The Joy of Cookbook Shopping: Why Bookstore Tourism Matters 

The first puzzle one encounters when seeking out (or stumbling upon) Bonnie Slotnick’s bookstore in New York is how to enter. Perplexed non-locals can often be seen standing in front of the shop, housed in a century-old building in the miasma of the West Village’s tangled streets, staring into the big picture window where Slotnick usually displays books based on a theme. Here’s a hint: walk up the stoop, past the mailboxes, and down the hallway; just before the door where the building’s residents take their final steps returning being home, turn to the right–there you will find a strange and increasingly unusual world: a rare and out-of-print cookbook shop.

Bookstore tourism is becoming increasingly popular. Threats to independent bookshops’ existance posed by big chains and online booksellers have inspired a new motivation for travel. The New York Times recently ran a travel feature on bookshops in San Francisco. The Los Angeles Times has done the same for New York. Gadling got into the act a couple years before that. And for bookshop lovers (and/or for the 99.9 percent of us who don’t have a butler or staff at home to prepare food), Bonnie Slotnick’s shop is one of the country’s coolest bookstores.

Slotnick, who has owned the shop since 1997, thinks cookbooks shouldn’t just be for, you know, cooking.

“When I look at an old cookbook, it takes me away, to another place,” said Slotnick who says cookbooks are a great alternative to travel. “My customers tell me they read them like novels, detective stories, and even like porn.”

In that case, Slotnick’s shop is a museum dedicated to international and historic food porn. Where else, for example, can you browse through a Burmese or Kashmiri or Nepali cookbook? Or pick up a “risque” guide to traditional Ukrainian recipes? Ever wondered what Salvador Dali liked to eat? It’s on the shelf. Weren’t you just thinking you wanted a Russian cookbook, published in 1955, filled with enough Communist propaganda to make Bernie Sanders look like a member of the Tea Party? It’s here (though, sadly, there are no booths for private viewing).

Or would you rather get acquainted with the greats–get to know your MFK Fisher from your James Beard–or pick up a signed copy of an early edition of The Joy of Cooking (just $260)? Slotnick has it among the 4,000 books crammed in her narrow, diminutive shop.

But not everyone is looking for a good narrative in a cookbook. Chefs from some of New York’s most celebrated restaurants often pop in to see if they can revive an old recipe. Mark Ladner from Del Posto, April Bloomfield from the Spotted Pig and the Breslin, Andrew Carmellini from Locanda Verde, and Shane McBride (formerly of Colichio and Sons) have all been in. So has celebrity chef Tyler Florence. “I also get a lot of the younger chefs–from the Jean-Georges and Daniel Boulud restaurants, for example–looking to learn the old school stuff,” Slotnick adds.

This brings up the next piece of the puzzle: how is it that in lower Manhattan in 2011, in a neighborhood that that’s becoming increasingly expensive and homogenized, and whose very historic character is being threatened by the encroaching gold-plated presence of Marc Jacobs and Calvin Klein (among others), does such a wonderful anomaly still exist?

Slotnick boils it down to the beauty of physically browsing for and buying a book.

“Each book is an individual personal story. Which is a reason I think the Kindle is not going to fully replace the actual book.”

She pauses, looks around at the floor-to-ceiling bookshelves, and then adds: “There won’t be any Kindle material that goes back to 1823.”

Bonnie Slotnick Cookbooks is (usually) open six days a week–if you can find it. Just leave the Kindle at home.

The Accidental Chef Travels: A culinary journey through Southwest France

“Here’s to those who show up”, cookbook author and artisan chef Kate Hill announces as we raise our glass of Baron D’Ardeuil Buzet (a Merlot blend) to toast the fruits of our afternoon labor. Yet, labor might be considered a misnomer, since by no means did I consider those precious hours tasting Floc de Gascogne, a local specialty made from Armagnac, while touching and tasting my way around Kate’s extensive gardens replete with fresh lovage, chervil, butter lettuces and soft, green almonds remotely arduous.

Perhaps, I was feeding off the relaxed, peaceful vibe of her uber-content dog, Bacon, who spent most of the afternoon lying on his side in front of the grand hearth fireplace merely inches away from four, bakery fresh baguettes. Like Bacon, in order to fully grasp the atmosphere of life at Kate’s farmhouse kitchen, one must exercise both patience and restraint to properly reap the grand reward found at the end of the day.

