Serious Eats

Critic-Turned-Cook Says Goodbye To Some Old Cookbook Friends

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[Photographs: Leslie Kelly]

Like most food junkies, I've got a wicked cookbook habit. I constantly need a fix and, as a newspaper food writer/critic for many years, that itch was easy enough to scratch with a steady diet of review copies. I have also scored scores of recipe-filled tomes at bookstores, junk shops, and from friends.

Yet, like all addictions, there comes a day of reckoning, and mine happened last week when a bin of cookbooks came tumbling down from on high in my ridiculously cramped and crowded garage. I took it as a sign that it was time to do a little spring cleaning in the middle of summer. The goal? I would like to be able to park my car in the garage. Maybe it was time to say so long to some old friends, as painful as it might be.

My cookbook habit began innocently enough. When I was in high school, the woman who was like a second mother gifted me a copy of Better Homes and Gardens' New Cook Book, a great guide for beginners. As soon as I mastered that, I moved on to filling my shelves with Julia Child and Craig Claiborne and not one, but two copies of The Joy of Cooking. I committed Marian Burros' 20-Minute Menus to memory and spent hours poring over Barbara Kafka's Roasting and Soup, and loved to linger in Nonna's Kitchen.

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While living in Memphis, I amassed volumes on the Southern cooking I had instantly fallen in love with as soon as I ate my first bowl of turnip greens with cornsticks at The Little Tea Shop and gnawed on that first rib at The Rendezvous. Titles I just cannot quit include Matzoh Ball Gumbo, Who's Your Mama? (Are You Catholic and Can You Make a Roux?), Screen Doors and Sweet Tea by Martha Foose, Bill Smith's Seasoned in the South, and The Lee Bros. Southern Cookbook by Matt Lee and Ted Lee.

I cannot bear to part with those. I won't. But something's gotta go.

As much as I love looking at the original French Laundry Cookbook, I've never had the nerve to make anything from it. Ditto with Peter Reinhart's beautiful bread book, The Bread Baker's Apprentice. Still, I might be up to those challenges someday.

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I guess I could donate some of the kind of corny self-published books I picked up at yard sales and antique stores, but there's no way I'm going to part with my copy of Pies Men Like.

Then, there's all my latest crushes: Ad Hoc At Home, Momofuku, 400 Sensational Cookies, Stir-Frying To The Sky's Edge, Amy Pennington's Urban Pantry and Molto Gusto.

This habit is more difficult to break than I imagined. I might have to go to rehab. Or enlist my husband, the anti-pack rat. The cleaning dynamo who's affectionately known in our household as Mr. Slash-and-Burn. But, in the meantime, opening up that bin of fallen, nearly forgotten books has inspired me to explore some recipes I'd long ago put on the back burner. Maybe this cleaning project will just have to wait.

What about you? What are the cookbooks you just can't live without?

About the author: Former Seattle Post-Intelligencer restaurant critic Leslie Kelly has been apprenticing in professional kitchens since the newspaper folded in March 2009 and chronicling her culinary journey from pen to pan for Serious Eats. She recently began interviewing cooks for Seattle Weekly's food blog, Voracious.

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