Cookbook fans show off their collections

Chef Guillermo Tellez goes over his copy of "The Art of Anton Mosimann" with his daughter Paloma.
Chef Guillermo Tellez goes over his copy of "The Art of Anton Mosimann" with his daughter Paloma. (Kriston J. Bethel / For the Daily News))
Posted: September 07, 2012

GUILLERMO Tellez Cruz will never forget his first.

First cookbook, that is.

Tellez Cruz still has it - the official recipe book for International House of Pancakes, where he worked close to 30 years ago. Tellez Cruz, whose family hails from Mexico, was living in Chicago when he got his first restaurant job, working his way up from dishwashing to flipping flapjacks at IHOP.

"I was so proud when they gave me that book," he recalled. "I treasured that book. I couldn't read English, but I could look at the pictures and start to pick out a few words."

That first book ignited a passion for cooking that Tellez Cruz continues to feed, a love that landed him in Charlie Trotter's kitchens and in the top spot at the Hotel Palomar's Square 1682 restaurant. He'll leave to take over the kitchen at a new Kimpton spot, the Hotel Monaco on Independence Mall, when it opens next month.

The IHOP book also started his collection of cookbooks, a collection that added up to 98 boxes of books when he and his family moved to Downingtown from New York a few years ago. An entire wall in his basement "chefcave" is devoted to his books.

"I've never counted them, but I guess I have hundreds and hundreds," said Tellez Cruz.

He has his favorites: White Heat, by U.K. bad-boy Marco Pierre White, published in 1990, is one. Grand Livre De Cuisine by Alain Ducasse is another. "I don't really sit down and read them, but I thumb through and look at the pictures and content overall. I get inspiration and ideas from things like that," he said.

Tellez Cruz's collection - he likes old cookbooks as well as contemporary works - tells the story of his own culinary journey while reflecting notable changes in food culture.

A portal into the past

Sandi Foxx-Jones isn't a chef, or even a particularly passionate cook. But her collection of old cookbooks is one of her prized possessions. Foxx-Jones has been collecting cookbooks for about two decades at secondhand shops, estate sales and auctions. She doesn't buy them for the recipes but rather for the anecdotes and advice, particularly in the older cookbooks, which talk as much about home remedies and preserving foods as they do about cooking.

She has about 40, with the oldest dating to the late 1700s.

A Philadelphia native, the Rittenhouse Square resident has traveled extensively and lived overseas when she was an officer's wife. She bought her first old recipe collection from a guy in the neighborhood, "a Dumpster diver," who was selling books on the street. It was from 1924.

"I loved all the household hints it had - they said so much about the time. These old books were really geared to teaching young women how to be homemakers," said Foxx-Jones, who owns a title company. "When you think about it, these books offer a portal into another age and time."

She's never cooked any of the really old recipes - "Now I know why people didn't live longer back then!" - but gets a kick out of reading them just the same. "I came across a recipe for macaroni and cheese that told you to heat your shovel if you wanted to make a crust on the macaroni."

A few of her favorite books include the circa-1918 International Book of Jewish Cooking and Miss Parloa's Young Housekeeper, which dates to 1898.

Miss Parloa, a precursor to Betty Crocker, offers helpful advice "designed especially to aid beginners (with) economical receipts for those who are cooking for two or three."

Besides recipes for dishes such as croquettes and vegetable hash, Miss Parloa offers practical tips, including "How to Keep Lettuce Crisp" - for a time when veggies always came with their roots attached: "Lettuce can be kept crisp and fresh for several days, if necessary, by placing the roots in water. Do not let the water come up as high as the leaves. When ready to serve the lettuce, wash it leaf by leaf in a pan of cold water, and drop it into another pan of ice-water. It will become crisp."

"When you think about it, these were things people didn't automatically know - we didn't always have crisper drawers and oven thermometers," said Foxx-Jones, who favors recipes from Jane Brody when she does fire up the stove.

"I'm a widow and I live alone, so really I only cook for company. I make a good meat loaf and brisket."

Because of the age of her collection, Foxx-Jones doesn't keep her books in the kitchen, where they'd be subject to changes in temperature and cooking fumes. They're stored in a little spare room in her apartment.

She'd like to write her own book one day, a history of the evolution of cookbooks, a subject near and dear to her heart.

More cooks/collectors

Collecting cookbooks has let chef Michael Cappon, of Isabella Restaurant in Conshohocken, dig deeper into one of his favorite styles of cuisine: Mexican. "I think Mexican food is generally overlooked as far as its technical difficulty and depth of flavors," he said. Cappon, who doesn't get to play with Mexican food at Isabella, a Mediterranean restaurant, has 10 books just on mole, the chile-fueled dark sauce that can be made in a myriad of varieties.

"I like the books that are also memoirs, that tell stories about chefs and their personal history or about a specific regional cuisine," he said.

While some chefs amass cookbook collections that are worthy of preserving - chef Fritz Blank donated his culinary library to the rare book and manuscript library now housed at the University of Pennsylvania - other collections are, well, more quirky.

When it comes to his cookbooks, chef Mitch Prensky, of Supper and Global Dish Caterers, has an eye for the odd: "I'm kind of OCD, and I can't help but collect things. I collect cookbooks because I love them."

He remembers getting his first, the Peanuts Cook Book, when he was about 7. It had pictures of the "Peanuts" cartoon characters Snoopy, Linus and Lucy and a recipe for tuna salad that included gherkins, which seemed impossibly exotic. Besides snapping up Junior League cookbooks wherever he finds them, Prensky loves weird books that may not have started out to be funny but are anyway. Aunt Bee's Mayberry Cookbook pays homage to the world of the '60s TV characters Andie, Opie and Barney with plenty of extra cheese - and not just in the cheddar cheese ball appetizer.

"Another one I love is The Gallery of Regrettable Food," said Prensky. "That has just horrible food pictures and recipes from the 1940s and '50s, including a lot of congealed and disgusting food - the commentary is hilarious."

Then there's the Bible Cookbook of recipes inspired by the New Testament. "That's funny because I'm Jewish," Prensky said. "What ham salad has to do with the Bible, I don't know. But the book is funny."

Despite covering an entire wall with his collection, there is one book missing from Tellez Cruz's inventory: the one he wants to write one day.

"It would be a book with substance, with a story behind it," he said.

"A big heavy book for the coffee table that would have recipes from all the places I've worked, from the pancake house to Charlie Trotter's. It would be about my own story with food. I think people would like to read that."


Food and travel writer Beth D'Addono writes about authentic travel experiences at unchainedtravel.com.

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