Cookbook collection is feast for the mind

April 25, 1993|By Irene Sax | Irene Sax,Newsday Los Angeles Times Syndicate

NEW YORK -- Claudia Roden was calling.

The English food writer had heard about Dalia Carmel's cookbooks in Israel and had gotten her phone number at a food conference in Boston. Now she was in New York and wanted to come over and look through the books.

"You see?" said Ms. Carmel, smiling. "This happens all the time."

Tall, handsome, with short gray hair and a soft Israeli accent, Ms. Carmel is living out every collector's dream. The passion for buying cookbooks that was for many years "my private disease, my mishegoss [craziness]" has gone public, and she now gets called by everyone from the Smithsonian Institution, which wanted the name of an Afghani food writer, to Bride's magazine, which wanted to know what was served at Israeli weddings.

A New Orleans chef called for southern Jewish recipes. Nach Waxman, owner of the New York bookstore Kitchen Arts and Letters, called for recipes from Madagascar. An anthropology professor called looking for a cookbook from an American Indian high school in Santa Fe, N.M. And restaurant reviewers call all the time, wanting to know the ingredients of a dish they ate the night before.

Ms. Carmel's books -- nearly 4,000 of them -- are stored, double-deep, in every room of the two-bedroom apartment she shares with husband, Herb Goldstein. ("Every room but one," corrected Mr. Goldstein. "My bathroom.")

The collection's strengths are its Mediterranean and Middle Eastern cookbooks (she has one from a Turkish home for the elderly) and Jewish cookbooks from around the world, including one from a temple in Rhodesia.

But its heart, for her, is in the small, ring-bound books put out by American ethnic communities. An Armenian-American cookbook. A Swiss-American cookbook. No Bosnian-American cookbook so far, but she's looking.

"This country is a treasure of untapped material," said Ms. Carmel. "Mainstream cookbooks are interesting, but they're not where it's at."

Not for her, at least. Ms. Carmel has narrowed her focus a lot since the day she sent a dollar to the Cookbook Club and got back Julia Child, Craig Claiborne and "The Joy of Cooking." "When all else fails and laziness takes over," she said, " 'Joy' is still wonderful."

Like most passionate collectors, she not only knows every cookbook she owns (no computers, no 3-by-5 cards) but also remembers, and regrets, every cookbook she didn't buy. Such as the hashish cookbook she passed up in a Madison Avenue shop because her then-new husband said, "What do you need another one for?"

She hasn't passed up many since. "As you collect, you develop an eagle eye," she said. "The turning point -- "It was like coming out, like being a debutante" -- came when she joined the Culinary Historians of New York and word got out that she had books nobody else did and was eager to share what she had, all for nothing.

hTC "I couldn't write the book I'm doing now without her vast network of community cookbooks," said cookbook author Paula Wolfert, currently working on a book on the eastern Mediterranean. "I go to the countries and do the research, but sometimes it's hard to figure out how to make those things work in America. That's where her books come in."

Not only does Ms. Carmel know what's in her own collection, she knows what's in Ms. Wolfert's collection, too. "She's like a fairy godmother. She knows what I have, and if there's something I need, she buys it for me," laughed Ms. Wolfert.

"Dalia treats the hunt for a cookbook the way someone else treats a safari: The hunt is just as interesting as the result," said Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett of New York University, who has collected more than 6,000 books for a social history of Jewish cookbooks. "She'll see a reference, sniff out an organization and then, through detective work, track down just what she wants."

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