By Elissa Gilbert
Food and family, joy, love, can’t be separated. We crave our favorite foods because we crave those feelings. The flavors and feelings don’t last long after the meal ends, but they’re preserved in the recipes written down in cookbooks.
I’ve learned from grocery stores that prime shelf space is at eye level, but when I walk into Bonnie Slotnick Cookbooks, a cozy store in the East Village, it’s a book on the bottom shelf that catches my eye. There’s no mistaking the red and white checked cover; that book was on a shelf in my mother’s kitchen and I used to page through it while she cooked dinner from a recipe she knew by heart. Memories of food and family of joy, of love rush through my head as I wait for Bonnie to finish a phone conversation.
She bustles about the store with the phone in her hand, looking at the shelves. “Yes, we have that,” she says, pulling a book off a shelf. The phone customer was like me, bound up in memory and food. In her eighties, her family doesn’t want her to cook any more, and all her cookbooks were given away. Now she’s trying to find them again.
The store looks like a place that woman would feel at home. It’s not decorated in chintz, not musty, but there’s a slight fustiness to it; wooden chairs with carved backs and seat cushions covered with fruit prints that feel like they belong to another time sit next to wooden tables, and washing boards lean against shelves where stuffed animals snuggle wooden spoons and sit next to and on top of cookbooks. It feels like, not my home, not my grandparents’ home, but maybe the home of an older aunt.
I ask Slotnick if the woman on the phone is a typical customer. She agrees, saying, “A whole segment of my customers is people who want to replace or buy for their children the books that they had. They want a copy of the books their mother had or their grandmother, or they want to give their five children each a copy of the book they used.”
She goes on, “I call them the mother books, the classic American 20th century books.” She means books like Betty Crocker and my mother’s cookbook, the Better Homes and Gardens book that caught my eye.
For some customers, it’s not about memories, at least not their own. “There are food historians who are looking for the way people ate in different periods of history, there are fiction writers who are looking to set a scene in a particular period of history, there are book designers and graphic designers who are looking to see what books looked like, what food photography looked like, what fonts were used in cookbooks.”
Other customers, she tells me, just like to read food literature and food writing. “There are a lot of people who like to read cookbooks,” she says. “I’m one of those.”
I’m not, and when I say recipes don’t really seem like pleasure reading to me, Slotnick pulls a book off a shelf to change my mind. It’s Every-day Cookery for Every Family from 1868. She flips it open to a random page, shows me. “So the recipes are written in a very different way. They don’t have the ingredients listed at the top. And that’s enough to make a certain kind of person just push the book away, but that’s what makes them readable, because they’re written in paragraph form or prose form. It makes them read, not quite like a novel but…”
She starts reading aloud, “The gravy must be made of the liver. When cooked, rub the liver with a large spoonful of flour to a smooth paste. Chopped very fine, the gizzard and mix with it…” That’s all it takes and she’s entranced; she’d keep reading to me, to herself, if I didn’t pull her back to our conversation.
Old Recipes, Current Trends
I ask if it’s still possible to cook the recipes in vintage cookbooks, if the ingredients are still available. She tells me, “I have a lot of customers who cook.” And these recipes are still very cookable. “The ingredients—unless you go back to the 17th century—there’s nothing more sophisticated than what we have now; they’re less sophisticated, especially in 19th century American cookbooks.”
More than that, “It’s the kind of food people really want to eat now. It’s all fresh, local ingredients, really. They didn’t have to say that, they didn’t have to say ‘Don’t use canned peas in this recipe,’ because there weren’t any,” she explains.
Every-day Cookery is a perfect example. She quotes from it. “Food in season and how to choose it. All kinds of fish, meat, poultry, game, and vegetable. Simple and inexpensive instructions for making pies, pudding, tarts, and all other pastry. How to pickle and preserve fruits and vegetables.”
A Love of Old Cookbooks
Slotnick ended up in this store because, like her customers, she already loved old cookbooks. She came to New York in 1972 to study at Parsons, and the city was full of bookstores.
“Fourth Avenue was like four solid blocks of bookstores. You went over to Fourth Avenue, they were just one after another, these little shops,” she says. “They all had cookbooks to some extent or other. There were plenty that were between $1-3, and I was very drawn to 19th century books and early 20th century books.”
Part of the charm was imagining the recipes being prepared in her own apartment. “I lived in a building that was built in 1892, not unusual in the Village, and I found that I could just picture the activity that was described in the book. There’s usually housekeeping information and marketing, and how to encourage your servants to do the right thing…I always pictured that happening in my building.”
She went to work for a publishing company, writing headnotes for cookbooks. In her spare time, she partnered with the owner of Kitchen Arts and Letters, which started out on the Upper East Side selling only new cookbooks.
“Somebody I worked with said I should go up there, that I would really like the owner of the store. And we really hit it off. And I said, you know, I go around buying old cookbooks all the time, why don’t you give me a list of the books people are asking you for that are out of print, because people don’t realize books go out of print, and I’ll find them,” she says.
She started doing that and that became her weekend job. “I would spend Sunday in the store when the store was closed, and it was just my happy place. I’d lock myself in there and write little postcards to the people for whom I’d found books, and put the plastic dustcovers on, and clean the books. It was just like falling into a bathtub of your favorite champagne and rolling around in it.”
She realized that certain books were requested repeatedly, and she started to accumulate stock. Eventually she had about 2,000 books, and finally after 12 years she felt like she needed to have her own business.
Today, her store is all hers. A friend helps out one day a week, but otherwise it’s just her and her books and vintage kitchenware, linens, menus, and postcards. From her enthusiasm during our conversation, I think she feels like she’s in that bathtub filled with champagne every day.
Bonnie Slotnick Cookbooks, 28 E.2nd Street. 212-989-8962. Hours vary weekly; call to make sure they’re open.