During my food writing class this past summer, we got the chance to meet and interview Bonnie Slotnick, the owner of an antiquarian/antique cookbook store on West 10th Street in Manhattan. With a total of two vintage cookbooks in my own collection, I was by no means an expert, but eager to learn more. Bonnie’s store is an oasis for anyone who loves books, recipes or simply connecting with a little history. I’ve always had a weakness for all things vintage and love finding unique books and kitchen accessories, so I could easily spend hours browsing through her store.
After meeting with Bonnie, I gained an even greater appreciation for the recipes of our past, especially handwritten ones, which will likely become even more valuable in our increasingly technological world. I’m happy to say that she even inspired me to expand my collection to include a restaurant menu from the late 1800s, two new (old) cookbooks, and an issue of Gourmet magazine from the year I was born. Sicilia e le isole in Bocca has beautiful silkscreen illustrations printed on a cardboard stock. It almost looks like it was hand bound. I love how the recipes are printed in a handwritten style too. And the issue of Miss Parloa’s New Cook Book I found came complete with notes and recipes from the previous owner! Nothing can compete with finding something that has a story and a history behind it.
I can’t wait to try out some of the recipes and share the results. For now, here’s the article I wrote in my class. Enjoy!
Is technology ruining cooking? Just ask Bonnie Slotnick, owner of an antiquarian cookbook store in New York’s West Village.
“With thousands of recipes available online, how do you know what’s good anymore?” Slotnick wondered during a recent interview.
She brings up an interesting point. Technology has created an overabundance of information. Choices are innumerable and exhausting, so we turn to a flashing cursor prompt for answers. Type an ingredient into Google or Wikipedia or foodblogsearch.com and pages upon pages of recipes pop up, eating up your chance to experiment, improvise, and even, make mistakes.
And it goes beyond recipes. Searching for out of print books was “so much more rewarding before the internet,” says Slotnick as she reminisced on the days when she would spend her time driving around New England going to old book stores. She admits that she doesn’t buy much online.
Slotnick to this day still carries her 15 page list, “In 8 pt point type,” she points out, of the out-of-print books people want, a list she started compiling back in the late 90s.
It contains unexpected and impossible to find titles that seem made-up, like “A Russian Jew Cooks in Peru.” But Slotnick found it in a random woman’s house, during a casual visit. With the Internet, this spontaneity is gone. And possibly with it, a link to our culinary history. You miss the connection to that random woman, her story, and why she was drawn to those recipes in the first place.
It seems as though we’re in the middle of a culinary divide. On one hand food and cooking is more accessible than ever before. On the other hand, it’s trendy, which can prove dangerous if we begin to tip the scale towards excess and ephemeral. In this foodie-obsessed culture, we need to ask ourselves: what kind of culinary footprint are we leaving behind?
According to Slotnick, there is no clear answer. “Vegan with bacon is the definitive New York schizophrenic food mentality,” she says.
Of course, there are pros and cons. Food trends have made us more adventurous in the kitchen. We are willing to try new and interesting ingredients, explore recipes from different cultures and cross borders we may not have been willing to cross before. “Thirty years ago if you put cilantro in a recipe, no one would buy it,” says Slotnick.
In addition, with food trends like slow foods, CSAs and foraging, we are beginning to see the benefits of eating the way our ancestors ate, of buying fresh, local ingredients, eating seasonally and respecting the land. Recipes seem to be on a similar road back to basics.
There’s a clear shift towards preserving our food culture and oral tradition, especially with the resurgence of forgotten food writers like Clementine Paddleford, who believed that the people making recipes were much more interesting than the recipes themselves.
A recent panel at the New School in New York City discussed Paddleford’s influence on food writing and emphasized the importance of stories. One of the panelists, Molly O’Neill, the food columnist for the New York Times Sunday Magazine and a reporter for the “Style” section of the New York Times, has collected oral history and recipes for over ten years for her latest book.
“We’ve almost ridden the recipe horse as far as it can go,” said O’Neill. “We are heading back towards the home cook.”
And the home cook can offer something the Internet can’t: family history.
We live in a world of sharing information. And sharing is good. Anyone can come up with recipes and post about them to others. And maybe that’s the point. It’s up for grabs. There are no rules. You can write, change, edit, alter, and substitute as you wish. Bits and pieces from foodblogsearch.com are little lessons and ideas and notes to help build your own story.
But are we losing the connection to our own cultures in the process?
We search for answers where there should be no right or wrong. We place rules and restrictions and measurements on taste. Whatever happened to the way our grandmothers used to cook? A freeform perfection of comfort that could not be recorded beyond pinch of this, and pinch of that, grandma’s cooking represented a culture and a family. It was passed down almost through osmosis by simply standing in the kitchen by her side, hand on whisk, watching and helping.
It’s a critical point in our foodie history, a point where history is becoming increasingly valued. We need to step back and determine what type of information, recipes and stories we want leave behind some day.
“Just this morning, I pulled a four-leaf clover out of a book. No one is going to pull flowers out of a Kindle,” said Slotnick.
We can’t pass down an empty search engine box to our grandkids, either. We need to fill it with something first.
For more information on Bonnie Slotnick’s store, please visit her at bonnieslotnickcookbooks.com.
Bonnie Slotnick Cookbooks
163 West Tenth Street
New York, New York 10014-3116