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Sean Brock on His Southern Cookbook Collection and What Blows His Mind

Welcome to the Cookbook Shelf, in which Eater talks to all manner of food professionals about their book collections. Warning: serious book nerdery ahead.

[Photo courtesy Sean Brock]

The Beard Award-winning chef Sean Brock is the force behind two acclaimed Charleston restaurants, McCrady's and Husk, the latter of which, according to Brock, "is not about rediscovering Southern cooking, but exploring the reality of Southern food." Turns out one needs a pretty big reference library to explore the reality of Southern food, but thankfully, Brock has quite the collection of cookbooks: everything from hundred-year-old, falling apart Southern tomes to a rare Thai cookbook that inspired him to reorganize his pantry corresponding with the sections of the tongue.

Below, Brock tells Eater all about his "bootleg, illegal copy" of the first Noma cookbook, his nearly complete collection of 19th century Southern cookbooks ("I've got most of them"), and his upcoming book on the foods of South Carolina's Low Country.

So you collect cookbooks?
I definitely have a problem. And it didn't really hit me until the other day when after work a bunch of the cooks from McCrady's came over to drink some whiskey and they saw all the books and they were all like "Holy shit. What the fuck, dude, that's a lot of cookbooks." And they just sat there for hours staring at books, not talking. It was awesome. It was cool to see. I guess that's when I realized I had a little bit of an issue. I mean I buy cookbooks every other day, sometimes every day. I just love gathering knowledge and learning and seeing what other people are doing.

How long have you been collecting?
Well, I'm one of those guys that wanted to be a chef when I was twelve years old. I've always collected cookbooks but I think really the first cookbook I got that really made me sit up and pay attention, want to be a professional chef, was certainly the French Laundry. It came out in 1999, so I must have been 21 years old and in culinary school and it inspired me. Very very cool.

So do you focus on any particular types of books?
I'm always looking for the old stuff. I love, love the books that were written in the 19th century. To be able to flip through them, primarily Southern cookbooks, to be able to look at a cookbook from 1881 and read through there you'll learn so much. The ingredients they were cooking, the plants that they were growing, cooking techniques, different cultural influences. Then you've got the more refined cookbooks that have all these feasts. My goal was to really gather all the Southern cookbooks from the 19th century. I'm pretty close I think. I've got most of them.

What books from that era should people know about?
You know, my favorite cookbook of all time is from Jules Arthur Harder and it was published in 1885 and it's called The Physiology of Taste: Harder's Book of Practical American Cookery [and is available on Google Books in full]. I just think it is the absolute coolest cookbook ever written in the history of cookbooks. And I don't think there will ever be one this cool. It's a book that's not only for chefs but also farmers. And it's by ingredient, so if I just open the book to say okra, and then it talks about the definition and its history and then it teaches you how to grow it and then it gives you? Let's see, just on okra [counts] five different plant varieties. And then it gives you [counts] eight recipes for okra, ways to dry and store it.

What blows me away is the idea of setting up a cookbook that way. That's kind of how we think anyway. But what really blows me away is for instance you go to pumpkin and you'll see that in the 19th century, how many varieties of pumpkin were being grown and that people were cooking. And just whatever, all the vegetables in here, there are so many different vegetable varieties. We go to the grocery store today and there's cabbage for instance. How many varieties of cabbage are there at the grocery store? I mean, just a few? But there's like literally a dozen in this book. It just proves there's no excuse for our current state of food. If they could do it in 1885 why can't we do it now?

And the recipes are really cool. I love the way old books are written, the recipes. Cookbooks are supposed to make you a better cook, and cookbooks these days are so dumbed down that it's making bad cooks out of everyone. Because if you read these old books, they weren't recipes, there aren't measurements. They assumed that you knew how to cook. They were just instructions. Take this and do this. Nothing was timed or measured or over medium heat, none of that crap. They really expected you to know how to cook. I'm looking at the corn section right now. [counts] There are like 30 varieties of corn in this book. That's so cool.

So what other types of cookbooks are you into?
I think there's really sort of three categories of books for me. There are the old books, like what I'm holding here, it's called Southern Cooking by Mrs. S.R. Dull, 1928 [also available on Google Books]. And I have an original 1928 autographed copy. And those are those books that are just beautiful, they smell a certain way and the pages read a certain way. Like here we have molded tomato salad, molded tomato aspic. Frozen tomato salad number two and frozen tomato salad number one. The coolest little recipes. For me, especially for [Brock's other Charleston restaurant] Husk, this is the driving inspiration. I have just piles and piles of these old books. I just get inspired because they were cooking a different way with these ingredients that had so much more character. The ingredients that we're trying to get back on the table, specific varieties.

Then you have sort of the chef books. Laurent Gras, Noma, Momofuku, White Heat. Books that home cooks will probably never even dare to attempt. You know, the new Eleven Madison Park book is so gorgeous and so different and it's just absolutely amazing. But how many home cooks are going to cook from that? Hopefully a lot, because then that means that as we continue to make books we don't have to dumb down the recipes. And for a craftsman and an artist like Daniel [Humm, chef at Eleven Madison Park], that's the book he needs to write. That's what he needs to put down. That's his contribution.

