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Sara Moulton on Her Constantly Curated Cookbooks

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

[Photos: Sara Moulton]

Cookbook author, TV chef, and former executive chef of Gourmet Sara Moulton encounters many, many cookbooks in her line of work. Below, she talks about which books she keeps and which she donates to NYU, how a letter from Craig Claiborne changed her life, and the fact that she thinks apps are the next big thing because "cookbooks are obsolete."

Do you consider yourself a collector of cookbooks or is it more a professional hazard?
I still love them. I still read them. I still use them. I would say somewhere in between, because collectors I think go for rare cookbooks, unusual cookbooks, that sort of thing. It's not a hazard, I cull them all the time. They're extremely well organized. I have somewhere between 800 and a thousand, and I think that if I had more room in my house — I live in a loft — I would have more than that. Meaning I've given some away, reluctantly. I give them to the Fales Library down at NYU. They have a culinary collection.

There are several reasons I have so many cookbooks, besides the fact that I love them. I worked at Gourmet for all those years, and oftentimes we would just get cookbooks. But for many years I've covered Good Morning America's best cookbooks of the year, so in that process I end up getting hundreds every year. So I have to cull them, I have to decide which ones I'm going to keep. I use my cookbooks for research purposes and secondarily to get ideas for new recipes.

How do you decide which books get culled?
If I already have something that's very similar. You know, it's funny, I've found that — and I'm going to contradict myself in a second — I feel like if a cookbook doesn't have 200 recipes, it's not a serious cookbook. Or at least 150. So the ones that have 60 recipes, unless it's a very concentrated subject like lemons. You know what I mean? Or biscuits. If they don't have 200 recipes, I sort of don't take them seriously. I'm like this person just wanted to throw out a cookbook and there's not a lot here. But conversely if they have a thousand recipes, I find that extremely stressful. I can't handle it. So either end of the spectrum might go in the cull pile, except the small, concentrated books.

You mentioned you have an intense organizational system?
They're very organized. I have them via country. I have them via category, so usually it's by ingredient or technique. So I have a whole bunch of grilling books, I have a whole bunch of meat books, I have a couple chicken books, so I have them like that. And then I have sort of random single subject, you know, like prunes. Actually I don't have a book about prunes and they're called dried plums now anyway. But I have a whole section where it's just one topic. And then I have a whole Americana section which is community cookbooks. That breaks my rule too because those all have a hundred recipes, but they're charming little regional cookbooks and I find those fascinating. And then I have big technique tomes, and then I have books that are written by chefs, and then I have a whole baking section. I have a how-to section and a writing with recipes section, the Calvin Trillin kind of thing.

I don't have them indexed but I know where they are by section. They're in different rooms, they're not all in the same place. I don't just have one room big enough. So they're in the living room, they're in my bedroom, I'm sitting in my son's room which I've been trying to take over as an office and I've got a ton of new ones in here, and also Gourmet going back to 1970. All the way to the day it tanked. So I know that in here, I have all the baking books, and I have the Latin books. I have all the books that I'm in, which is an odd category? [laughs] Sometimes you get into compendiums where they ask a whole bunch of chefs to come up with recipes. I have some of my larger chef books in here, like I have Thomas Keller's books. Then I have my French, my Italian, most of the countries with the exception of Latin books are in my living room. The single subject books are around the corner heading toward the bedroom. And then I have another section in the kitchen which are either books I always want to have handy or they're newer and I want to play with them. Right now I'm on a making bread kick, so I've got like six of those artisanal bread books.

What are the books in your kitchen that you always want on hand?
Jean Anderson's Doubleday Cookbook. That's one that's just a really good reference book. So say, I don't cook a standing rib roast very often. So I could go to all my meat books and see what they all say? I might do that. Or I could just reach for the Doubleday Cookbook . Or if I want a basic recipe for pancakes, I don't just have something in my head, I know it's all in there. Or to figure out a substitution, or figure out why my cake fell, I will go to that book. I think that's the main one. I have favorite authors almost more than favorite cookbooks.

Okay, who are they?
Marcella Hazan in the Italian category. Madhur Jaffrey for the Indian books. Rick Bayless I love for Mexican books. The Union Square cookbook, the Al Forno cookbook, I use those.

