Friday, March 7, 2014
For those who love an old-fashioned cookbook, Rabelais Books in the North Dam Mill in Biddeford is a great resource. Look no further if you want a copy of Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi’s Jerusalem: A Cookbook, Jessica and Joshua Applestone ‘s The Butcher’s Guide to Well-Raised Meat, or Chef Magnus Nilsson’s Faviken. Rabelais’s vast collection of new and antiquarian books can satisfy even the most inquisitive minds yearning to learn more about Southern cuisine, keeping livestock, doughnuts, how to plant fruit trees, season extension, America’s food crisis, home beer brewing, the history of food and drink in America, and so much more.
I caught up with Don Lindgren, who owns Rabelais with his wife Samantha, to talk about one of my favorite resources in Maine.
What is the root of your selection criteria for books?
Well, we have many different types of cookbooks and other food and drink books, so the selection criteria vary. There are tens of thousands of cookbooks in print, and hundreds of thousands of titles printed throughout history, so even the largest store can’t handle it all, but the bottom line for us is that a book needs to treat its subject with respect, and be written by someone who brings knowledge and some skill to the task. In terms of rare books, it’s all about what we find, whether it’s an individual item or a whole collection. I love buying collections formed by chefs and food historians because they often contain obscure books on really specific subjects, like Papaya Culture in Hawaii, or a 19th century Goan cookbook, published in Bombay.
Has the growth of the local food movement and interest in local food systems affected your business? I’m referring to those persons who want to learn more about where their food comes from and how it is produced, which in an increasing number of cases means producing it themselves.
Absolutely. Rabelais started as a response to the great local food scene, which in Maine’s case is inseparable from the food movement. Maine has a food culture that never walked away from the D.I.Y. elements of food. People hunt and fish and garden and forage on the one hand, and preserve and smoke and make beer and collect honey and so much more on the other hand. These things are being rediscovered elsewhere in America, and while they’re now more popular, they never stopped being practiced here in Maine. We try to select books that will help people delve deeper into these skills. Whether it’s nose-to-tail cooking and sausage making, or distilling, some help from a master is usually a good thing. Our conversations with chefs and farmers have definitely guided us toward certain subjects, and we’ve sought out hard-to-find and rare books on things like heritage grains, rare apples, French distilling, and fermentation.
What has your biggest challenge been moving an independent bookstore specializing in new and rare books on foods, wine, farming and gardening from Portland to Biddeford?
The move to Biddeford was not in itself a challenge. The big challenge was realizing that we really had two businesses which were related but very different, and which needed a different sort of set up than what we had on Middle Street. The larger part of our business remains rare books on food and drink, sold mostly to a list of private collectors and institutional customers, not online, but through direct customer communication. We needed the space to organize collections of books as we buy them, and the quiet to catalogue them to offer them to clients. Fortunately, we get both of those things in our new space in Biddeford, with room for the new and used books as well.
Are you an expert in rare books on gastronomy? What does that mean?
I’ve been fortunate to (have) spent more time around rare cookbooks than all but a very few people, I’m called on to appraise individual cookbooks, culinary archives and collections by major university libraries, and I have the tools to do the research when I need to. I have a few thousand volumes of reference books, mostly culinary bibliography, but also books on food history, farming and gardening, and rural life. I’m active in the Antiquarian Booksellers’ Association of America and the International League of Antiquarian Booksellers, and this February I’ll be taking part in two events at the Roger Smith Cookbook Conference in New York, where I’ll be talking about the history of children’s cookbooks and the use of cookbooks for scholarly research. Cookbooks are fun, but I try to take them seriously.
If you magically had a bunch of free time and could learn one trade, what would it be? What would you make?
The trade would be distilling, and the product would be apple brandy or Calvados. Maine is ripe for an explosion of quality craft distilling, and apples seem like the perfect place to start (and some have already made an impressive start).
What is your personal book collection like?
I have a general collection of scholarly books on the history of ideas from cave painting to the modern era. It’s nice to take the long view sometimes, and that part of my collection does that for me. And at any one time, I also have one or more little collections. When we opened Rabelais, I started collecting Maine cookbooks, especially the early ones. Maine cookbooks started late – in 1877 – but many of the little community and charitable cookbooks have never been collected and live in no institutional collections. I now have the largest collection of Maine cookbooks assembled. I just collected as I found them, nothing too systematic, but having them in one place allows me to see patterns. When do certain recipes first appear, and where. What ingredients are popular, and when, etc.
photos by Sharon KitchensTweet
Sharon Kitchens is a neo-homesteader learning the ins and outs of country living by luck and pluck and a lot of expert advice. She writes about bees for The Huffington Post and stuff she loves on her personal blog, deliciousmusings.com.
When she is not writing, she enjoys edible gardening, reading books on food and/or thinking about food, hanging out by her beehives and patiently tracking down her chickens in the woods behind her old farmhouse.
In her blog, Sharon profiles farm families, reports on farm-based education and internships, conducts Q&A's with master beekeepers, offers tips on picking a CSA, and much more.