My Big Fat Cookbook Purge of 2021

I am, and will always be, a lover of cookbooks. There are several thousand (estimated) – that I will not part with and hundreds that I am sitting on the edge of my seat waiting for their release. That being said, this last month I’ve had to do the unthinkable (again) purge my collection. There comes a point where I must tell myself “girl get a grip”. (Update: read about June Xie and her cooking style that has me getting a firmer grip.)

The picture to the left shows my hallway bookcases – the after photo. Prior to acquiring free bookcases on Facebook marketplace, these volumes were stacked against the wall Jenga style. See the scary photo to the right.

I would panic if Andrew, my son, or anyone for that matter, would walk too heavily down the hall. The Homeowners’ Association would issue cookbook avalanche warnings when it would get windy and Lord help me if I wanted to pull a book from one of the stacks. Not going to happen.

I have to admit I was, and still am, embarrassed at the current state of my kitchen (loaded with all types of baking pans, ingredients and more). My office at least has a door (I won’t share photos of the office yet – it’s too damn scary). To get to my office closet where I have even more vintage baking tins and bakeware, I have to strap on mountain climbing equipment and pray for a safe journey.

The den/family room is still a work in progress as I struggle through the Jenga stacks behind the couch. At this moment I have roughly 500 books waiting to get loaded into the truck that already holds 200 books waiting for that long, long drive to the thrift store – five minutes away.

I am filled with relief and sadness at playing Jenny’s choice with titles but I ask myself if I have never cracked this book open in the last year, will I? I will not, so off it goes. How am I making decisions as to which books stay and which go? I’ll explain. First and foremost, I love baking books with the white-hot intensity of a hundred burning suns. So very few baking books are leaving – there are some that won’t make the cut but the majority of baking titles will be pried from my cold, stiff hands at the time of my death.

Secondly, I weigh the odds of using the book (in some cases I absolutely love the artwork or illustrations and those will stay) but like I said above – will I use it? I am a great cook and don’t have qualms stating that. I make up recipes, I improvise recipes and decided I do not need books devoted to general cooking. I love international cookbooks but I do not need every single volume on Indian, Italian, Japanese or Spanish cuisine that was ever written. So many of those types of books are out the door or on the way to hitting the shelves at the thrift store. Many of them are older books that I had long before I became a professional cookbook reviewer. (I did call the local used bookstore and offer to give them my books to help them out but never heard back and the library wasn’t taking donations due to COVID issues.)

My baking island when we first started unpacking.

Once I get through the books in the common areas of the house, I’ll tackle the office. Occasionally, I’ll glance around while I’m working at my desk and will see a book on one of my shelves that can go and I grab it for the piles (yes, more Jenga piles by the garage door). After the books are purged in the common areas, I’ll start to work on the kitchen. I love my collections of vintage baking pans and tools and I will not part with those but I will organize them. Holiday related items and things I use sparingly will make their new home on shelves in the basement.

I am proud that I went through a cabinet in the dining room. I gave friends certain pieces and took the rest to a consignment shop. Yes, almost the entire contents – gorgeous platters and more – gone. By doing this, I now have that cabinet to store baking items and the ability to actually remove a platter if I wanted to use one. My mind set was as long as I could put as much as possible in one of those cabinets and close the door, it was okay. It isn’t okay – it was madness. I’m not Martha Stewart or Ina Garten – I don’t need fifty platters and I don’t have a barn. (I confess to thinking “oh man if I had a barn I could keep it all”. Not today, little Ina devil! Get off my shoulder and don’t tempt me with your evil thoughts.)

I started this purge for a number of reasons – you may remember I wrote the following paragraph in a post that Darcie and I colloborated on:

I have been very ill for a while now. My house is a cookbook hoarder’s dream and I have bins of cooking ingredients and gadgets to organize from the last six months. Just this Sunday I felt well enough to start going through books and purging. My husband has been patient with this scenario but Tuesday when he tried to talk to me calmly…

The other side of the baking island – and I will not subject you to a photo of the mess on top.

Since we’ve moved to our new house, I have wanted to make the time and have the strength to tackle my beautiful mess. But as I always do – in an effort to just get things out of boxes – I unpacked and stacked and threw things into the cabinets. I did not take my time and sort and organize carefully. This also applied to when we moved, I should have donated loads before packing up but there is never enough time.

This statement brings me to the second major reason I began this giant unloading as I affectionately refer to this major life event of mine. Remember the first reason was as an effort to please my husband and myself (the stuff drives me mad), the second reason is time. I want time to enjoy the things I love and not have walls of things around me – trust me – I will never be a minimalist – so Marie K do not show up here for an intervention. I will not answer the door – just like I ignore the doorbell when someone shows up with a clipboard and a smile. But I do want to have space to work creatively, ability to find books and things I need without it taking hours and causing more stress.

I have a wealth of cookware and two weeks ago my son and his new bride came for a visit and I loaded her up with nice things to start their life, I have given neighbors and friends many items. I do share the wealth.

