Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Moments of Inspiration

This past Saturday, in place of my usual Greenmarket run, I headed up to Soho to browse in my favorite bookstore, McNally Jackson. The browsing turned into a cup of coffee, reading the New York Times Sunday Magazine, and wandering among the shelves afterwards. All told I must have spent over three hours in the shop, and came away buzzing with knowledge of new books, images and ideas.

I find McNally Jackson to be quite unique in that it is small and independently owned, and yet seems to address a wide variety of book categories quite thoughtfully. Most wonderful small bookstores in New York seem to specialize, like the incomparable Kitchen Arts & Letters which has an extraordinary selection of cookbooks, or the charming Idlewild Books which specializes in travel guides, and fiction and memoirs set abroad.

Rather, McNally Jackson spans a broad spectrum with a small but comprehensive cookbook section, all sorts of indie and foreign magazines and journals, a wonderful architecture, design and fashion section, loads of philosophy, non-fiction, fiction, poetry, and they even have a small but excellently chosen stationery section.

After relaxing in the cafe, I made a beeline for the magazine section. After flipping through a few mainstream food and decor magazines, and taking a moment to be depressed that they were out of the French Elle Decor, I moved onto some of the indies and quarterly journals. I found reference in one of them to the apparently seminal design blog (I of course had never heard of it) Swiss Miss, with which I am now somewhat obsessed. I perused the social action magazine Good, but became totally despondent at the state of our water supply as I read so put it down as quickly as I had picked it up. Moving on to happier things, I spied The Diner Journal, a quarterly food publication.

Initial thought: I love the weight of the paper but $9 seems like a lot for such a thin magazine. But then I flipped through to the back and found that the last third of the issue is chock full of recipes. Recipes that I actually wanted to make, almost all of them! Beet salad with tahini dressing sounded particularly appealing. I was newly inspired to do interesting things with the considerable contents of my vegetable drawers, and for that $9 seems a bargain.

I never go to McNally Jackson without taking a spin through the cookbook section, and this day was no exception. My latest yen for a new cookbook is now focused on Vefa's Kitchen, an encyclopedic Greek cookbook I noticed propped up on the display table.

Greek cuisine it seems is often unfairly maligned as mediocre or boring, due I think to the presence of an inexplicably high number of mediocre and boring Greek diners and restaurants. And some people are simply wary of the cuisine due to previous bad experiences with whitefish. But I've had a couple of truly fabulous Greek meals, so I know they do exist, it just takes a bit of effort to find them. I think I could experience many more fabulous Greek meals if this cookbook were given a space on my kitchen bookshelf.

But the real find in this section of the store was Mrs. Beeton's Book of Household Management. Given that I was raised by quite an independent, forward thinking mother and that I myself have thus far pursued a path that tends more towards career woman than homemaker, it is perhaps odd that I have such a fascination with housekeeping. But I find it hard to pass by a book on the subject, and this time was no exception.

Written as a reference guide for the Victorian middle class, it details recipes, kitchen gadgets, cooking techniques, how to manage a household staff, household etiquette, how to care for sick household members and how to host guests appropriately. If it sounds dull and prescriptive, I assure you it is not. In the same vein as M.F.K. Fisher's How to Cook a Wolf, Mrs. Beeton has a compelling voice and a very clear point of view.

Although not all of the advice is specifically applicable to the world today (I assume few people are dying their own wool these days for instance), the spirit of what she has to say is still relevant. The opening passage "As with the commander of an army, or the leader of any enterprise, so it is with the mistress of a house. Her spirit will be seen through the whole establishment; and just in proportion as she performs her duties intelligently and thoroughly, so will her domestics follow in her path." drew me in completely, not just for the elegant language, but for the wisdom inherent in the sentiment. It seems that a few modern leaders could learn from Mrs. Beeton.

From cookbooks I could go only to design, where my eye was drawn immediately to a title that was new to me: Villa, by John Saladino.

This stunning book is all about one home, a 1920s era Italian style home in Santa Barbara. When the author bought it, the property was apparently little more than a stone ruin, but Mr. Saladino spent half a decade restoring it to its former glory. The book includes photos of the property in its original glory, in a dilapidated state and during and after the superb restoration.

