The Cookbook Collector


With its title and cover art, I half-expected to read a lace-filled, sherry-drinking kind of book. Judging a book by its cover (title?). Yes! Guilty guilty guilty.

So I wasn’t quite prepared for The Cookbook Collector to be partly about the tech world. Yes, as in start-ups, data storage, MIT, IPOs, multi-millionaires, that kind of thing.

For Emily is chief executive of Veritech, a data storage and retrieval company on the brink of IPO. Her boyfriend is also in the business, working out of Boston.

Jessamine, or Jess, is the younger sister, is the perpetual student, philosophy that is, tree-hugger, antiquarian book-seller.

The contrast between their lives is fascinating. New vs old. The high-tech world of Internet start-ups vs the cavern of the antiquarian bookstore that Jess works at. Emily is steady and deliberate, very much the older sister, somewhat maternal, especially since their mother died when they were young. Jess is impatient and headstrong, and often a bit melodramatic.

Of course though, this being the Bay Area, the antiquarian bookstore is owned by a first-generation Microsoft millionaire. His store sounds like such a gem:

“Yorick’s Used and Rare Books had a small storefront on Channing but a deep interior shaded by tall bookcases crammed with history, poetry, theology, antiquated anthologies. There was no open wall space to hang the framed prints for sale, so Hogarth’s scenes of lust, pride, and debauchery leaned rakishly against piles of novels, folk tales, and literary theory. In the back room these piles were so tall and dusty that they took on a geological air, rising like stalagmites. Jess often felt her workplace was a secret mine or quarry where she could pry crystals from crevices and sweep precious jewels straight off the floor.”

George, a perpetual bachelor at 39, finds himself becoming enchanted, a little reluctantly, by Jess. His interest is intriguing, “nurturing, not predatory”, and kind of sensuous, in a foodie sort of way:

“Laughable, antique, confusingly paternal, he longed to nourish her with clementines, and pears in season, fresh whole-wheat bread and butter, wild strawberries, comte cheese, fresh figs and oily Marcona almonds, tender yellow beets. He would scar red meat, if she would let him, and grill spring lamb. Cut the thorns off artichokes and dip the leaves in fresh aioli, poach her fish – thick Dole sole in wine and shallots – julienne potatoes, and roast a whole chicken with lemon slices under the skin. He would serve a salad of heirloom tomatoes and fresh mozzarella and just-picked basil. Serve her and watch her savour dinner, pour for her, and watch her drink. That would be enough for him. To find her plums in season, and perfect nectarines, velvet apricots, dark succulent duck. To bring her all these things and watch her eat.”

The cookbook collector of the title comes quite a bit later in the book (we unravel Jess’ many interests – and men, and venture forth with Emily as Veritech makes her a multimillionaire), when a woman brings her late uncle’s books to George to determine their value. She is initially reluctant to sell them but invites George to the house to view the collection. And what a collection! The kitchen is stuffed with books. No pots, no pans, just books. The cabinets, the drawers, the oven! Can you imagine finding such a treasure trove? And as Jess and George begin to sift through the books, they discover that these cookbooks have drawings, notes, scraps of famous poetry slipped in between the pages.

Come live with me and be my love … interleaved with menus: oysters, fish stew, tortoise in its shell, bread from the oven, honey from the honeycomb. The books were unsplattered but much fingered, their pages soft with turning and re-turning, like collections of old fairy tales. Often Jess thought of Rapunzel and golden apples and enchanted gardens. She thought of Ovid, and Dante, and Cervantes, and the Pre-Raphaelites, for sometimes McClintock pictured his beloved eating, and sometimes sleeping in fields of poppies, and once throned like Persephone, with strawberry vines entwined in her long hair.”

Poetic, a little bit too dramatic, that’s pretty much Jess for you.

Anyway, The Cookbook Collector was an enjoyable read. The wonderful, often poetic descriptions of food, and that wonderful love for books (whether collecting or reading!)  the contrasting fast-paced world of Veritech and Emily’s Jonathan’s company ISIS. And for me, that familiar Bay Area setting which Goodman deftly paints a picture of.

“Rain drummed the little houses skyrocketing in value in Cupertino and Sunnyvale. Much-needed rain darkened the red tile roofs of Stanford, and puddled Palo Alto’s leafy streets. On the coast, the waves were molten silver, rising and melting in the September storm. Bridges levitated, and San Francisco floated like a hidden fortress in the mist. Rain flattened the impatiens edging corporate lawns, and Silicon Valley shimmered. The world was bountiful, the markets buoyant. Reflecting pools brimmed to overflowing, and already the tawny hills looked greener. Like money, the rain came in a rush, enveloping the Bay, delighting forecasters, exceeding expectations, charging the air.”

I previously read Goodman’s Intuition, although I can’t remember much about it other than it was a workplace novel set in some research institute. But after reading The Cookbook Collector, I’m going to check out the rest of her books.

Allegra Goodman’s works
Kaaterskill Falls
Paradise Park
The Other Side of the Island
The Cookbook Collector

Short story collections
Total Immersion
The Family Markowitz


I read this book for the What’s in a Name challenge.


  1. The cover is beautiful, but its contents sound surprising! Wow, I can’t imagine a kitchen filled with only books. Where would these people cook? Sorry, being too practical here 😉 I think Ms Goodman’s book would be a great follow-up for Joanne Harris’ writings!


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