So when you're considering books for the GMA end of year list, what qualities are you looking for?
Either something that's a serious tome, meaning that it has tons of research, it's a definitive book, it's extensive. It's a great reference book as well as a good recipe book. That's one. And then the other one is something that's really different, that hasn't been done before. I don't mean it has to be wild and crazy, just I don't want to see the same old recipes over and over and over again. And that happens a lot because people just want to redo the classic Caesar salad or the classic, I don't know, whatever recipe. And you know, I don't need another version of that. If you thought that was exciting, show me a new version of the Caesar salad. Your new version that's maybe regional or has some specific ingredients.

Many years ago I was on the James Beard Awards cookbook committee, and it was: Will this be a book that will still be around 15 years from now, and people will care about this book later? Is this a ground breaking book because it's taking its subject places it's never been before? Or because it's a definitive tome on that subject?

Definitely other books that intrigue me are ones that really want to get me cooking, that are really inspirational. I think that would be true for anybody. So when I'm doing the lists for Good Morning America, I can't pick the more esoteric ones, like a book on offal, because that's just not the Good Morning America audience. We definitely have aspirational books, which would probably be a cuisine that somebody had never heard of before. Like one of them was Mourad: New Moroccan this year. He makes it exciting and accessible, and inspirational. I think that's really huge.

The other thing is cozy. What's so great about food — there are so many things — but it's not controversial. It can have the effect of calming you, or a country, or a people. Help people get through bad times. So also a cookbook that's very cozy. Baking books have that effect on me, although I'm not really a baker. [laughs] But you read them and you read about the biscuit or the cobbler or the scone and you're like oh, it's sort of a different, gentler time. These books are evocative.

I will say that one of the things that's important in a cookbook is the writing. And I meet people on the road who also love cookbooks, and they say they read them like novels, and I agree. I really appreciate it when there is good writing. It engages you even more aside from just the recipes. But I really like the books that both good cookbooks and really well written. What comes to mind is Andrew Carmellini's first book. It turns out his wife was the main writer for it, and she's got his voice. And I knew what he sounded like because I had him on my show Sara's Weeknight Meals, and he was funny and passionate and very deadpan and she just got his voice. Also Jacques Pepin's a great writer. Of course I'm thinking about his book The Apprentice which is some of the best writing on the planet for people in the food industry. Yikes. I just love that.

What cookbook do you wish someone would write?
Africa. I mean, Marcus Samuelsson did sort of a general book [The Soul of a New Cuisine]. But I need — it's huge. And it's so regional. And there are cuisines that we really don't know enough about. And I'm sure there are others we don't know about, either, like all the individual countries of South America. One thing I do value is the Time Life series of Foods of the World. I don't have all of them, but I have most of them. And even though they're now 40, 50 years old, they're still great primers on the cuisines of all of these countries. It's like Waverly Root, who wrote about the food of Italy and the food of France, and that was a great place to start to sort of understand the foods of those countries and also the regional differences. Those definitely fulfill the Beard criteria of being important 15 years later. Those are still important 40 years later!

Do you have any cookbooks that are particularly sentimental?
Yeah, The New York Times cookbook, the first one, for sure. My mom and I cooked our way through that when I was in high school. Actually, when I was year out of college and living in Ann Arbor and cooking in a bar and living with my boyfriend with no career, my mother wrote to Craig Claiborne and asked him what I should do if I wanted to become a chef. And he wrote her back and said she should either go to the Hotel School Lausanne or she should go to the Culinary Institute of America. And I decided to apply to the Culinary Institute of America and I got in. And I wouldn't have done it, it wouldn't have occurred to me, if my mother hadn't written to Craig Claiborne.

When I was in college I was a vegetarian, mainly because I couldn't afford meat. It wasn't that I didn't like meat, it just was expensive. And also that was sort of the first round of the green movement. People being concerned about the environment and buying from co-ops and eating whole grains. And I loved — still do — Vegetarian Epicure books one and two by Anna Thomas and Diet For a Small Planet by France Moore Lappe, those were the three books we cooked from the most when I lived in this house with a bunch of other women. I'm fond of my Julia Child and my Jacques Pepin books, because I've worked with both of them and they're both lovely people.

What are you up to these days?
I have three cookbooks. My most recent is Sara Moulton's Every Day Family Dinners. I have a show on public television called Sara's Weeknight Meals. And then I have an iPhone app called Sara's Kitchen. 60 recipes, 60 photos, ten videos, all shot in my house. I did all the styling and all the propping. It was a lot of fun.

And actually I did the app because I have a feeling — despite having this whole conversation with you about cookbooks — cookbooks are obsolete. I thought I should dip my toe into a different mediums.

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