The final product is quite literally breathtaking. When I came across the photo of the completed kitchen I'm afraid I moaned audibly. Large wooden ceiling beams (which I can very rarely resist) juxtaposed with long marble counters and ceramic floors...the kitchen echoed the brilliant mix of natural and refined materials that is so faithfully carried throughout the house. Not a hint of grotesque luxury, just pure, serene beauty. At $95 the book is not cheap, but as I am still thinking about the photos days later, I think it is likely a worthwhile investment.

Adjacent to the design section, my last stop was the stationery section. I always like to see what new and exciting options for note taking the store has found. They of course carry the ubiquitous Moleskin and Rhodia notebooks, and there is the requisite collection of girlish pads and books (although not too girlish, I have actually been known to buy one or two on occasion). But they also have rather witty options, like the notebook I came across that was bound by that net-like tape they used to use on the spines of library books and adorned with some ironic phrase on the cover that eludes me now.

But what I was most excited by on Saturday was the new Leuchtturm notebooks.

They look a bit like Moleskin books, what with the elastic strap ensuring closure, ribbon bookmark and the semi-glossy black covers, but it seems as if more attention has been paid to the fabrication than is the case with Moleskin. The books, when opened, lay flat, I suppose due to high quality thread binding. There are page numbers and a blank table of contents to aid in organization of your thoughts. And they come in sizes up to 9"x 12 1/2 ", considerably larger than their closest competitor. And somehow their prices appear to be equal to or less than Moleskin. Go figure. I'm seriously considering buying one of the large ones to serve as my kitchen notebook. I seem to have embarked on a intuitive cooking kick, which means I've been making things up as I go along, and thus I need somewhere to write down what I've done in case a dish turns out to be particularly wonderful. You know, to pass along to the grandchildren.


Kristen M. said...

This was a fantastic journey through a bookstore! I've never thought about recording the path I take through a shop.

The Mrs. Beeton book looks really charming. I may have to go look for it.

avant garde said...

hi! thanks for stopping by my blog and leaving a comment, it has allowed me to find your great blog too! living in new york must be totally amazing on a daily basis. i really need to go and spend time, i'm always there for very short trips and those aren't many. an art show, etc. but new york has always intrigued me. :) i'll be back often to catch up on some of your fun posts, like this cookbook series! p.s. if i find out where that macrame lamp came from i'll tell...

Sippity Sup said...

I am a huge fan of Leuchtturm. They are not the easiest to find though. The last time I saw them at a stationary store in Beverly Hills I snagged 4 of them I am on my last one so I need to get on the look out. GREG

Jane said...

Mrs Beeton you are lucky. This is hard to find in Australia. I love housekeeping books too. (As long as they don't make me feel guilty!)

Millie said...

Laura I so enjoyed peeking over your shoulder as you ambled around this fab store! I do believe time never moves as swiftly as when one is roaming the aisles of a favourite book shop. I'm looking forward to reading your archived posts over the weekend, you write so beautifully.
Millie ^_^

Cindy said...

You are fortunate to have so many independent bookstores nearby. In Berkeley they have almost all drawn the shutters. What I resort to these days is calling in a list of what I want to a bookstore in Oakland and then going way out of my way to pick up my books. Fine, but I miss the browsing.

I'm also trying to keep track of my intuitive cooking results--either in blog posts or at least photos.

Laura [What I Like] said...

Kristen M - I'm glad that you enjoyed it, I think you must go for Mrs. Beeton!

Avant Garde - I'm obsessed with that lamp, please do!

Sippity Sup - That's good to know...I may have to clean out the supply next time I go!

Jane - Agreed, as much as I love Martha Stewarts Homekeeping Handbook it does make me feel a bit sad for not wiping down my kitchen shelves every month!

Millie - Thank you so much for the kind words, it really means a lot to hear that you are enjoying my writing!

Cindy - I grew up in Oakland and I used to love all of those wonderful Berkeley bookstores. I read somewhere that Berkeley used to have the highest number of bookstores per capita in the nation. The closings have been terribly sad...once Cody's went it was all over.

Melly/Melody/or Mel said...

Oh my..thank you for that journey. I want the Diner Journal now! Well, truth be told, I want them all. I am not only a condiment whore, but a book one as well.

A World in a PAN said...

You have taken us along in your journey!

Laura [What I Like] said...

Mel - Ha! Books are worth whoring yourself for.

A World in a Pan - I'm glad you made the trip with me!

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