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"it’s not a matter of deciding which books you give away. It’s figuring out which books you absolutely need to keep." Russ Parsons/Washington Post

It's probably time I did a bit of weeding of my cookbook collection because I am actually running out of space to put any new purchases I might make. And there will certainly be some of them. Christmas is coming after all. So here a few thoughts on weeding.

Weeding - it's an emotive word isn't it? Weeding is a process of getting rid of undesirable plants - which usually grow really well. And for a useless gardener like me this is a bonus. However, one man's weed is another man's rarity. Or thing of beauty. This is a dandelion - now how beautiful is that? And yet they are despised. But they are more than beautiful - they are highly nutritious, contain potent antioxidants, may reduce inflammation, may have anti viral properties and lower blood pressure. There are other medicinal uses as well which are currently being researched, and yet we root it out with fervour. As we do with many other weeds, which may also have similar benefits.

So why do we do it? Well mostly because they tend to take over and stop the things you want to grow, growing. But isn't that the whole evolutionary machine in action? Don't the fittest survive?

So let's consider the word culling. But that, to me anyway, has even more negative associations. That means shooting or poisoning living things. Yes I know it's not always like that, but that is generally the emotional response the word suggests.

In fact I don't think there is a good word for the process of removing a few things to make room for others. Mostly because it always means that something is rejected, considered unworthy - which is not a good thing. However, it is probably time to remove a few cookbooks. For I have a few - here are my cookbook book shelves - and there's also one more not in the kitchen and a few cookbooks lying around the house here and there.

Quite a few. And here I cannot resist, probably yet again, reproducing the words of Julian Barnes in his book The Pedant in the Kitchen.

"How many cookbooks do you have?

(a) Not enough

(b) Just the right number

(c) too many?

If you answered (a) you are disqualified for lying or complacency or not being interested in food or (scariest of all) having worked out everything perfectly. You score points for (a) and also for (c), but to score maximum points you need to have answered (a) AND (c) in equal measure. (a) because there is always something new to be learned, someone coming along to make it all clearer, easier, more foolproof, more authentic; (c) because of the regular mistakes made when applying (a)." Julian Barnes

And I would indeed answer (a) and (c) - probably in equal measure.

Those cookbooks and magazines on the very high shelf for example are up there, because in my heart of hearts I know that I won't be using them ever again, but the shelves were there you see when we renovated the kitchen, and they are decorative. It looks better than empty shelves.

When you are weeding in the garden you know which are the weeds and which are not. Well most people do, although I do remember my dear aunt thinking she was doing a good turn whilst I was out, by weeding, in the process of which she removed some native ground cover that I had been carefully cultivating for a few years. Well she didn't know Australian plants. Mind you, even though I know which are the weeds I sometimes wonder why I'm digging them out - because if they are not smothering anything they are providing ground cover and keeping the ground underneath moist. Removing them removes their protection. And they are pretty as well - at least some of the time, which is much the case for most Australian natives I have to say. Well most cultivated plants really. They all have their downtime.

When it comes to weeding books though you have to make choices. Now how do you do that? Kate Gibbs reported in her article What's the point of cookbooks? that most publishers consider a cookbook a success if the purchaser makes two things from the book. This gave me pause for thought. Is this a criteria for the weeding? If I haven't made more than two things from the book should I throw it out? At first sight this seems an obvious solution but there are all sorts of reasons why you might hang on to a book besides the purely utilitarian.

Truth to tell there are quite a few books on my shelves that would fit that category, or the associated category of having tried something only to find it a failure. Indeed there are some from which I have never cooked anything. So should I be ruthless and throw them out?

What about that top shelf? As you can see it's mostly old magazines - mostly delicious. Now at one point in a fit of enthusiasm I set up a database on my computer into which I put the recipes from each magazine that I thought were worth a try. I still have the database and occasionally I consult it when I am searching for something to do with strawberries say. But there are heaps and heaps of things in there that I shall never make. It's a bit like a modern day version of the scraps of paper from here and there with recipes on them - for which Julian Barnes has some advice:

"don't stick them in until you've made the dish at least twice and know it has some chance of longevity."

Good advice which I have not taken, but he does go on to say:

"Such a cuttings book will, over the years, testify to the strange trajectory of your cooking. It will also bring back moments in the same way as a photograph album: I used to make that? ... You will be surprised by how much emotional and psychological history you might be storing up when you innocently paste in a slightly stained newspaper clipping."

Too true, for the real and devastating loss in my library is a collection of folders from my very early married days, of columns from English newspapers by the likes of Robert Carrier and Elizabeth David. At some point after we moved here they disappeared. I cannot believe that I threw them out and always live in the faint hope that they are hiding somewhere and that I will discover that wonderful recipe for lamb chops and sauce paloise from RC - a recipe that curiously does not appear in any of his cookbooks. I cry a little inside every time I think about it - not just because of the recipe itself but because of the associations attached to that piece of paper. Young love and all that.

It's not just the pieces of paper that bring back the memories though. It's the books too. Those falling apart volumes that I have talked about recently. Those books without pictures that one website recommended weeding from library collections:

"There is no excuse in this day of modern printing to have any cookbooks that don't have full-color photos of food to make your mouth water." 5min Librarian

I suppose it might be true for actually publishing a new cookbook but it's certainly not a reason to throw out old books. The same writer also had an equally inappropriate piece of advice - well I thought so anyway when they recommended weeding books with:

"More talking than recipes. This may be okay in some instances, but for a cookbook and not a guide to a new way of eating (vegetarian, Paleo, etc.), this may not be a good idea." 5min Librarian

I have to say that these days I look for cookbooks with writing as well as those with interesting recipes, and when the two are combined it's a win-win situation. Nigel Slater's A Cook's Book had such good writing that I even considered suggesting it as a book to read - yes read - for my book group. But it was pricey so I didn't. I mean where would I be without Nigel's mini essays or Ottolenghi's suggestions for tweaks here and tweaks there, or Jamie's cheerful encouragement? It's the writing that makes the perfect cookbook. Indeed now that I think about it, maybe that's why I don't actually make many of Donna Hay's recipes, even though the pictures are utterly gorgeous and the recipes simple and interesting. But there's nothing personal about them. You get the recipe and the glorious picture and that's it. No suggestions for substitutions, or tweaks, no personal anecdotes, no historical or cultural information. Just a recipe. Maybe indeed the picture is too perfect.

Then there the gift books, some of which have not been great, but which it seems a little rude to throw out. I mean the giver might notice. How embarrassing would that be?

I don't think I'll rush at this task though. I shall consider each candidate book and maybe do a post on it. I'll start with one of the top shelves, where most of the little used books go to die. This is one of them and maybe I'll make it the first. Some time in the near future there will be a post. I think it would look good in the street library. I don't think I bought it. I think it was a gift, but I'm not sure when or who, so maybe I did buy it after all. Anyway it's a candidate.

Let the weeding begin. Only the fittest - whatever that means - will survive. And they will go to the street library or the op shop - not the bin. One woman's trash is another woman's treasure.


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