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Man, Woman, Eat, Read 

What's cooking at your local library

Published March 20, 2007 at 7:17 p.m.

"This is not a quiet place," Jessica Allard informs a crowd of students at the New England Culinary Institute. "The more rambunctious, the better." Allard, 26, isn't talking about the dorms or even the kitchens on the NECI campus, where raised voices, clatter and sizzle are par for the course. She's talking about the library. "You can eat, but don't leave your dishes," the librarian continues, before pointing out that the library offers free coffee. The milling students beam and nod their heads; they clearly approve of the youth-friendly policies. But the NECI library benefits more than those enrolled in culinary school. Although they can't check out the food-themed books, the cooking public is welcome to browse - and make photocopies from - the 5712 items in the collection.

Here you can find 23 books on the topic of "garde manger," one of the stations in a restaurant kitchen, and 27 titles on food of the Caribbean. Anything deemed a culinary classic is kept at both NECI campuses: Montpelier and Essex. But even taking the duplicates into account, the culinary collection is by far the largest in the area. It includes, for example every edition of The Joy of Cooking and of the Larousse Gastronomique. Also in the NECI collection: 300 titles published in the last five years and 40 different food-related periodicals.

Cookbooks, especially those with pretty pictures and rigorously tested recipes, don't come cheap: Many of the gorgeously photographed, hardcover tomes cost between $30 and $50 dollars. Can't afford to drop that much on a book when you might not like the recipes? That's where your local public library comes in.

With cookbooks sales at an all-time high and new titles coming out all the time, librarians have plenty to choose from. At Fletcher Free Library in Burlington, a keyword search on the term "cookery" yields 1232 different titles. Rutland Free has 859, Kellogg-Hubbard in Montpelier has 733 and the Athenaeum in Saint Johnsbury has a smaller assortment of 229.

With so many titles on the market, how do librarians decide? Penelope Pillsbury, library director at Brownell, reads reviews in Booklist, The Library Journal and Publisher's Weekly, and pays attention to the New York Times bestseller list. Robert Resnik, who has been buying cookbooks for the Fletcher Free Library for 17 years, also snaps up "the newest, most colorful and most beautiful," but he's even more excited about the strange and obscure. "I get trembly when I find a book on a cuisine I've never seen before," he says. No wonder Burlington's public library offers titles on topics as diverse as African bush food and creating an authentic Elizabethan feast.

It's not surprising that NECI has esoteric titles, too. Have you ever seen Paul Kovi's Transylvanian Cuisine, published in 1985? Probably not, but you can find it at both NECI locations. Want Gourmet magazines from 1959? They have those, as well.

The selection at a particular library should tell you a little about the culture of the surrounding area. That's probably why you'll find 22 books at Fletcher Free on the topic of maple. "My goal has mostly been to reflect the cooking habits and what people are interested in around Burlington," Resnik explains. "As the population changes and people get more interested in cooking all different kinds of food, they're more open to wild and crazy cookbooks."

At NECI, according to Allard, sustainability is now an important buzzword for the students. To feed the need the library has recently acquired, for example, Felicia Wu's The Future of Genetically Modified Crops: Lessons from the Green Revolution and A Field Guide to Buying Organic by Luddene Perry.

Public libraries cater to non-cooks, too, so they have to be pickier about what they put on their shelves. "We're trying to cover as many bases as possible," explains Resnik. "If I have one definitive Vietnamese cookbook and a few back-ups, I declare victory."

Pillsbury recently "weeded" between 100 and 150 books from the cookbook section - the discards will be sold at the library's next book sale. She got rid of "stuff that doesn't circulate, stuff that's not popular anymore," she explains. Among the deadweight: cookbooks by Jeff Smith, known as the Frugal Gourmet, which were wildly popular until he was accused of child molestation. Resnik also mentions Smith in the context of culling. "Interest in his books just plummeted when people found out what he was really like," he explains. Another reason to get rid of recipe books: torn pages, gooey splatters and broken bindings. "No matter how wonderful a book is," Resnik says, "if it looks like someone has chewed it up, nobody will take it out."

What kind of books do librarians hang on to? "It's a balance between keeping the classics in stock and keeping your ears open for really cool new stuff," Resnik explains. Pillsbury thinks the same way. She'll let a book stay if "it's a standard," and will keep pretty much anything from Vermont. She confesses that personal preference can come into play. "Sometimes I'm a little less likely to throw out older preserving and canning books, because I like to do that," she admits. "The personality of the selector" is important, Resnik concedes. Fletcher Free has nine books on mushroom foraging and cookery, which happens to be one of his obsessions. NECI has eight.

Of course, some books seem to walk away on their own, and which ones disappear can also be telling. At NECI, one title they can't keep in stock is the easy-to-read, scientific On Food and Cooking by Harold McGee. It's required for various NECI classes. The library has also lost several copies of the multivolume El Bulli books by celeb chef Ferran Adria. These massive, photo-rich titles cost between $190 and $300 each and won't be replaced any time soon, according to Allard. At Fletcher Free, Resnik notes that a few barbecue cookbooks have disappeared over the years.

Library holdings related to food are mainly found in the 641s -the call numbers for topics on "food and drink" in the Dewey Decimal system. But a dedicated gastronome can find books relating to food in almost every nook and cranny of the building. Look for tasty movies like Chocolat and Julia Child's cooking shows in library DVD and VHS collections at the Fletcher Free. There, you can also find recent bestseller The Omnivore's Dilemma by Michael Pollan cataloged in the "general customs" section of social sciences, while Eat, Drink and Be Healthy, by Walter Willett, M.D. of Harvard, is stacked with books on "promotion of health."

In the children's room, there are still more scrumptious selections. Just to whet your appetite, check out The Stinky Cheese Man and Other Fairly Stupid Tales by Jon Scieszka and If You Give a Mouse a Cookie by Laura Joffe Numeroff. At Brownell, where they partner with NECI on a children's reading and cooking program, youth librarian Mary Graf is particularly proud of their "multicultural cookbooks for students." Kids who visit Brownell can check out books on the cuisines of such diverse cultures as Austria, Norway, Lebanon and Korea. But while the books do have recipes, they're not just about separating eggs and kneading dough - they feature regional maps and historical info, too. The idea: Understanding a country's food is a stepping-stone to understanding its culture.

Exchanging recipes might still mean copying your favorite muffin formula longhand onto a pretty card and giving it to a friend, but it can also mean returning Barbara Sheen's The Foods of Greece to the library so that you can take out Moroccan Modern by Hassan M'Souli. Having so many options is enough to make a gastronome shout for joy. But be careful. Librarians - at least at places other than NECI - might not take kindly to that sort of thing.

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About The Author

Suzanne Podhaizer

Suzanne Podhaizer

Former contributor Suzanne Podhaizer is an award-winning food writer (and the first Seven Days food editor) as well as a chef, farmer, and food-systems consultant. She has given talks at the Stone Barns Center for Agriculture's "Poultry School" and its flagship "Young Farmers' Conference." She can slaughter a goose, butcher a pig, make ramen from scratch, and cook a scallop perfectly.


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