Recipe Upon Recipe: What makes cookbook collectors tick

If a recipe calls for Jell-O or MSG, you can bet it comes from a cookbook of yesteryear. Some people collect vintage volumes along with new ones, whether they understand why or not. Yes, they love food. Yes, they enjoy cooking. Yet there’s more behind a person’s impulse to crowd a bookshelf. Otherwise, why not just get the recipes online?

Local cookbook collectors Annie Lehrer, Robert E. Smith and Lana Shepek turned out to have a lot in common. All own The Joy of Cooking. None keeps an exact count. All cherish thrift. A variety of other qualities, however, make them different.

The Omnivore

What do Thomas Keller and Strawberry Shortcake have in common? Annie Lehrer of St. Louis owns their cookbooks.

Culinarily speaking, fava bean agnolotti with curry emulsion couldn’t be more different than jelly rollups, but Lehrer is a person who explores the food world with esprit – always has been. “I remember going into the basement as a little girl looking for cookbooks,” she said. “I read them like novels … and I still do that to this day.”

Her collection is presently more than 100 books strong and growing. Just recently, an Amazon box containing Michael Ruhlman’s Elements of Cooking arrived on her doorstep. One in, one out; Lehrer decided to give another book the heave-ho. “It didn’t challenge me to try new things. The tastes weren’t new to me. So Paula [Deen] got the boot.”

Lehrer never discriminates on the basis of looks. Grease stains, ripped pages, dilapidated spines, missing covers? No problem. “A lot of them are starting to disintegrate and can’t be called cookbooks anymore. They don’t have the form of books,” Lehrer said.

Dinnertime often finds Lehrer mining Richard Olney’s The French Menu Cookbook, and she keeps a steady lookout for his others. “He’s got more out there that I just do covet and am saving up for. And I’m not talking about reprints, I’m talking about original prints,” she said. To Lehrer’s mind, subsequent editions can become corrupted in the interest of offering healthier recipes and are often simplified for the sake of inexperienced cooks. “It’s all about that 30-minute meal,” she said.

Growing up, Lehrer foraged for cookbooks at the Carpenter branch of the St. Louis Public Library. She spent her college years sniffing around yard sales and second-hand stores. Now she shops mostly at Marshall’s and Tuesday Morning.

“I’ve even caught myself – this is horrible – going into a store knowing what I’m going to cook for dinner that night, picking up a cookbook, seeing what they suggest and putting it back and going home. Because I know I’m not going to have time to rummage through all my cookbooks.”

At times, Lehrer’s craving for new recipes has led her to commit petty theft. “I took some cookbooks from my grandmother. I borrowed them and they never went back,” she said.

“This sounds really bad now that it’s all out. I never thought I had a problem.”

The Recipe Reader

“In the ’80s, I was the only black guy in the projects with a subscription to Bon Appetit,” said Robert E. Smith of University City.

His rhyme-and-reason-less collection of recipes includes magazine clippings, serial recipe cards and “many hundreds” of cookbooks that he’s pack-ratted away in his basement, a storage shed and his father’s house.

“I would have many more than I have, except that I just have no place to put them,” Smith said. “I didn’t set out to collect cookbooks, it’s just that I started cooking when I was probably 6. My grandmother and my mother told me that women were not put on this earth to serve my needs, and so they taught me to iron, cook, do laundry – to essentially be self-sufficient,” he said.

The older the collected item, the more eagerly Smith showed it off. Out of his bag emerged a stack of Cooking Light recipe cards, one of his favorite subscriptions, dated 2000; a 1993 Everybody Cooks, which belongs to a series he back-ordered from Dierbergs; late-’80s installments of Good Food Magazine and the Post-Dispatch’s Dining Out (Smith only realized why he’d saved the Post section when he spotted Papa Fabarre’s recipe for French onion soup on the back); a crêpes cookbook from 1976 … the list unfurls for pages.

“This is copyrighted 1948, and there was another edition in 1951,” said Smith, holding up The Wise Encyclopedia of Cookery. “Here’s a recipe that calls for a cup of mayonnaise. That’s like one cup of heart attack,” he said.
Though Smith recently checked out a cooking school, the busy optometrist said he doesn’t spend much time in the kitchen. “On those occasions when I do have a chance to cook, essentially I just use a recipe for the ingredients. I don’t really cook by the directions. I just sort of do it the way I know how to do it,” he said.

Smith’s scant stove-time notwithstanding, he continues to gather recipes. He can’t help it. “When you collect things, I think that what happens is things start calling you,” he said. “You’ll just be walking down the aisle of a bookstore and you hear this voice. ‘Buy me. Pick me up. Take me home.’”

The Bibliophile

Lana Shepek is a material girl living in a virtual world. Sure, she could pluck recipes off the Internet, but she prefers to have them bound in a book.

Her collection hovers at around 3,000 and is spread throughout all but one room of her home in Belleville. Her husband and daughters think this is “a little bit over the top.” (Her words, not theirs – but that’s probably obvious.)

Some things Shepek picks up allow her to glimpse history, i.e., Benjamin Franklin’s On the Art of Eating Together With the Rules of Health and Long Life and the Rules to Find Out a Fit Measure of Meat and Drink. Even 500 Delicious Dishes From Leftovers can take a person back in time.

Other cookbooks offer comic relief. “Here’s a whole book on recipes that you use nonfat dried milk in,” Shepek said. “I just think that’s the funniest thing in the world.” Books like Are you Hungry Tonight? Elvis’ Favorite Recipes likewise leave Shepek amused. Listening, as the cookbook suggests, to Viva Las Vegas while enjoying eggs Benedict? That is funny.

Above all, Shepek appreciates her cookbooks as books. She reads their dedications, consults their indexes, examines the ink with which they’re printed and so on. (Turns out she can tell the difference between American and European inks.)

“Each book is a piece of art. When you look at the art and you look at the page and you look at the food styling and even … how they put the adjectives of what they describe – it’s just such a delight,” she said.

Shepek’s inner librarian has organized her collection more or less methodically. “I have baking and I have breads. I have cakes and pies and cookies. My older editions are in a separate bookcase that’s out of the light. It’s kind of like keeping a wine cellar. You don’t want moisture in there,” she said.

Could Shepek stop collecting? “I don’t think so,” she said after a long pause. As far as she’s concerned, keep ’em coming. “I don’t want the cookbook authors to stop writing,” she said.