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36. Tales from the Cookbook Section
How to read the shelves as well as the books.
This past summer, Beth and I did quite a lot of thrifting at the many Value Villages in and around Toronto, as well as any thrift shops we encountered on our wider travels. I am definitely newer to it than Beth, who has a veteran’s eye for things that are not only immediately useful, but have the potential to be upcycled into more interesting things later.
When I first started tagging along, I mostly couldn’t see the attraction of rummaging through a bunch of what looked to me like 100% junk. I wasn’t (and still am not really) interested in other people’s old pants and shoes and t-shirts commemorating team-building activities. I’d take a cursory pass through housewares to see if there was anything that jumped out at me,1 but the stories of people finding overlooked, early 20th-century Griswold cast iron pans ready to be restored and sold for a tidy profit are just stories at this point, I think. Anything that valuable got snapped up as soon as it was on the shelf (or possibly sooner).
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When we go thrifting now, I spend most of my time in the cookbook section. That’s partly because the cookbooks are usually in much better shape than the many half-assembled blenders and rotisserie ovens on display in housewares. If I take a cookbook home, I know I’ll be able to use it.2 But recently, as I was carefully combing a store’s shelves in search of my white whale—any of the series of seminal late ’80s and ’90s cookbooks by James McNair—I realized that I wasn’t in the cookbook section of a thrift store; I was standing in a midden!
What archaeologists call “a midden” is what you and I might call “a really, really old pile of trash.” It’s the ancient garbage of past societies, including animal bones, mollusk shells, plant material, human excrement, shards of pottery, and other worked materials that have accumulated and been buried over time. The anaerobic and alkaline conditions in some mounds cause everything, including the organic material, to be incredibly well preserved. This has given us detailed glimpses into what domestic life was like while things were piling up, including what food the people ate and how they prepared it, what kinds of household goods they had, and what tools they used. Basically, if tragedy plus time equals comedy, dump plus time equals invaluable archaeological bonanza.
By not simply scanning past the titles, I could also get glimpses into earlier periods of domestic life, including what people ate and how they prepared it, what kinds of household goods they had, and what tools they used. The books together told the story of how and what we ate in the not too distant past, but the fact that they had been discarded and left to fill what was essentially a consumerist-era dump seemed to be its own story as well. If best-seller lists and bookstore displays show us what kinds of cooks we aspire to be, what do the books we get rid of—like an exit interview or a stool sample—tell us about what kind of cooks we actually are?
The Usual Suspects
If Bet365 starts laying odds on what you will find in the cookbook section of any thrift store in North America, here are the bets I would take:
Williams-Sonoma Collection books on single topics like Fish, or French, or Pie & Tart.
Something by Donna Hay.
A Stephen Raichlen grilling cookbook, most likely his Barbecue Bible.
Something by either Julee Rosso or Sheila Lukins, though curiously not any of the Silver Palate books they put out together.
Jessica Seinfeld’s Deceptively Delicious.
Self-serving cookbooks published by appliance or food brands.
If the bets are for thrift stores in Canada, add these:
Something from the Company’s Coming series. You will not get great odds on this bet. There are over 200 titles in the series. The higher risk/higher reward play would be to bet on finding a specific title like Company’s Coming: The Essential Guys’ Cookbook (published January 2014).
Something by Rose Reisman. Again, betting a single one of the kajillion3 books she has published is probably a losing bet. Grind out the small win of there being any of her books. That’s the smart money.
Anything in the Looney Spoons/Crazy Plates culinary universe.
And if the bets are for thrift stores in Ontario, there is only one sure bet to place:
The Dave Nichol Cookbook. Or possibly The President’s Choice Barbecue Cookbook. Every now and then I make a joke on Instagram (Why aren’t you following me on Instagram?) that every thrift store in Ontario is legally required to have at least one copy in stock.4
I think there’s a simple explanation for why these are, to my mind, the surest bets on what you’ll find: All of these books, either as one-offs or as series, sold a ton of copies. (In the first six weeks after publication, The Dave Nichol Cookbook sold over 100,000 copies in Ontario alone!) So it’s inevitable that some of them were going to find their way into our middens. It’s like finding pull-tabs with a metal detector—given the sheer volume cranked out, it’s not surprising when they turn up.
Appetite for Deception
When I say that best-seller lists tell us who we aspire to be, while the shelves of Goodwill and Value Village tell us who we actually are, I was lying a bit. The shelves of Goodwill actually tell us both. And who we actually are is probably not that much of a surprise: a mob of aspiring health-chasers, fad diet-followers, and gadget-buyers with short attention spans.
Aside from the sheer size of her oeuvre, one of the reason Rose Reisman is such a good bet is that she writes healthy cookbooks.5 People get them and then… get rid of them. Not everyone does, obviously, but her books are over-represented on the shelves, so they definitely get donated more than others. (And this is not to pick on Rose Reisman or, indeed, to cast any judgement on the quality of her books. It’s much more a judgement on the quality of us as book buyers, readers, and disposers.)
