But we did not mean to talk about bad taste and its various sources. Yes, we are back in New York now, but we never told you about Omnivore Books in San Francisco, and the time has more than come.
The fact is, old ("vintage" if you prefer) food books are kind of a mixed lot. Sometimes you can spend a good deal of money and a fair amount of time just to get something which, clearly, is going to do you no good at all. The recipes aren't useable--well, that comes with the "vintage" territory; when a recipe asks us for two and a half pounds of Brawn, we just laugh weakly and turn the page; cookbooks before 1935 or so were, very frequently, manuals for professionals who didn't have to be told much about ingredients or techniques, and the recipes are, as a result, not the kind we're used to. (Of course we are excepting instructional books like The Joy of Cooking or Mrs. Simon Kander's The Settlement Cookbook, which were written for novice cooks or, as they used to be called, "Brides").
The disappointments of old food books are more along the lines of boring to read, full of factual error, and plainly written by someone (or ghost-written for someone) who knew nothing about food except that it frequently goes in your mouth. When we read about cream which is hand-whipped for fifteen seconds and thereafter stands in stiff peaks, or a "tomato surprise" salad served as part of a Christmas dinner in New York, our eyes glaze over and the book drops from our hands, whether we are reading the latest scrumptiousness from a Food Network celebuchef or Mrs. Goodbowels' Housekeeping Manual of 1853. And then we reach for our latest purchase from Omnivore Books.
This is the whole store, clean and bright and roomy, with plenty of comfortable seats for you to sit around and read in. It's a nice space, but this picture does not show Ms. Celia Sack, who runs the joint and is its abiding spirit.
It's not that you can't get Mrs. Goodbowels or some other less-than-satisfying read from Omnivore; it's more that, under Ms. Sack's advice, you won't get that if you don't want that. This is how well she knows her stock, and how well she advises.
We have said before that San Francisco foodies are "giving", that they want to share the joy they have in discovering tastes and feelings and experiences. Ms. Sack is pretty much the model of this type. She doesn't intrude upon quiet examination of the shelves, but, once you've found that Bemelmans picture book about Europe after the war, or that 1936 first edition of Mrs. Rombauer's classic (or the signed MFK Fisher volume, or the 1955 bartender's guide) she will share your enthusiasm, answer your questions, and in general act like a well-read bibliophile host who has invited you over for a drink mostly because she wants you to appreciate her library, and she feels certain that you will.
We were in San Francisco for about two and a half weeks this time, and we visited Celia twice; we snagged that wonderful Bemelmans book, one by Iles Brody, a terrific writer of whom we hadn't heard; two volumes by Nigel Slater, who we found, in the words of our friend Julie Powell, "difficult" but well worth reading (why do Englishmen delight so in comparing their food to bodily secretions?), and a book on eggs by Michel Roux, who, without even meaning to do it, spins a web of fiction thicker than that of Dick Francis (although it might just be that we feel bad over our consistent failure to pronounce or produce "Oeufs Mollets", and M. Roux just made everything worse.)
If you are in San Francisco, or anywhere west of the Rockies, drop everything and go to Celia Sack's Omnivore Books. If you are anywhere else, check out her website at http://www.omnivorebooks.com. Both your stomach and your mind will thank you.