If cookbooks could talk, I know 850 of them that would be saying, “Toto, I don’t think we’re in Kansas anymore.” That’s because of Elaine Wallace from Wichita.
This wonderful woman, whom I had never met, emailed me after the flood of The Culinary Cellar last July. She somehow found my blog and read about how I had lost almost every one of my cookbooks from fifty years of collecting. Elaine said it touched her heart because she also had a large collection of books and could understand the devastation if it had happened to her books. Elaine and I are kindred spirits when it comes to cookbooks. To us they are more than just printed material with recipes; they are tied with memories, tradition, and family. Every splattered page and notes written on margins are dear to us. Someone loved that book or that recipe, and we can feel that come through. I lost my grandmother’s 1914 Fannie Farmer cookbook in the flood. Inside she had written her name and address of where she lived while in college. Whenever I would look at her handwriting, it’s like I could feel her with me, and I miss that treasured book more than anything else that was on my shelves.
Elaine said she could sense that I felt about cookbooks the way she did, and she wanted me to have her collection. She couldn’t imagine the books being sold at a garage sale, or even them not being all together as they always had been in her home. Since Elaine will be moving elsewhere at some point and will no longer have room for the books, she made the hard decision to give them up. We eventually talked on the phone and tried to figure out how to get the books to me all the way up to Northern Illinois. They would cost a fortune to ship and neither of us had any road trip planned. And that’s when a man named Del stepped in the picture.
Del Boyle is a family friend who works with my husband Bill. Not only is Del a heavily decorated Vietnam Vet, he also has the world’s biggest heart. Within an hour of when the flood first happened, Del was on his way to our house with equipment to help rid of the flood waters before it would reach the upstairs. The seven-foot level of water was at the last step of the basement and it looked like it was going to make it into the family room. Del saved the day until the professional clean-up team from Servpro arrived. (most amazing company ever!) So now fast forward to about a month or so ago when Del heard me talking about the cookbook collection from Elaine. “I love road trips,” said Del. “I’ll drive to Wichita and pick them up for you.” Say what?? I was dumbfounded, thrilled, and in awe of Del’s generous offer. I couldn’t believe it was actually going to happen. I wouldn’t be writing this if not for Del because I had no idea when I would have made it to Kansas. Thank you, Del.
Del and one of his friends took off for Elaine’s a few days before the 4th of July. I will never forget the excitement of when they pulled in our driveway and opened the trailer where I saw the 42 boxes of Elaine’s beloved books for the first time. It went halfway up the trailer and all the way to the back.
It just so happened that the books arrived on the same day that we were expecting eight of our cousins from Finland flying in that night. There was no time to get the books on the shelves before they arrived, but after they checked into a nearby hotel in the evening, Bill, our daughters Kristina and Kara, and I managed to get them out of the boxes and on the shelves in 1 hour, 15 minutes and made it to bed by midnight. I knew the Finnish cousins who loved to cook and bake wanted to see the books, and we were determined to make that happen!
And here are the filled shelves of Elaine’s books:
There wasn’t even time to look at them carefully at first because we were so rushed, but as we were unloading, my heart was jumping and I let out little squeals when I saw the incredible selection and especially when I saw books that I had lost in the flood and were now back on my shelves. There was one book that Kristina and I noticed right away, because that particular title was the last book to be pulled from the mud and water of the basement.
I remember this vividly. Kristina came upstairs and outside to the dumpster which housed what used to be my Culinary Cellar. I was standing there, still in disbelief of the carnage around us, and Kristina walked up to me with tears in her eyes and said, “Mom, this is the last book to leave the basement.” In this photo it may look intact but it was completely soaked and unsalvageable. Right after I took the photo, it was tossed into the dumpster.
As we were unloading Elaine’s books, Kristina again found the same book and brought it to me. “Look what you have back, mom.” Yes, it is now enjoying a space on my shelf. Even the same edition. Thank you, Elaine.
It wasn’t until after the cousins returned to Finland that I had time to go to the basement by myself and let my mind realize all that Elaine had given me; not just her cookbooks but a part of her life and heart. I found myself going across each shelf, touching them and taking it all in and feeling so grateful to Elaine that I could hardly swallow. Her books filled more than half the shelves, and on the other side of the room, were all the books that other people from across the country had also sent me. These generous souls have healed my broken heart and assured me that there are so many good and caring people in this world.
My Culinary Cellar is really starting to come alive now. I need to rearrange all the books as I had before, separating them by subject, like breads, cakes, pies, vegetables, etc., and also by country or state, or collections like Junior League or church cookbooks. Recently, an opportunity presented itself for another exciting change. I found out that our local kitchen and spice shop was closing because the owner was retiring. She was selling everything in the store including custom-made cabinets and shelves. Hmmm… guess who bought a few of those?! They are in my garage at the moment, getting ready to find a new home in The Culinary Cellar. I not only love them, I am thrilled to have part of a store from my hometown, plus the pleasure of smelling spices every time I go out in the garage! I will post photos of those later after they are downstairs and filled with books, dishes, gadgets, and whatever else feels right.
Early last week I made it my mission of the day to bring up one book of Elaine’s to sit down and enjoy. I selected this one by one of my favorite authors, Richard Sax, and it was topical because it’s summer and we have a great Farmer’s Market in our village.
Oh my goodness, is this book a jewel! I can’t wait to start cooking from it. Near this book was another treasure I had to also bring upstairs, not a book but the discs from Julia Child’s “The French Chef” when she was on PBS in her early years of television. I have a little (old) TV that I keep on my kitchen table which happens to have a disc player. I will happily be watching Julia as I cook!
Look at all those episodes! I am going to have a ball with these.
I could go forever about the joy of these books, but I’ll be taking the whole collection one by one, and making and photographing recipes for you all to see. In the meantime, watch for all the new changes coming to The Culinary Cellar. When it’s all done, I’m having a huge party! Who wants to come?!
Dearest Elaine, and to all who have changed my culinary life, I love you all more than I can say, I will continue to share the books, recipes, and love with my readers and friends. My heart is full and grateful.