In the book section of Costco the selection is made up of math workbooks, Guinness Books of World Records, and a selection of hardcovers with mega-mass appeal. In the mid-2010s, that meant memoirs by Michelle Obama and Bruce Springsteen, as well as Keto and Paleo cookbooks. Those same cookbooks are now starting to turn up on thrift store shelves en masse, their slightly dated designs joining the even more dated volumes of low carb/low fat/superfood/The Biggest Loser books from the years before that.
On the housewares shelves, you are almost certain to find one or more bread machines in various states of completeness and disrepair, the Ozymandian remains of our plans for waking up each morning to the smell of freshly (and economically!) baked loaves.6 But over in the book section, you’ll find that the bread machine cookbooks are more numerous, possibly because, as I said earlier, books tend not to break down the same way appliances do. It makes me wonder: if the investors in the Instant Pot’s parent company had kept a closer eye on the growing number of Instant Pot cookbooks available for thrifting in the past few years, would they have been able to get their money out before everything went bust? In one of my most recent trips to Value Village, I spotted a new book for the first time: Paleo Cooking with Your Air Fryer: 80+ Recipes for Healthier Fried Food in Less Time. It might be time to start thinking about shorting some Ninja stock.
As I thought more deeply about this idea of thrift store cookbooks as middens, two question kept coming up for me.
Question #1: What about novels?
“Books are books,” you might say, “Surely this notion of books at thrift stores as middens works for novels as well as cookbooks?” I have no way of answering this for certain (partly because I never look at the novel section) but my gut tells me no. Think about how novels circulate among friends and family. Someone finishes Ann Patchett’s The Dutch House7 and, quite possibly, they pass it along to a friend, insisting that they must read it too. And maybe it makes its way back to the original owner, but maybe it gets passed on again. Because when you’re finished with a novel (or a biography or a memoir, I suppose), you’re finished with it. Unless you’re writing a paper about it, you’re not likely to go back and reread it.
Now think of a cookbook that you loved. You wouldn’t say to a friend, “You simply must cook from Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat. Here, take my copy.” You’d give them their own copy as a gift or (don’t tell Simon & Schuster) text them photos of some of the recipes. Because you’re going to need it again yourself at some point. Until you don’t, at which point, you might end up donating it. If I see a copy of The Dutch House at Value Village, I can almost hear its original owner saying, “It’s time for someone else to enjoy this.” But when I see a copy of The Indian Instant Pot Cookbook by Ushavi Pitre8 on the shelf, the original owner instead is saying, “You’re of no more use to me.”9
Question #2: Why is there always a copy of The Dave Nichol Cookbook (and why isn’t there ever a Nigella cookbook)?
The most recent time I made my Instagram joke about thrift stores being legally required to carry The Dave Nichol Cookbook, I received a DM from @chantillycreampuff, one of my followers, that astutely noted, “Such was the extent of Nichol’s power, or in the alternative, his cookbook sucks.” My response was, “Ha! Can I quote you in the newsletter?” But it should have been, “Both are kind of true.” And both have to be true in order for there always to be a copy of The Dave Nichol Cookbook on the shelves of every thrift store in Ontario.
First, Nichol’s direct influence over food and home cooking in Ontario (and indirectly across North America) in the ’80s and early ’90s is hard to overstate. His Insider’s Report flyer and the line of President’s Choice products he developed for Loblaws10 introduced flavours and ways of thinking about food to (mainstream11) Ontarians they had never encountered before. (With names like Memories of Szechwan Peanut Sauce,12 Memories of Kyoto Ginger Sauce, and Memories of Jaipur Curry & Passion Fruit Sauce, they are more likely Dave Nichol’s own memories13 rather than those of the average Loblaws shoppers.) And that almost certainly cracked the door open for ongoing introduction of new foods and foodways to a broader audience.14 Dave Nichol might not have given Khmer Thai, the terrific Cambodian/Thai restaurant near St. Clair and Oakwood, the seed money it needed to open, but you could argue that the conditions that have kept it in business since 2003 came about at least in part because of Dave Nichol.15
And, of course, he moved serious units of his book. By my rough math, six weeks after its publication, it was in 1 in every 36 households in Ontario.16 Like the other safe bets above, that kind of ubiquity makes it very likely to turn up on thrift shelves.
But consider another cookbook author with very strong sales and comparable, if not greater ubiquity: Nigella Lawson. She has published 14 bestselling books to Nichol’s single volume and has almost certainly outsold him many times over. And yet I wouldn’t bet on being able to find a Nigella Lawson cookbook every time I visited a thrift shop. It’s certainly more likely to happen than finding a copy of Manifold Destiny: The One! The Only! Guide to Cooking on Your Car Engine! but it’s far from being a sure thing. And the same goes for a lot of the best selling cookbooks of all time. Even though I already own both volumes, I would be excited to stumble upon Mastering the Art of French Cooking while thrifting. Again, not entirely surprising, but also not a sure thing.
The reason why The Dave Nichol Cookbook can be found on the shelves of every thrift store in Ontario when other, better selling cookbooks can’t is the second half of @chantillycreampuff’s thought: his cookbook sucks.
