Test-Driving Cookbooks

October 13, 2011

One of my favorite new hobbies since starting the Experiment is checking out cookbooks from the library. At the beginning of the year, I gravitated toward specialty cookbooks, such as The Gluten-Free Gourmet and Super Natural Cooking, and borrowed them one at a time. Once I got the book home, I’d flip through it, page by page, and mark the most appealing recipes that highlighted seasonal ingredients. Then I’d incorporate as many of these recipes as possible into our meals for the three weeks before the due date. I experimented with different pizza crusts, innumerable preparations for beans, and two or three sweeteners for homemade ice cream (honey is by far the best). At the end of each three-week trial period, I logged the best dishes in my iPad recipe app before I returned the book to the library.

Once the CSA pickups started in June and I had specific vegetables in the fridge that needed to be cooked pronto, I had to change my strategy. These days, I borrow three cookbooks at a time, and I favor more encyclopedic volumes, like The Martha Stewart Living Cookbook (first the “new classics,” then the “original classics”) and Gourmet Today. These types of books are more likely to include recipes for unusual ingredients like celeriac and to have several ideas for dealing with hearty greens. (Am I the only one who’s become totally bored with chard sautéed with garlic and kale and white bean soups?)

Each week after I bring home my veggies, I scour the indexes of my borrowed cookbooks for inventive ways to prepare squash and eggplant and green beans and cabbage—or whatever it is that’s now in the refrigerator. Sure, I could conduct similar searches on Epicurious or Chow, but I prefer a better curated collection. A good cookbook is the product of years of meticulous writing, testing, and rewriting, and even the larger tomes have personality and a point of view. For example, I trust Martha Stewart’s Baking Handbook at times I need a cake to come out perfectly on the first try.  I rely on The Art of Simple Food for good basic recipes for soups, meats, vegetables, and pastas that can easily be embellished. If I need practical advice, say, an appropriate herb substitution for mint, I turn to the Joy of Cooking.

Borrowing cookbooks from the library has introduced me to new chefs, home cooks, and palates. I’ve become more familiar with the best of the best without sacrificing my limited shelf space—which will become even more limited if Channing and I can find a used butcher’s block to put in the place of our kitchen bookcases. Some of the cookbook authors I’ve met via the library, like Ruth Reichl (Gourmet Today) and  Lynne Rossetto Kasper (The Italian Country Table), write recipes perfect for my cooking style, i.e., local, seasonal, American, often vegetarian, and occasionally adventurous. Others have been less helpful. I checked out Jamie Oliver’s The Naked Chef a few weeks ago because I dig his food philosophy. But not one of the recipes spoke to me—I could find very few of my CSA veggies in the index—and I ended up returning the book unused. I haven’t given up on Jamie, but now I know to try him in a different season (spring, perhaps?) and to pick up one of his more recently published titles.

So I guess you’re wondering how I’ll use this knowledge once the Experiment is over. Will I go on a cookbook-buying bender? I doubt it. I’ve stopped logging recipes from my library books in my iPad because it’s time-consuming and just adds to my digital clutter (hmm, topic for another post?). I figure these books and tons more will still be in the library next time I want them (assuming they aren’t burned). And besides, how can I make a lifetime commitment of shelf space to a new cookbook when I haven’t even started my way through the library’s Jacques Pepin collection or cracked the cover of Baking with Julia?


A Library of Possibilities

February 20, 2011

“The public library is the only institution in American society whose purpose is to guard against the tyrannies of ignorance and conformity.” —Leonard Kniffel

Last night I made a couple recipes from a cookbook I borrowed from the library. A cookbook. From the library. Borrowing cookbooks is a great option for me because I am always looking for new recipes, and although thousands upon thousands of recipes are available on the Internet, I have much more faith in those that have not only been tested but also wrung through the editorial process.

I put the cookbook (Lynne Rossetto Kasper’s The Italian Country Table) on hold more than a week ago but wasn’t able to pick it up until Thursday, thanks in part to a 12 percent reduction in library hours in Fairfax County. Fiscal year 2010 saw a 15 percent reduction in the Fairfax County Public Libraries budget, including the reduction in hours, the elimination of dozens of staff and administration positions, and a 25 percent cut in the materials budget. The budget was reduced by an additional $2.7 million in fiscal year 2011. More staff positions were eliminated, meaning fewer librarians are available to help patrons. Plus, youth and adult programs were cut, the summer reading program was shortened, wait times for new materials have increased, and certain periodical subscriptions were not renewed.

Libraries across the country are facing similar financial troubles, and some municipalities are actually turning to the private sector for help. A company called Library Systems & Services (LSSI) has taken over the operation of 13 library systems in California, Oregon, Tennessee, and Texas to help them cut costs, mostly by laying off employees and cutting pensions. (Recently the city of Stockton, California, rejected LSSI’s bid to manage its public libraries in large part because of the citizens’ outcry against the company.)

Despite the last few troubling years, I don’t see libraries going the way of the dodo. In fact, 63 percent of adults in the United States have a library card, and library use is at an all-time high. Libraries aren’t simply repositories for books. They offer dozens of other materials, including audiobooks, magazines, newspapers, journals, DVDs, and even ebooks. They also provide free Internet access, computer software such as word processing and spreadsheet programs, and wi-fi, for those with laptops—not to mention a quiet space for research, reading, or reflection. Library staff organize book groups, literacy programs, summer reading programs for kids, delivery service for homebound senior citizens, and programs for the homeless, people with disabilities, and people who speak English as a second language. The staff librarians are perhaps any library’s greatest asset. These are people who can guide you through the huge amount of media the library makes available.

Two years ago, when we first stopped buying new things, Channing rediscovered the library, and he still makes regular trips there. Our public libraries are a hugely valuable resource, and (aside from a few measly tax dollars—an average of $34 per year per American) their use is free! You can find one near you here. Feel free to browse before you go; most public libraries have their own websites. The Fairfax County library system even has a free iPhone app. Take advantage.


Fairfax County Public Library FY2011 Budget, April 27, 2010.
Gordon Flagg, “LSSI Finds More Resistance to Its Library-Management Bids,” American Libraries, February 16, 2011.
Leonard Kniffel, “Libraries Now More Than Ever,” American Libraries, October 17, 2010.
Leonard Kniffel, “12 Ways Libraries Are Good for the Country,” American Libraries, December 21, 2010.
Kali Schumitz, “Fairfax County Libraries Feel, Try to Avoid Budget Pain,” Fairfax Times, February 2, 2010.
Kali Schumitz, “Shortened Library Hours Likely to Remain,” Fairfax Times, May 11, 2010.
Roberta A. Stevens, “Outsourcing: Turning a Negative into a Positive,” American Libraries, January 10, 2011.
David Streitfeld, “Anger as a Private Company Takes Over Libraries,” New York Times, September 26, 2010.