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A couple of months ago, while chatting with the smart, food-loving crowd at Celia Sack’s wonderful little cookbook store, Omnivore Books, I posed a question.  How many recipes, I wondered, do you use from any given cookbook?  Two or three, said one voice. Five or six, said another.  Nobody, including me, used more than that.  That got me thinking about all the cookbooks I own from which I only use ONE  recipe–and there are many–which in turn sparked the following rumination.

When you bought the cookbook, you were sure it was forever.  You browsed through it on the first day, turning down corners or maybe sticking post-its on the pages.  Within a week you had tried a few of the recipes and while not every one was great, one of them knocked your socks off.  I’ll have to remember that, you said to yourself.

And you did.  You remembered that the citrus pork roast was in the big book with the blue cover (maybe, if you’re better about these things than I am, you even remembered the name of the book and the author), and you made it many, many times over the years–though not quite enough times to be able to pull it off without at least glancing at the recipe. After a while, the blue book began opening to the page all by itself.  You could even see the crease in the spine corresponding with the location of the much-loved recipe.

And one day, you looked up from preparing the roast to realize that you hadn’t cooked anything else from that book since the week you bought it, and that you had essentially paid $25 or $35 for a single recipe.  On the other hand, you consoled yourself, what a recipe!

We all have books like these–cookbooks full of promise when purchased, yet which gradually became equated with a single iconic recipe in our repertoires. I have dozens of them.  To name just a few: the Everyday 100% Whole Wheat Sandwich Bread from Artisan Breads Every Day,  the lamb burgers with dried fig and mint relish from the New York Times Country Weekend Cookbook, the Butter Roasted Pecans from The Savannah Cookbook, the Corn Salad with Walnuts and Goat Cheese from The Young Man and the Sea, the Chicken and Dumplings from Refined American Cuisine, the Classic Cole Slaw from Bon Appetit Y’all.

A few years ago, to save wear and tear on my one-recipe books, I started xeroxing their single contributions and keeping them in a binder, along with handwritten recipes and recipes from friends and family.  I pull that black binder out almost every week for one old favorite recipe or another, even though I spend most of my stove time testing new recipes from unfamiliar cookbooks.

I always feel a twinge of guilt, though, for all the unexplored recipes in those books.  Yet I do have hope that redemption lies in store for my one-recipe cookbooks (thanks principally to Eat Your Books, the cookbook-indexing website).  Sometime I’ll be searching for the perfect non-boring green bean recipe–which I do practically every week, so far in vain–and there it will be! in a book I know has got one great recipe…and maybe, just maybe, so much more.

The first week of every January, I have an enviable problem–a problem of abundance in every way.  Holiday roundups are over, and after a week of bingeing on festive food I need to get back on my treadmill, which kept getting covered in books throughout December.  It’s time for cookbook cleanup!

Only problem is, somewhere between 200 and 300 books came in over the fall, and I want to keep them ALL.  But my bookshelves are already full.  It’s time for some ruthless winnowing.  Heartbreaking, but there you have it.

This morning I rolled up my sleeves and hit the “Single-Subject” section of my library.  Do I really need 4 books on pasta?  8 books on meat cookery (and even more than that on seafood)?  Agonizing over every one, I part with a book here, a book there.  So long to the matched set of little gift cookbooks on Apples, Squash, and Tomatoes–so pretty, but not actually useful. So long to the fifth book just on soup.  Adieu to the Very Ambitious Salad book and the hardbound edition of the seafood book I use in paperback.  Farewell to the book on flavored butters–I think I can figure those out for myself.  Goodbye, sort-of-disappointing stew book!

All in all, I drop about 40 books into the “gift” pile.  Hurray!  Now I have room for I Love Meatballs! and Salsas of the World and yet another book of salad dressings!

To tell the truth, the single-subject section is actually the easiest to winnow.  Most of the books are not on my cookbook-indexing website, Eat Your Books, (an indexed book is harder to part with! ), and the quality is not as consistent or the depth of knowledge as great.  The main virtue of a single-subject cookbook is that it makes it easy to look up, say, a blueberry recipe when blueberries are in season.  But searchable databases make that so easy anyway…so a single-subject book has to have some other compelling virtue (say, thoroughness, or helpfulness) for me to keep it.

I’ll be moving on next to the Baking section, which–despite being the least used section of the  library–accounts for the most calories I consume over the course of a year.  But’s that’s OK.  At least I can find my treadmill now.

The last 8 weeks in cookbooks.  I could go longer, but I really need to get back on the treadmill…

Now cooking

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