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Volumes of Truth

Good cookbooks are great--but good chefs and friends are superior

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When I was 10 or so, I made the calculation that if I read at least a book a day and lived to be 50, I'd only be able to read maybe 15,000 books in my entire life. Seems silly now, but at the time, I didn't know there would be anything better to do during a day--or that I might pass that half-century mark. But back then, on Saturdays around 2 p.m., after two hours at Junior Assembly and stops with Momma at Steinfeld's and Jacome's, I'd be on the second floor of the Main Library, in the fiction stacks, wanting to devour ALL of Dumas, pére et fils, as quickly as possible. It led to a certain ... hmmm ... insatiability regarding books, if not musty library stacks.

In the four decades that quickly passed, I collected thousands of books, actually reading most of them. Not the 15,000 I'd panicked about in my more-slender decade, but not so far off, either, I bet. Most of them are at the farm, but I've been pretty ingenious at finding room for maybe 1,000 here in this tiny ark in the desert (not to mention the eternal National Self-Storage crypt). These days, I get more enjoyment giving them away than I ever got collecting them--and I can assure you I loved the collecting part.

The gallant musketeers gave way to a host of rivals: Conrad Aiken, Robinson Jeffers, James Merrill, Robert Duncan, Daryl Hine; E.R. Eddison, Samuel Butler, Austin Tappen Wright; M. Scott Momaday and F. Scott Fitzgerald, Fabre, Foucault and Farley Mowat; Plato and Pasolini; Aristotle, all the Sitwells and Anaïs Nin; Dostoyevsky and Dos Passos; Marsh, Innes, Christie and Train; Paine, Lenin and Jefferson. This is not name-dropping, merely a woefully incomplete hymn of thankfulness.

Thank you for staying so long with this. This really is about food and friends, as the loyalists know. The truth is, I read more cookbooks now--or home "receipts"--than almost anything. Why? Because THEY. ARE. ABOUT. TRUTH. Interests. Ingredients. Measurements. Temperatures. Outcomes. There ya go. I read the cuisanartists more than the diarists these days. Dumas, pére et fils, have been succeeded by Rombauer, mére et fille.

I have about 150 cookbooks here on River Road, and two times again as many scattered recipes. There are at least twice that number on the kitchen shelves at the farm. The core is what you'd probably expect: Joy of Cooking, Fannie Farmer, the irrepressible Julia Child and Simca. The worn and battered Searchlight Recipe Book, full of my mother's notes and old magazine and newspaper clippings, is always close to hand, as are Perla Meyers' The Seasonal Kitchen, Barbara Tropp's China Moon Cookbook and Sheila Lukins' All Around the World Cookbook. I have M.F.K. Fisher collections I turn to for the odd recipe or three.

There are a dozen volumes with nothing but soup recipes; my fave, though, is something I found at Bookman's 20 years ago: Marian Tracy's The Art of Making Real Soups. If you ever get the chance to try okroshka, do not pass it up just because the idea of a cold soup combining pickles, eggs, buttermilk, chicken, cucumbers and a bunch of fresh herbs seems unfamiliar. It's the best.

I'm particularly partial to soups and scout secondhand bookstores for books devoted to that single subject. And not-so-secondhand--at Williams-Sonoma (in Fancy Pants Mall, as Noah flags it), the other day, Soup (Williams-Sonoma, $16.95) caught my eye and propelled me to buy a half-ton of Vidalia onions and spend yesterday making stock for French onion soup tonight for Andrew and Jorge.

One of the best soups I've had in recent memory was the other night at J-Bar with Jimmy and Garrett--fresh tomato and basil, cucumbers and amazing croutons in a fragrant, chilled broth. Dynamite!

Too, it was great to see Janos again. When I came in to meet up with the editor and his beau--late, of course--Janos greeted me with a big hug and a kiss. As we were talking, a couple on their way out stopped to inquire whether or not he was the owner/chef. "Did you enjoy your meal?" he asked, before confirming or denying his role. It was the best and the service was remarkable, they told him, at which point he acknowledged who he was, adding that if they hadn't liked it, he would have identified me as the owner.

Speaking of seeing people again: The next morning, on the way out of Ghini's after being treated by April and Mike to a birthday breakfast, I saw three more of my favorite people: Mary Gekas and her son, Jimmy, and her daughter Kiki. I'm not sure how it is that Jimmy and Kiki have gotten older--or Janos, for that matter--but Mary looked as beautiful as ever with the same flashing spark in her eyes. We spent a few energized, laughing moments in the shorthand story-recollecting of old friends, Mary's glances dancing sharply between us.

I can't begin to imagine how many tens of thousands of meals have been thoughtfully served up between Janos and the Gekii. I'm so lucky to have enjoyed at least my fair share of them. How can you not love foodies? When it comes down to it, the cooks are always richer than the cookbooks, and a few friends better than these thousands of volumes scattered in different places.

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