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Lightening the Load

The few cookbooks that survived the purge before our move to Italy.

The few cookbooks that survived the purge before our move to Italy.

Once we decided to move to Italy, we started to feel lighter right away. Our attachment to our things—bicycles, pottery, tools and other ephemera—just started to seem a little less desperate. We knew we would store the practical essentials and the few sentimental objects too meaningful to cut loose, but the rest? We devised a series of sloughing-off measures involving craigslist, eBay, a particularly robust garage sale and Powell’s Books in Portland, Oregon. Powell’s became an indispensable partner because our single biggest category of stuff lovingly amassed over time is books. Books on bicycling, Italy, travel memoirs, sailing, architecture, building, organic gardening, art, mysteries and more. Books in English and Italian, books about alternative energy sources and books that provide lists of other books. But most of all, we owned books about food. Shelves and shelves and shelves of them.

My own personal sacrifice in support of our bold move was to cull the food and cookbook collection in an effort to avoid storing what amounted to 60 linear feet of cookbooks. Absurd, I know. I blame my mother, a librarian who truly loved her work. So how do you choose between them? After a considerable amount of hand wringing, I developed a framework to make the cut. Every book was subject to the following standards:

• Do I refer to this book over and over again?
• Will it be difficult to find this book again?
• Are the contents of this book available electronically?
• Do I just love this book and find it excruciating to part with it?

If a book corresponded affirmatively to at least three of these criteria, it was in, destined for a long, dark wait in a storage unit in Gresham. If not, it was boxed up and hauled to Powell’s.

powellsFor those of you unfamiliar with Powell’s, it is the largest independent bookstore in the world and probably my single greatest motivation for moving to Portland. Powell’s is known for the incredible breadth and depth of its used book inventory, making it the ideal home for the majority of my own personal collection. In a series of trips with our long-suffering youngest child, we slowly divested ourselves of a huge component of our own personal library.

Soon the Powell’s used book buyers became our new best friends since we saw them so often. They complemented me on the quality of my collection (so flattering) and commiserated with me when I was tempted to grab a book I had previously surrendered right out of their hands as they were evaluating it for purchase. Yet when we consigned the last box of books, I felt oddly detached. Instead, I focused on the future.

So here are the books that survived the purge and traveled with us to Italy. Bear in mind that we only brought two bicycles in boxes and two large suitcases for at least a year, so books had to compete with a whole host of other necessities . . . like clothing. These are the mainstays, worth their weight in, well, excess baggage fees:

Honey From a Weed, Patience Grey
Patience Grey’s iconic memoir of life in Greece, Catalonia, Tuscany and the tip of the heel of the Italian boot in Puglia is so much more than a cookbook. In particular, Grey shares her knowledge of the ancient Greek wisdom of wild herbs and greens in a passionate, evocative style. Her observations illuminate a way of life that is fast disappearing in these rural cultures. I find I read it about once a year, wishing I could write as beautifully as Grey.

The Flavors of Puglia and The New Mediterranean Diet Cookbook, Nancy Harmon Jenkins
Nancy Harmon Jenkins has been called “an anthropologist of the human soul as revealed through food” (, which is not far off the mark. Her work is scholarly, yet deeply personal. Recipes that were surely transmitted to her orally have been painstakingly reproduced for American kitchens without sacrificing authenticity. These are reference volumes par excellence.

Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone, Deborah Madison
Much like Jenkins in terms of thoroughness and attention to detail, Deborah Madison is an authoritative voice for vegetarians of almost all cultures. Yet she is equally committed to flavor, texture and presentation, which makes her work consistently superior.

The Gourmet Cookbook, Ruth Reichl (editor)
Culled from over 60,000 recipes from Gourmet magazine’s archives, this work is the reference volume to which I turn on a regular basis. Yet it has none of the dry, almost flavorless prose of another popular source book, The Joy of Cooking. Instead, its editor, Ruth Reichl, infuses each recipe with intelligent insight. Really couldn’t do without it.

The Zuni Café Cookbook, Judy Rodgers
Perhaps this book speaks to my northern California roots, so including it in my suitcase is probably a subconscious nod to the past as we move decisively into the future. Still, Judy Rodgers is a chef’s chef, with a keen eye for detail and a wealth of experience that is transmitted in every recipe. No step is too insignificant to omit, which results in superlative finished plates every time.

Super Natural Cooking and Super Natural Every Day, Heidi Swanson
Another hometown favorite, Heidi Swanson’s fresh take on vegetarian-focused ethnic cuisine forces me to move beyond my Mediterranean comfort zone. While it’s not always easy to source Thai red chili paste in southern Italy, I love the variety her work represents, particularly because she provides inspiration for thinking differently.

All packed up for a long, dark sojourn in the storage unit.

All packed up for a long, dark sojourn in the storage unit.

An unanticipated benefit of this load-lightening exercise has been experienced in the kitchen. Without the crutch of a battery of cookbooks, I have become guided entirely by what Italians call la prima materia or the ingredients. What I find in the market is what ends up on the table instead of a fruitless hunt for recipe ingredients that caught my eye in a cookbook. Like the experience of changing your life on a grand scale, the freedom that comes from improvisational cooking is worth the loss of a few (hundred) cookbooks.

4 Comments Post a comment
  1. I have dozens of cookbooks here in Australia, some of which I use quite a lot, but like you, when I am in Italy I just go with what I see in the market and make something simple. Having scoured recipe books for most of my life does help though.

    December 14, 2012
    • I agree completely! Without the formative years spent reading cookbooks, it would be more difficult to imagine how best to showcase that gorgeous Savoy cabbage you just found at the market. I’ve also realized that there’s nothing like conjuring up meals for the hungry masses (known also as my family and friends) on a regular basis to refine basic skills. Now the improvisation begins and it is so incredibly liberating.

      December 14, 2012
  2. Leslie Faris #

    Your writing is brilliant Catherine!

    December 15, 2012
    • Leslie, you are so lovely to say so. I really appreciate the especially kind words and am delighted that you enjoy reading the blog. Thanks so much for the vote of confidence!

      December 16, 2012

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