Cookbooks have a special appeal. If you like to cook or just like to read about cooking, there’s nothing like a good one. They’re full of food ideas and cooking techniques, new recipes and old favorites, often accompanied by mouth-watering photos.
Most bookstores have a section of cookbooks, although not as extensive as in the heyday of book retailing. Of course, you can get anything you want online. But if you’re serious and like to just browse and seek inspiration, then a trip to Kitchen Arts & Letters in New York is a must.
Matt Sartwell, managing partner of the store, told me, “There are not many specialty food book stores in the country like this — maybe eight.” This small store on Lexington Avenue north of 93rd is a cramped L-shaped space with the scuffed shelves and worn carpet of an old-school bookshop.
The main display table shows the breadth of their inventory at a quick glance. The latest edition of the Joy of Cooking is cheek by jowl with books on Israeli cooking, an exploration of the Food Artisans of Japan, and the latest on fish cookery. The range of choice stimulates the appetite like a well-displayed pastry case.
Sit on one of the utilitarian chairs and get lost in a book. There’s no rush here. Gil, the lone cashier, is ready to offer suggestions and advice, make recommendations, and point out the section you seek. It’s collegial and welcoming — cooks sharing with cooks.
Sections include general interest, baking, vegetarian, and international, as well as beverage and food history. There are a few foreign language books, mostly in French and Italian. If they don’t have it, which is unlikely, they’ll try to get it. A small section of out-of-print books is promoted as “making great gifts.” Nach Waxman, who founded the store in 1983, specializes in tracking down requests.
As I was browsing, a customer came in, announced that she was here for her annual visit, and immediately reeled of several books she wanted to have. “I live in Israel,” she told me in cookbook camaraderie, “but have come to the store every year since it opened.” She asked Gil for a book she had seen on a cruise ship, with a difficult name that she had to spell out. Not in the store, he was able to find out that it was published in the Aleutian Islands. “Would you like me to get you a copy?” he asked, doing his best to accommodate.
Sartwell explained that cooks are becoming more adventurous about flavors, and cookbooks are following suit. There is a growing range of books covering new countries, cultures, and styles. A look at the international shelves is like a tour of the world. The Middle East, for instance, occupies a shelf of its own. Food history is another growth area as the appetite for scholarship expands.
To start the new decade, Matt compiled a list of the store’s ten top-sellers for 2019. Number five is a scholarly work on The Neapolitan Pizza that Kitchen Arts & Letters imports directly and offers exclusively for $60. You can see that the store’s customers are pretty serious.
A former editor at Penguin, Matt said that he likes to “connect people who do something remarkable (the authors) with people who want to see it (the cooks).”
There are general interest books, but the clientele is mostly professionals and serious amateurs looking for something more esoteric. It’s a neighborhood store with a national and international following. Chefs looking for ideas, cooks looking for new challenges, and researchers looking for sources all end up at Kitchen Arts and Letters.
At home, my cookbooks line the kitchen shelves, full of promise for new flavor experiences, crowd-pleasing feasts, and absorbing kitchen projects. Sometimes I feel that just having them is enough, even if I haven’t scratched the surface of the author’s recipes and techniques.
On this occasion, I was looking for From the Oven to the Table by Diana Henry which I had read about it in a New York Times article titled The Cookbooks You Need for 2020. It’s an upscale take on sheet pan cooking.
Henry covers low-labor oven cooking for simple suppers, vegetables by season, grains, and her “favorite ingredient” chicken thighs, that most forgiving meat. Her zesty recipes frequently include harissa, sriracha, chilies, and other assertive seasonings. I plan to welcome the book home by making her chicken with lemon, capers, and thyme. Chicken with plums, honey, and pomegranates will have to wait for stone fruit season.
When I brought a copy up to Gil, he broke into a smile. “I love this book,” he said. “She writes so well and the recipes are delicious.” That’s the kind of in-depth first-hand knowledge that makes Kitchen Arts and Letters a destination for serious cooks.
Frank Whitman can be reached at NotBreadAloneFW@gmail.com.