Every time we say goodbye I die — a little.
Cole Porter had it right. Shakespeare had it wrong: The sorrow of parting is far from sweet.
The loss of a loved one is devastating to the soul. It is an eternal black cloud, a searing, pulsating wound from which we can never truly heal. Where once there was heart, now there is only a void.
I am speaking here about having to part with books. Specifically, cookbooks.
As you may have heard, the Post-Dispatch has moved out of its grand and solid — but maintenance-challenged — digs. We’re heading exactly two blocks east to a building that is bland and ridiculously generic, but also a few decades newer.
More to the current point, it is also considerably smaller. And that means there is room for less of our stuff. In the case of a food writer, less stuff does not mean fewer pots and pans or fewer dishes and glasses. It means fewer cookbooks. A lot fewer.
In the old building, I had room for hundreds and hundreds of cookbooks. I started to count them all for this column, but I gave up after about eight because, as I said, there were hundreds and hundreds.
The new building has room for dozens and dozens, or at least dozens.
So I have been spending my time going through the collection, choosing to take only the books I cannot do without. Separating the books about wheat from, for the sake of argument, books about chaff.
It’s like my own private, agonizing, Sophie’s Choice. Which ones do I keep? Which ones do I toss? Which ones continue to spark joy? Which do I thank for their service to me and then ceremoniously put aside?
Some of the books I wanted to keep were flat-out obvious. These are the essentials, the books I absolutely must have: “Mastering the Art of French Cooking,” by Julia Child, Louisette Bertholle and Simone Beck; “Joy of Cooking,” by St. Louis’ own Irma S. Rombauer (even though I haven’t actually looked at it in 30 years); Mollie Katzen’s “Moosewood Cookbook.”
But once I got beyond a dozen or so indispensables, the choices became harder. For every “The Inn at Little Washington Cookbook” I kept, I had to give away two books such as “Charlie Trotter’s Meat & Game” and “Cooking with Café Pasqual’s.”
Every time we say goodbye I wonder why — a little.
I had to be ruthless; it’s a matter of physics. Two objects cannot occupy the same space, so I had to cast out one or more of those objects in order to fit on the available bookshelves.
To do so meant confronting my food biases. I kept almost no cookbooks from the American Southwest, perhaps for no reason other than I have not spent sufficient time there. On the other hand, you could argue that I overindulged my passion for international cooking and for quirky historical recipes.
The decisions made on little more than the spur of a moment will end up having an impact on you, the reader. The cookbooks I have available help determine, at least to some extent, the stories you will read about food. My choices were made with future stories in mind.
So I got rid of books in which the recipes were too simple (a recipe for a turkey sandwich that tells you to put steamed, sliced turkey on rye bread with mustard; a recipe for potato chips that consists of two ingredients: potatoes and the oil to fry them).
Similarly, I expunged books with recipes that were too complicated (a 23-ingredient salad of grilled frisée, squash and figs with savory granola and bacon vinaigrette; blueberry sweet tea-brined roasted chicken thighs with golden beet hash — and that from what purports to be a soul-food cookbook).
Now, I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking, “If he’s getting rid of hundreds of cookbooks, I would be happy to sacrifice precious room on my shelf to take a few or perhaps even all of them off his hands. It’s the least I could do.”
It is very nice and noble of you to think that, but here is the thing: You are all thinking it. Trying to accommodate all of you would be chaos.
And that is why this column is running now, three weeks after I did the actual culling. The choices have been made, the books that were not snapped up by colleagues have been donated to schools or colleges or prisons or wherever people still read books about cooking.
The choices hurt. They left me fevered with a kind of emotional agony.
What, for instance, do I do with “Chez Panisse Cooking”? The recipes are clearly too complicated or too exquisite to run in a newspaper. It would do no one any good, for instance, to print a recipe for Pigeon Marinated in Muscat Wine.
On the other hand, it’s Chez Panisse, perhaps the most influential American restaurant of the last 50 years or more. What to do?
I took that book home.
There’s no love song finer, but how strange the change from major to minor, every time we say goodbye.