I write this today in an effort to distract myself from the horrific news in our world and yesterday’s senseless shooting in Boulder, an hour away from me. I write this to purge my head and my heart and to make myself more accountable and I do promise to come back and update my efforts.

Wish me well and pray that my heating pad holds out because my back is aching from the lifting.

I have add this: Shelmar made the following comment: “My first thought was I wished I lived wherever you are so I could go buy at the thrift store.” And it reminded me of the reason I do not go into that particular thrift store right now: I don’t want to see my babies, marked down and discounted, like Bette Midler in Ruthless People.

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  • Indio32  on  March 23, 2021

    Thank you for posting.

  • Kristjudy  on  March 23, 2021

    Love the honesty, humour of this post. Wishing you a strong back and good ruthless choices!

  • Shelmar  on  March 23, 2021

    My first thought was I wished I lived wherever you are so I could go buy at the thrift store.

    • Jenny  on  March 23, 2021

      I have to avoid going into the thrift stores because I don’t want to see my babies, marked down and discounted, like Bette Midler in Ruthless People.

  • EmilyR  on  March 23, 2021

    Thinking of you, Jenny. I hope you are feeling better long term. Just think of all of those wonderful meals and happy shoppers whose days you are making while they discover all of these treasures.

  • Shelley.b  on  March 23, 2021

    I can relate I have more cookbooks than I have space. One thing I aways donate my books to the public library. They can add to their collection; they have sales to raise funds and can send books to other libraries that have a need

    • Jenny  on  March 23, 2021

      When I began this – the library was not taking any donations (COVID?) and when they did take donations, I would have to carry bins and bins into the library – and I cannot do that. I thought of everything before donating them – but it is all good. Goodwill does good work.

  • jluvs2bake  on  March 23, 2021

    Ha! I see Shelmar and I are on the same wavelength! I don’t have as many books as you do, but I know how hard it is to weed them out. Likewise, I know what it’s like to just need to get rid of things in order to feel some sense of peace in one’s environment. I hope you find the purge to be cathartic and that the house feels more like a sanctuary to you when you’re finished. What a lucky bride your daughter-in-law is for many reasons! PS Marie is not welcome here, either. I just told someone the other day that I’m not a minimalist and don’t want to be, just as she doesn’t have to be a collector if she doesn’t want to be!!

  • Aggie92  on  March 23, 2021

    I can so relate. We moved from Wyoming to Alaska last summer and I had to purge half my cookbook collection. Our household goods were over the weight limit we had from my husband’s relocation agreement. It hurt tremendously to part with some of them. I left behind some large coffee table-style cookbooks that I collected over the years, but never used. So even though they were beautiful, since they didn’t get used, they got left. Luckily the couple that purchased our house wanted them. She belongs to a charity that does an annual book sale to raise money for school kids and she was going to donate them to the sale. That was a huge relief since I couldn’t donate them to the library due to covid concerns. Maybe someday I’ll repurchase a few of them. But for now I will content myself with Kindle purchases and cookbooks from my new home state.

  • EmilyR  on  March 23, 2021

    You’ve inspired me to offload a few (baby steps…) to some of the free little libraries around my neighborhood. You might have one near you, too, I often see people also post cookbooks on buy nothing Facebook groups, where I have to show some restraint and not take their cast offs. I’m a work in progress, just like my cookbook library.

  • matag  on  March 23, 2021

    Doesn’t it feel good ? Just took a bunch to the library!

  • LeePicard  on  March 23, 2021

    I am in your neighborhood and my first thought was which thrift store is that! I have a serious cookbook addiction but I’ll have to show my husband your pictures and make him realize it’s really not that bad! Loved the blog. Wishing you many happy, happy hours of cooking, baking and making people happy with food (yourself included) with the items you left yourself to love. Hope to meet you in person some day.

  • Rinshin  on  March 23, 2021

    Totally understand. Here’s hoping for your heath to get better. I know it is not the same as having physical books, but kindle books work ok for me since I can use my ipad while coking. I need to continue purging newer Bon Appetit, Saveur, Food and Wine. I tend to like their older recipes better from them so most likely keep pre 2010 ones. I may go pre 2000.

  • lean1  on  March 23, 2021

    You inspired me to take another look over my collection. I took out 17 books and made a bit of room. Need to be done.

  • Sueskitchen  on  March 23, 2021

    Having moved and downsized a few years ago, I find the act of purging my cookbook collection to be like an artform. I have curated a rather large group of special books based on recipes and food-styles I love, cities and restaurants that I have visited, and the ethnic histories and back stories that they contain. Every few months I go through the collection and offer books I think my adult kids will like and otherwise I leave a stack in the lobby or laundry room of my building for the tenants to enjoy. Since I’m sent cookbooks every month and gifted more, it is necessary to make decisions but I love doing it. I’m honestly not a fan of the food network tv style books so they usually go first.

