Interview with Mediterranean Cookbook Collector and Author Laurie Constantino
A Spotlight on Cookbook Collectors Interview by Cookbook Village
Laurie Constantino is a food writer and cookbook author. She also happens to have the cookbook collecting bug that we so often write about on our store blog. Recently, Cookbook Village was fortunate to add a selection of Greek cookbooks to Laurie's expansive collection. Specializing in Greek cuisine, Laurie has over 4,000 cookbooks in her collection, 550 of them are focused on Greek cuisine. She posts her catalog on her website.
After learning about our Spotlight on Cookbook Collectors interview series, Laurie kindly agreed to participate with an interview of her own. The result was a wealth of tips and online resources for collectors, chefs and home cooks. Read on to find out what Laurie shared -- from tips on a website that matches recipes in cookbooks with food on your shelves to info on her new cookbook.
How did you start out collecting cookbooks?
At age five, I made scrambled eggs and knew I’d done magic. I was hooked on cooking. Salads and eggs were my specialties. I learned to bake at eight. On Saturdays, my mother gave me free rein of the kitchen as long as I cleaned up afterwards. I poured over Betty Crocker’s Cooky Book (1963) so often I could recite my favorite recipes by heart.
After leaving home, I cooked pretty much everywhere I lived. Sometimes because no one else knew how, or because no one could make the odd concoctions I favored, but usually because cooking was still magic. It made daily woes vanish into nothingness.
I was always broke, buying cookbooks out of the question. I clipped recipes from newspapers and sent away for free recipe pamphlets (computers and the internet were still years away). I taped the recipes into books of old class notes. I haunted libraries and bookstores, jotting down new recipes for my homemade book. The only “real” cookbooks I owned -- Betty Crocker, Joy of Cooking, Moosewood, and Vegetarian Epicure -- had all been gifts.
I started buying cookbooks after I got my first post-college job. I’d spend lunch hours in bookstores and plan purchases carefully. I cooked through every new book, and bought another only when I exhausted the possibilities in the last new book. I wasn’t yet a collector.
The collecting bug kicked in after I moved to Bethel, Alaska, a remote Eskimo village separated from the state’s Bering Sea coast by miles and miles of wind-swept tundra. In Bethel, I met and married a Greek-American man. Living in a town without bookstores (and still no internet), I sought out a distant bookstore specializing in cookbooks. I wrote to The Food and Wine Library in Ann Arbor, Michigan asking for a catalog. In reply, I had a nice note from owner Jan Longone and a typewritten list of books and cooking ephemera she had for sale. That day, pouring over Jan’s quirky descriptions and wanting way more books than I could afford, I became a collector.
How many books do you have in your collection?
Four thousand, give or take a few hundred
What is your cookbook specialization (do you collect a particular category or genre of cookbooks - e.g. vintage, restaurant, signed, etc.)?
My collection is diverse, but I specialize in Greek cookbooks and am always looking for privately published church, community, family, and restaurant cookbooks. I have about 550 Greek cookbooks; a little over half are privately published. I maintain a bibliography of my Greek cookbooks at LaurieConstantino.Com. I collect Mediterranean, Middle Eastern, North African, Balkan, and vegetable/vegetarian cookbooks. I also buy many books outside those areas because they catch my fancy.
Do you collect cookbooks to cook or to look?
I cook from my books and also use them as writing resources. Since eatyourbooks.com started, I cook from my collection more frequently. For those who haven’t heard of it, Eat Your Books is a terrific subscription service that includes a database of most cookbooks with ISBN numbers (over 110,000). More importantly, the site has fully indexed 3,600 of the most popular English-language cookbooks; that number continues to grow. The index is searchable by a wide range of variables and helps match the food in my refrigerator with recipes in books I haven’t used for years.
What is the most valuable cookbook in your collection and how much is its estimated value?
I have absolutely no idea. For me, a cookbook’s primary value is in its content and not its sale price.
What is your favorite collectible cookbook from your collection and why?
My favorite changes all the time. My current favorite is called On Greek Hill: A Greco-Appalachian Cookbook by 'leni Turleigh (1982). It has really wild recipes -- there’s one called "Surrealistic Me" that makes me laugh every time I read it. [To make "Surrealistic Me," fill a bowl with marshmallow creme, drizzle it with cold chocolate syrup, sprinkle with peanuts, and wait for the creme to swell up making surrealistic pattern. The decorated marshmallow creme is used as a sweet dip for Butterfingers and Peanut Bars. Best recipe ever?]
Tell us about the best bargain you ever made for one of your cookbooks and where you found it.
I buy cookbooks everywhere they’re found, with all kinds of different prices. I get most excited about unusual content, not price.
Is there a cookbook title you are seeking but haven't found yet? If so, what is the title and author and what makes it special?
I don’t yet have all the Greek cookbooks that have been privately published in the United States. I’m constantly looking for new-to-me titles. I’d be happiest if I had a copy of every such book that has ever been published. I’d most like to find the first Greek community cookbook ever published in the United States (after I figure out the name of that book).
How do you display and organize your collection (on shelves alphabetically, by certain categories, dates, etc)?
I organize my cookbooks by category. The Greek books are also organized by state/region.
Do you have any advice for someone interested in getting started with cookbook collecting?
Start buying cookbooks that inspire you to cook or on subjects that interest you. Little by little you will naturally discover which kinds of books you like best. Collect cookbooks for enjoyment and pleasure, not purely for monetary value. Think ahead to where you will store your books. A large collection takes up lots of space and many bookshelves. Learn to cull before your collection takes on a life of its own.
About Laurie Constantino
Laurie Helen Constantino and her husband live in Anchorage, Alaska, and Atsiki, Limnos, a traditional village on a rural Greek island. Mediterranean food plays a starring role in both kitchens and both houses are well stocked with cookbooks. Laurie writes about food at www.laurieconstantino.com (previously Mediterranean Cooking in Alaska). In 2007, her first cookbook "Tastes Like Home: Mediterranean Cooking in Alaska" was published; a 2nd Revised Edition came out in 2011. Currently, Laurie is hard at work on an upcoming book about her Greek cookbook collection.