For the Love of Cooking
Sue Jimenez, a retired forensic anthropologist who grew up in Toronto but has called Albuquerque, New Mexico home for the last 25 years, holds the Guinness Record for the world’s largest cookbook collection, with over 6,500 volumes ranging from the late 1800s to modern day cuisine. A born researcher, Sue built her impressive collection in a relatively short period of time, fueled by a love of cooking and food history, an appreciation for food culture, and the thrill of the hunt. Although not recognized as a “Domestic Goddess” like Nigella Lawson, Sue has occasionally been referred to as “Little Suzy Homemaker.” Publisher Maxine Carter-Lome speaks with Jimenez about her collection and fascination with the cookbooks that line the walls and halls of her home:
When did you get your first cookbook and what was it?
When I turned 18 my parents gave me the Time-Life series “Foods of the World” as a birthday gift. The first edition was 1968. I remember that my first attempt to make something from it was a six-foot-long cherry strudel from The Cooking of Germany book in that series. That page still has cherry strudel stains! I read those books and looked at the pictures and thought that it was really cool. The next would be The Joy of Cooking; it was a wedding present (1971 edition). I love to cook and still have and use both books.
When did getting/buying cookbooks turn into collecting cookbooks?
This is my second collection. My first collection started in 1995/6 – I read an article about how old cookbooks were becoming very collectible. eBay was just starting up so I started going to thrift stores, garage sales, etc. and buying up old cookbooks and selling them on eBay to make some money. I even started a website (thevintagecookbookery.com) to share my collecting experiences and finds with others but I never made any money reselling them, just a lot of personal enjoyment. I even, briefly, started up my own auction site to sell the books, but I couldn’t keep up with the likes of eBay.
In 2001 I finally found gainful employment; however, I just couldn’t afford to keep the books so I donated two-thirds of my first collection (1,200 books) to our local Friends of the Library. I kept about 600 from this original collection, which seeded my second collection. A few years later when I was in a position to start adding to this collection again (around 2006/7), I went back to doing my thing and going to tag sales, thrift stores … now I only collect them, not sell them.
I told my husband I would stop when I got to 2000 – then I received a gift of a box of books from a friend, and that pushed the goal to the next level.
I don’t believe in small numbers.
As of today, 6,544. About four years ago my husband and I moved into a bigger home to accommodate a larger kitchen and my growing cookbook collection. We have two guest rooms lined floor to ceiling with shelves for the collection. Our “Great Hall”—a 40’ long hallway—is also lined with cookbooks. I should point out that our 3rd guest bedroom is taken up with my husband’s books: academic, history, and railroad books.
How did your association with Guinness World Records come about?
I read an article—when my collection was at 2,200 cookbooks—about a lady who held the record for the most number of cookbooks at about 1,200. Since I had already surpassed that I thought it would be fun to challenge that listing. I went through their requirements and culled about 200-300 small “cookbooklets” and manufacturer’s pamphlets from my collection that they didn’t consider cookbooks – those didn’t count. Then I had to find two people locally to count and verify the remaining books; one had to be in the book industry and one in the food industry. I found a local chef who was willing to do a count from the food point of view and a local bookshop owner to meet the other requirement. In addition, the event had to be videotaped, witnessed by the counters, who had to sign and verify several documents, make duplicate copies, etc. It took about a year from start to finish but in November 2013 I was awarded the honor.
The record still stands, at least the last time I checked.
When you add to your collection what are you looking for? What’s on your wish list?
I always look for what appeals to me, although that may not always appeal to the general public. I would love to get a cookbook from every country – I have 115 countries represented so far. I don’t do diet or health books … not my first choice of books. I do tend to go with pre-1970 cookbooks. I find them personally more interesting. Current books don’t hold that same interest for me. It’s the history you can find in these cookbooks that fascinates me; that they have recipes is a bonus.
What is the oldest cookbook in your collection?
I believe it is 1896 – a European cookbook written in English, European & American Cuisine by Gisene Lemcke.
What is your personal favorite?
Feed the Brute – a tiny book written in 1925 by Marjorie Swift of London, England. She writes in her book that “The well-fed man is a happy man – and a very easily ‘managed’ one too. And since we women know that to maintain harmony, every man—however clever, however efficient, however charming—must be ‘managed,’ let us feed him well first and manage him afterwards.” Bought that at an estate sale years ago and it remains my favorite book.
What story does your collection tell?
The history of people – their culture, how they were cooking, their attitude about food, trends, what foods they had access to …Trends in food and the technology have changed so much in the last 100 years, and cookbooks capture that transition. They are like history books with recipes.
Do you ever prepare meals from the recipes you find?
Believe it or not I do. One of the things I developed is an interest in salts. Just about every country around the world has salt mines and I now have a collection of 70 salts and about 50 peppers. I enjoy building a menu around a salt and cookbook from that same country.
Are you as passionate now as you were when you started?
Yes. Not sure why, but I still love the hunt. I have a favorite thrift store where I can pick up cookbooks for only a few dollars. The pictures, recipes, spices … make me wonder what else is out there?!
To learn more about Sue, follow her blog at kalesijablog.wordpress.com or email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.