Harsh, you might think. But let’s define “sucks” a little more narrowly. A cookbook sucks not because it is inherently good or bad but because, as in question #1 above, it has no use for its user. Give me a book of keto air fryer recipes and it sucks. Give a strict paleo eater a copy of the wonderful The River Cottage Veg: 200 Inspired Vegetable Recipes and it sucks.
As mentioned above, at the time Nichol published his book, most Ontarians17 didn’t know about peanut sauce and flatbreads and jerk chicken. And his cookbook and PC products suddenly gave them the ability to cook and taste them without venturing any farther than their local Loblaws. And that was of great use to everyone who bought it. But it couldn’t stay 1993 forever and the changes in food, cooking, and eating that Dave Nichol helped bring about grew beyond his products. You didn’t need to go to Loblaws to get them any more (and you could probably find more and possibly better varieties elsewhere). Moreover, since the cookbook didn’t offer any alternatives to using “Memories of ______” sauce, if it was discontinued, so was the recipe. As time passed, Nichol’s cookbook began to suck for more and more people. And when books suck enough for their original owners, they wind up at Value Village.
There is a bunch more to unpack about how cookbooks make it to thrift stores, including unpacking the incredible haul I brought home recently. Beyond ubiquity and “sucking,” there is definitely a third way. But it will have to keep for an other instalment, which is coming soon.
What I’m consuming…
This summer I tried using my wok in the backyard on a charcoal Weber kettle to more closely approach the heat levels given off by wok burners in Chinese restaurants. I had some success, but wondered if focusing the heat on the very centre of the wok with either a charcoal vortex or a chimney starter would help. A search to see who else had had a similar idea lead me to Alex, a French YouTuber who is an enthusiastic amateur cook and some kind of engineer or advanced tinkerer. He also seems to be very well-funded, as he is able to embark on obsessive missions to perfect the techniques for making different dishes. His “The Path to Fried Rice” series was what I found first, including his attempts to build different wok burners, and I’ve been dipping into his other projects ever since.
What’s on the menu…
Little Sito is closing on October 15! This Bloorcourt Lebanese place has been a staple of our Friday takeout dinners for a few years, but it recently announced that this phase of its existence is coming to an end. We picked up all of our favourites last week—the mezze plate (hummus, baba ghanouj, tabbouleh); falafel; Jido’s delight, an absolutely stellar dish of fried cauliflower topped with lemon and tahini; and shish tawook,18 which came with potatoes and fattoush salad. And a bottle of Chateau Musar Rosé, an excellent wine from Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley whose story is just as interesting as the wine itself. You don’t have much time to find out what you will be missing!
Whether I actually do use it is an entirely different question.
OK, the joke I actually made is that every thrift store in Canada is legally required to have one, ignoring the fact that when it was published in 1993, President’s Choice products were still mostly limited to Ontario. But, like a proper Torontonian, I assumed that what was true in Ontario was true in the rest of Canada.
Given the constant state of change as to what eating habits are actually healthy, I probably should have put the word in scare quotes. But that seemed too provocative. But you, you’re the footnote-reading type, so I know you can imagine them in place.
“Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and dig in!”
OK, I admit it: This is the only title of a novel I could think of because it’s the only novel I have read in a good long while.
If I had unlimited funds, I would buy up all of the great books I see but already own myself, like The Indian Instant Pot Cookbook, and distribute them to those I thought would appreciate them. And again, this serves to underscore that a particular book being in a thrift store can say as much about the person who donated it as it does about the book itself.
These are, of course, super-broad strokes. I have definitely donated novels because I thought, “Jesus Christ. Get that terrible thing off my shelf.” Such is our taboo against throwing out books that we choose to foist them onto other unwitting suckers instead.
Or Zehrs, Fortinos, Your Independent Grocer, or The Atlantic Superstore. Sorry. I spent the early part of my copywriting career writing radio ads for the weekly specials at Loblaws et al so adding those tags is an automatic reaction.
E.g., mostly White.
True to the nature of memory, some aren’t reliably accurate. According to one account, “Nichol had some stunningly creative ideas. When, for instance, he tasted a satay sauce at a restaurant at Bali, he put his staff to work replicating it, sending them back to the kitchen time and again until they got it right ... Memories of Szechwan Peanut Sauce & Dressing has outsold ketchup in some Loblaw stores.” Bali... Szechwan… same diff?
There is an interesting parallel between Nichol, his memories of places, and his Insider’s Report and his contemporary J. Peterman (who many are surprised to know is not just a Seinfeld creation) and the lengthy, often nostalgic descriptions of products in his distinctively illustrated catalogs. (Full disclosure, in the early 90s I loved them both. I still have my Counterfeit Mailbag somewhere. “The secret thoughts of an entire country were once carried in leather bags exactly like this one. Except this one, a copy, isn’t under lock and key.”)
See footnote 11.
If Dave Nichol never existed, would someone else (or a succession of different people) have come along and did what he did to help mainstream so many foods? Probably. But we don’t need to deal in hypotheticals. He really did it.
Around 3,600,000 households in Ontario in 1993/100,000 = 1 in 36.
See footnote 14.
It’s chicken, but I have very happily ordered completely vegetarian and (I’m pretty sure) vegan meals from them as well.