Peek inside a treasured, and massive, cookbook collection
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Peek inside a treasured, and massive, cookbook collection

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People collect many things for many reasons. Often, there is an emotional connection to the collection. A collection might represent childhood or it might be a sign of status or success. Learning the story behind a collection gives you a tiny peek into the person who holds that collection so dear.

Niki with cookbook

Niki Davis' cookbook collection began with this copy of the 'Good Housekeeping Cookbook,' which her grandmother gave to her when she moved into her first apartment.

My cookbook collection began upon receiving my grandma’s 1963 "Good Housekeeping Cookbook" after moving into my first apartment — oh, so many years ago! The teal and cream cover is slightly discolored from age, and many pages are dog-eared. There are notes in the margins and recipe cards from her friends tucked between pages. This is my go-to for many recipes, especially banana bread.

By the time I was born, Grandma didn’t need recipes. She cooked from memory, but this was the one cookbook she used when she did need a recipe. Each time I remove it from the shelf, memories of standing at Grandma’s hip making potato salad come flooding back. That cookbook tells the story of her life and mine and in its pages are many recipes that I grew up eating. These are the same recipes that I know by heart today and cook “from the hip.”

When I received Grandma’s teal cookbook, I was solidly into genealogy research and had become a self-proclaimed history enthusiast. I suppose this helped launch my love of old cookbooks — they represent a piece of history. My collection includes nearly 400 cookbooks: modern favorites like Ina Garten’s “Cook Like a Pro” and many heritage cookbooks like an 1890 copy of “Compendium of Cookery” that was so well-loved the cover is peeling and many pages have come loose.

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Davis takes a particular interest in collecting and translating German cookbooks as a way for her to connect to her family heritage.

Because my family is of German heritage, I collect cookbooks from and about Germany. Many are in German, so translating has become a natural part of my collecting, as well as metric conversion for recipes. These are some of my favorites because they connect me to where my family came from.

Sometimes I hear about a cookbook and add it to my list of “must-finds.” More often, I will browse used bookstores and antique or resale shops and find treasures. That is how I uncovered my 1901 copy of the “Presidential Cookbook.” I collect collections, too, like the Better Homes & Gardens single-topic cookbooks from the 1960s and '70s.

Many of my friends find treasures and save them for me, which is how I received my copy of “Aunt Sammy’s Radio Recipes.” Aunt Sammy predates modern cooking show and podcast hosts. She is the central character of the 1920s “Housekeepers’ Half-Hour” radio show that delivered recipes to listeners.

I read every cookbook in my collection, just as I do Grandma’s "Good Housekeeping." They each tell a story and depict a specific time in history. Cookbooks represent how we live and cook, and what we eat. They provide a history of food and cooking, and even recipe-writing. Cookbooks share cultures other than our own and provide insight into how people from around the world live and eat. On the whole, cookbooks teach us something, whether it is how to cook, how our ancestors preserved food through the winter, or even the many ways we used hot dogs and Jell-O in mid-century America — sometimes together. Preserving food and family history is my passion, and my cookbook collection helps me share my story.

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