Relais de Camont is Kate Hill’s culinary haven. Situated in a small hamlet in the heart of Gascony, the 18th century Camont illustrates the gastronomic concept of farm to table in its purest sense. A raspberry custard tart is made with eggs from her chickens while a cold, radish soup laced with herbs and shallots hails straight from her vegetable garden or potager. Visiting Camont is to experience the “cooking life” of Gascony, where the traditions of classical French farm cuisine meld with all that’s fresh and local.

Kate’s cooking clientele include home cooks looking for a sound introduction to the regional and seasonal flavors of the area, which include Agen prunes, Magret duck and plenty of foie gras. Education is not left out as Kate’s classes often incorporate basic cooking techniques such as emulsifying a vinaigrette or the art of making French cassoulet. For these clients, a day class or one of Kate’s “French Kitchen Adventure” weekends might be in order, which begin with a local farmers market visit and includes hands-on cooking and multiple meals along with accommodations.
For the more advanced cook or professional, Kate opens her kitchen for longer, more intensive stays that are tailored individually. During my visit, a fellow food writer was spending five weeks under the tutelage of a local farm butcher in order to hone her butchery skills while an American chef was there to learn the art of French charcuterie.

Kate’s Camont is what you make it, and everything that’s made here is fresh and luscious. For us, after watching a brief cooking demonstration which included such wonderful tidbits as the importance of freshly grinding your spices to understanding the difference between French and U.S. bay leaf, we sat back with wine in hand and watched the day’s meal unfold.

Guests can participate as much or as little as they want, and for us on that day, it was all about the show. Local Magret duck breast was delicately seasoned with dried spices and then roasted in an outdoor Portuguese bee oven (which lent a wonderful smokiness to the meat). A can of duck confit (salt-cured duck leg that is preserved in its own fat) made its way into the fry pan, lifting its aroma high into the rafters of Kate’s two-story kitchen. Chanterelles were pickled, fresh greens were washed, and croutons, made from leftover baguette, were cubed and fried in duck fat. The end result? A Salade Gasconne served buffet style where the assembly was left entirely up to us.

As we dined outside under a canopy of hanging vines sharing stories of our lives at home, I could feel myself connecting or should I say reconnecting with cooking and eating as it’s designed to be. Off in the distance, one of Kate’s roosters let out its signature crow while nearby, a handful of bumblebee’s busily buzzed about in a lavender plant, and in that moment, I couldn’t help but think how glad I was to be the one who showed up.


One for the Road: Where Flavor Was Born

The photo on the cover of this travelogue cookbook has my mouth watering! And from what I can tell, the pages in between offer up much more eye candy for hungry travelers who like to cook. Where Flavor Was Born: Recipes and Culinary Travels Along the Indian Ocean Spice Route is a delicious journey that explores the origins of spices from Bali to Zanzibar.

The colorful book is loaded with glossy photos and almost 100 recipes, like this one for Indian Pepper Chicken. Need more tempting? Here are three more freebies that use curry from India, tamarind sauce from Thailand and cloves from Zanzibar. Food writer and TV chef Andreas Viestad (known for his New Scandinavian Cooking show), is the tour guide for this adventure of taste. The book is organized by spice, and includes a glossary for easy reference, which should be helpful when you’re up to your eyeballs in cardamom and coriander in the kitchen!

One for the Road: A Tale of 12 Kitchens

This cookbook gem came out last year but, I stumbled across some rave reviews recently, and thought it deserved a mention, especially as the holiday cooking season heats up! A Tale of 12 Kitchens: Family Cooking in Four Countries follows Jake Tilson on food adventures around the world, including stops in New York, Tuscany and Scotland.

Tilson used his artistic eye (he’s a photographer and painter) to create a one-of-a-kind “cookbook-cum-scrapbook” that doubles as a travel journal. Readers are invited into Tilson’s inner circle — his foodie family is a collection of colorful characters obsessed with cooking. In unique fashion, the book celebrates the possibilities of food, and the deeply personal aspects of communal meal preparation. The eighty recipes included in the book are gathered from all corners of the globe, but the real treasure of these kitchen tales is the original and refreshing way in which they are presented.

Tilson will appear in New York on December 5 as part of The James Beard Foundation’s Beard on Books series.