Then you have the books that I really really enjoy as well, like the River Cottage books. Those just sort of teach you to look at things in a different light. Look at things as an animal and not just a pork chop. And I love that. There are the books that really teach you about why things do what they do. The Ideas in Food cookbook is just brilliant. It just explains all the questions you have, like On Food and Cooking by Harold McGee. I'm reading Sandor [Ellix Katz's] book Wild Fermentation — these books that help you understand why things work, why things don't work.

I also love all the stuff John T. Edge does. He goes around and documents the South. Anything the Southern Foodways Alliance does. He documents fried chicken cooks and he documents pitmasters and he documents people that have been doing nothing but frying catfish for twenty years. Usually there is a road map involved and it's always with me when I travel.

Do you have any books that are particularly rare?
Oh, yeah, absolutely. I have all kinds of really old neat stuff. Some of the stuff that I really enjoy is probably not that rare but rare to have all of them in one place is I have a full collection of the Good Cook series from Time Life, and I also have the full collection of Time Life's Foods of the World. And those are like 30 volumes each. And they are so cool. Going back, looking at these books, people weren't afraid to cook then. You go to the Good Cook pork book and they're like deboning whole pigs and stuffing them and sewing them back up and cooking them and why are we scared to do that in books now? Because we want to sell books and we're afraid people aren't going to do that now. You look back on these books, though, and there's really complex stuff in there intended for home cooks. So I just love those books to death. Those are really inspiring and the photography is so cool in them.

I'm definitely ashamed and proud to say I have a bootleg of the first Noma cookbook. An illegal, bootleg copy. Which is just? you flip through that book and you see this movement that's about to take off. And the early stages of this brilliant cuisine that influenced so many people.

A book that's pretty hard to find that is one of the first books I got when I was 18 or 19 that really still to this very day influences every plate of food I've ever cooked — it's a Thai book, but it's called It Rains Fishes. It's really, really, really cool, it's about Thai food, but what they do is they talk about the different parts of your tongue. And then they break it apart and they say okay, in Thai cooking this is what you need for sweet, this is what you need for salt, this is what you need for the different parts of your tongue. And then they actually go through it one ingredient at a time paying attention to which part of your tongue is being activated. And so for me that just blew my mind and so every time I'm creating a dish I'm thinking about the parts of my tongue and so now I have my pantry broken into different parts of the tongue. So as we're cooking, it's always in the back of my mind.

Where do you find all this stuff?
There's a great bookstore across the street from Husk called Heirloom Book Company, and they specialized in old stuff. So they get a lot of my money. And they're smart, too, they'll find a 1942 edition of the Fanny Farmer Cookbook and send me an email that says "Just so you know, we found this?" Damn you. I'll be down to get it.

Do you have anything of particular sentimental value?
The French Laundry Cookbook was a gift from my mother when I was going away to culinary school. That was the one thing I wanted. A cool moment for me, to get that and then go away to school and have it with me. So that one is really beat up. That one's always going to be really, really special to me.

But I mean no, my mom uses her books, she's like me. And my grandmother probably never owned a cookbook. She knew how to cook.

Are there any gaps in your collection that you haven't gotten yet?
I'd really like to have a true copy of the first Noma cookbook, there aren't many of those out there. I've got my eyes open for the original On Food and Cooking as well, been trying to find one of those. One of the first printings. That's the kind of stuff I get excited about because those are the hard ones to find. They have that cool feel to them. To me right now the old stuff is what I want. What's fun about it is there's not a catalog on this stuff so it's constant discovery. Finding these books you didn't even know were out there and are just brilliant.

Tell me about the cookbook you're working on.
It's quite the undertaking. To take all these things that are swimming around in your head and in the notebook and organize it and put it into a book that sounds intelligent. Test all these recipes over and over again, tweaking, it's just an insane process. It's been quite the experience for me because now I appreciate these books even more. You hear everybody talking about how difficult it is to write a book and you don't really understand that until you do it yourself. It's just insane.

It's with Artisan who did the French Laundry book so I am absolutely — that's like a dream come true to me. As a young culinary student looking through The French Laundry it's just like wow. Someday, maybe, in a bazillion years I'll be able to do a book like this. It was a publisher that cares that much and puts that much time into a book. I think Artisan makes the most beautiful books. So I'm really excited about the aesthetics of the book.

Who's doing the photography?
I have an incredible photographer who happens to be one of my favorite photographers. Peter Frank Edwards. I trust him, we've been working together for years and I've always loved his photography. The images are exactly what I've always had swimming around in my head, these emotional images of people and things.

The book is just as much a book as it is a cookbook. There are a lot of essays and a lot of stories about my journey as a chef and about all the amazing people I've met along the way who produced the food that we cook. So each chapter will have stories of individuals and howI met them and how they've influenced our cuisine and what their theories are and hopefully that will influence younger farmers and shepherds and pig wranglers and crabbers and all those people.

So are the recipes from McCrady's, Husk, home recipes? A mix?
The recipes are all over the place. There's stuff as simple as my grandmother's recipes handwritten on cards to really modern plated beautiful food. So I want it to be a book for everybody. I want it to be a book home cooks will make pimento cheese from but they'll use the right cheddar and the right mayonnaise and they'll make their own wheat thins with heirloom wheat. All of this has an awareness raising, educational element to it.

It's sort of my life. I go to Husk and make fried chicken, and then I go to McCrady's and make gallotines of chicken with meat glue.

When does it come out?
Early 2013.

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