    As to the state of our country right now, Daria’s words continue to ring in my ears. “It’s a sick sad world”

  • laurelgbakker  on  March 23, 2021

    That’s what it is……a *BEAUTIFUL* mess. Beautiful….in that it brings you utter JOY. “Mess” is incidental and not even a focal point for the cookbook-lover-beholder. OOXOO

  • rosajane8  on  March 24, 2021

    You are a stronger person than I am 🙂 🙂 I had my books in boxes and got some nice bookcases for them…was so wonderful to be able to have them out in the open and able to use. I can imagine you feel much the same way with your books now in bookcases. 🙂

  • Gachabot  on  March 24, 2021

    Admire your purging efforts – i too try to do this but never seem to make a dent and with EYB I never have doubles anymore so I can’t use that excuse. i look at them all as friends some closer than others (ie all my baking books) and the cookware as well- with all the post it’s i have on pages i look the collection as letters to my children after i’m gone –

  • ChefDoone  on  March 24, 2021

    I also did a cookbook purge during this COVID stay-at-home time period, I sent 904 cookbooks to our local thrift store a few weeks before Christmas. I still have over 2,600 cookbooks in my collection (not counting my Kindle cookbooks), and I really appreciate the “Eat Your Books” website, I use it often to find recipes to make from my cookbooks.

  • winnie212  on  March 24, 2021

    Am grateful to you for your honesty and good humor- likely everyone in the EYB community can relate. I hope you have many hours of joyful baking (and your family has hours of joyful sampling as well)

  • JaniceKj  on  March 24, 2021

    Your article is very refreshing, indeed. Goes to show that I am not alone. I also love cookbooks since I can remember. Thank you for sharing your personal story and as you, I too feel sometimes like an Ina, Martha, Rachael and Ree, just to name a few…

  • CapeCodCook  on  March 25, 2021

    It feels good to know that others share my addiction to collecting cookbooks and then share the inevitable need to make room for more. I wonder if other people have my particular compulsion? Am I the only one who writes notes to myself in cookbooks? It’s so satisfying to jot down my rating system of 1 to 3 stars; the date(s) when I served a recipe; what people thought of it; and then my comments or edits to the list of ingredients and instructions. Sort of like “staking a claim” to the recipe as well as creating a culinary journal. The notes are great for repeat performances and recommendations and EYB leads me ever deeper into new recipes to annotate! But libraries (and thrift shops too) won’t want books with writing in them and I can’t just throw away a book! I know; excuses, excuses! 🙃

  • FunkyViriditas  on  March 26, 2021

    My dilemma is that I now want to be able to move abroad. No way I’m taking my 600 cookbooks! So what I really need is a stable base for them and other stuff. But little apartment here is too little and most of my cookbooks are in boxes where I can’t even see them! And yet, I continue to buy more and more. *Sigh*

  • ccav  on  March 26, 2021

    Thanks for writing about your experience! A struggle we can all relate to.
    How’s this for silly….sometimes I will see a cookbook at a used bookstore that I’d gotten rid of years ago and am tempted to buy it. Why? I obviously didn’t want it enough to keep it ! But it’s like a familiar friend. Luckily I am able to think of someone happily discovering it on the shelf and taking it home.

  • Mrs. L  on  March 27, 2021

    Nice to know I’m not the only one with a little Ina Devil on her shoulder.

  • nadiam1000  on  March 28, 2021

    I can certainly appreciate and relate to this post. A couple of years ago, I did a major purge when I sold my house and moved into an apartment in another city. I went from 2000 books to just over a thousand. I gave some away, sold some but mostly I donated to local thrift and library. I do not miss the books as much as I miss the custom bookcases my Dad built for me. In my current living room I have wall to wall IKEA bookshelves and a smaller freestanding shelf in the dining room. I started purging books again recently as I found many I could live without. My goal was to keep only what fits on my shelves, Baking books make up a huge part of my collection and are least likely to go although some do. I want to appreciate and love the cookbooks I keep. Packing and moving even 1000 books is no small feat so I am being mindful. And, there are always new ones to add – although I have definitely slowed down my purchases.

  • thewoobdog  on  April 5, 2021

    “But as I always do – in an effort to just get things out of boxes – I unpacked and stacked and threw things into the cabinets. I did not take my time and sort and organize carefully. This also applied to when we moved, I should have donated loads before packing up but there is never enough time.”

    My husband and I moved into our new house in December of 2018, and I STILL haven’t dealt with the chaos I created when we moved in. There are still unpacked totes in the basement, and cabinets full of crammed-in STUFF in our enormous kitchen. When we packed up from our old house, I made an effort to do a preliminary “keep/donate/toss” but of course, as you say, there’s never enough TIME. And when we moved into our new house, I made an effort to do the same, but honestly, I just wanted to be OUT OF MY PARENTS’ BASEMENT (where we’d lived while renovating the new house) and chose expediency over organization.

    I’m still clawing my way through the mounds of our possessions. How can we have this much STUFF? It’s SO stressful to feel like things don’t have a place – my favorite daydream (my childhood self would be so disappointed) is living in a blissfully organized house where I know what I have and can lay my hands on any of it in under 5 minutes. #chasingthedream

  • trudys_person  on  April 21, 2021

    I’m with Shelmar! But I understand – my cookbook collection may be too big too … I did gift some baking pans to my niece who is setting up her first apartment …

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