the ubiquitous Ebay.com and Amazon.com have made it likely that your dream cookbook of yesteryear is just a few keystrokes away.

But your passion may cost you. Used editions of contemporary kitchen classics can run anywhere from $40 to $200. And while online used booksellers are generally candid about the condition of their wares, Thompson notes that, “These books aren’t easy to find in good condition. People use them to death.”

Still, “new and revised” are not always fighting words. Cooks like Thompson have made publishers happy by embracing–and purchasing–multiple editions of their favorites. Despite initial disappointment with Katzen’s revised Still Life with Menu, she is the contented owner of original and recent editions of the same author’s perennial favorite, The Moosewood Cookbook.

“I like being able to compare,” she says.

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