My name is Jonathan, and I have an addiction.
Yes, you might think this is a strange place to admit an addiction, but an article about cooking seems to be just the place.
You see, I have an addiction to cookbooks. I love cookbooks, read cookbooks and admit to collecting cookbooks. I have hundreds easily but I’m a little afraid to count so I really cannot be sure.
I used to be able to fit them all into the two Billy bookcases I have but now they seem to have taken over an entire room in a general organization scheme – Asian here (but Chinese and Thai over there), Italian on this shelf, French on that one. Baking up there, but bread down here.
There’s also a British ménage a trois happening somewhere in that pile, Nigel Slater on the highest shelf, Jamie in the middle for easy access and Nigella right at the bottom. The most recently used are stacked all over the floor and kitchen counter, waiting to be put back on the shelf.
A big fat pile is next to my bedside table – either just read or waiting to be read. A tall stack of new purchases and gift from last Christmas (and the Christmas before too) is in my study waiting for a home. I may need to move them out soon, just for more space.
And let’s not even start on the mountain of cooking magazines I have lying around either.
I really can’t help myself. I’ll curl up on the couch with a new acquisition and read it like a trashy swimsuit magazine, devouring the pictures, making mental lists of recipes to try or techniques to pinch.
People who collect cookbooks (and trust me, I’m not the only freak around and there are plenty of us out there) think that they are unique because they read cookbooks the way people read novels. And in recent years, publishers have also figured this out and have started getting their writers to incorporate essays together with their recipes. I get it. Every cookbook collector who also likes a good story gets it too.
Fiction or not, these stories are what bind the recipes together, and you can actually sit down and read them from cover to cover — even if you’re not a kitchen nerd like me who likes to imagine making all kind of tasty treats while reading and then, not actually make them. I subscribe to the “it’s the thought that counts” school quite literally.
Yes, it’s true. I have a lot of books I haven’t cooked from. Though I’ve read through all of them at least once and the pages are seasoned with Post-it notes, there are many which I haven’t cooked a single thing from. Yet.
I can already hear some of you thinking “How odd? Why buy books you don’t use?” Oh, I don’t know – big names, glamorous chefs, lustful pictures, beautiful covers, and pretty choices of font/paper/printing technique. Do I really need a reason? I just like reading them and to my defense there are many that I do use.
Some are fanciful and technically complicated books that fill me with amazing inspiration (Alinea, French Laundry, NOMA, elBulli). Some I reference frequently (Jamie Oliver, Bill Granger – nope, no Gordon Ramsay in my library).
Some I buy them because I love the philosophy behind what the authors put on their table (David Chang, Nigel Slater). Some I read to sate my wanderlust for regional cuisines (Claudia Roden, Andrea Nguyen, Madhur Jaffry).
There are also those that I’ve acquired to learn a particular thing from, be it writing-style (Ruth Reichl), presentation and photography (Donna Hay), heritage (Mrs Wee Kim Wee’s Cooking for the President) and of course there are the “one day I’m going to try that” project books (the most recent being Milk Bar by Christina Tosi’s desserts – I first need to get myself an ice cream maker).
But to be frank, many were just good deals that were impossible to pass up – I am a sucker for a bargain. I need serious help each time I walk into BookXcess or the Big Bad Wolf sales.
I also love searching for books by local cookbook writers whenever I travel abroad. Lord knows I’ve had many a miserable flight home with heavy carry-ons and overweight luggage. Seriously, I can’t be held accountable when I find the mother lode. I try to cull my stash down every time but I’m obviously hopeless at it. I just like them all.
One of my best cooking-from-cookbook memories was when a group of friends, made up of both food bloggers and hungry souls alike, decided to get together for an epic cookout challenge to celebrate the launch of a friend’s then newly-published cookbook.
Essentially, the gathering was what most people would categorize as a potluck dinner, but us eccentric sorts just had to rename it a “PotOrder” party instead. You see, the official menu has been drawn out earlier and all guests were assigned a partner and a signature dish from the pages of Cooking with Chef Michael Elfwing to recreate.
I made Chicken Liver Pâté with Red Onion Jam for the very first time and was surprised at how “simple” it was. Everyone, no matter what levels of culinary expertise, shared my sentiments as well. Between the 18 of us that evening, we produced over 10 glorious dishes (not counting the three different varieties of desserts), which Chef Michael would have otherwise whipped up in his 5-star kitchen. Needless to say we gave ourselves a good pat on our backs and ate ourselves silly.
Now, the wheels in my head are churning. I’m thinking what if we tried organising a monthly PotOrder party. Imagine how many good meals we could actually have. The possibilities are just endless.
By the end of the year, we would have fully acquainted ourselves with the recipes of Ferran Adrià, Thomas Keller, Heston Blumenthal, Tetsuya Wakuda, Julia Childs, David Boulud, Luke Nguyen, Justin Quek or Mario Battali. And most of all, I cannot be crucified for not ever cooking from my stash of cookbooks right?
Maybe, this is my epiphany for the year! Anyone for a PotOrder?
This article was originally published on The Malaysian Insider‘s Food column on 7 March 2012.