Omnivore Books on Food specializes in rare and vintage cookbooks, as well as new books about cooking and food.  Sasha Khokha, host of The California Report Magazine, stopped by for a conversation with owner Celia Sack, about what’s selling to home cooks for the holidays. Here are some excerpts: 

Celia Sack is the owner and founder of Omnivore Books on Food in San Francisco (Suzie Racho/KQED)

Why she lets customers handle rare cookbooks,  hundreds of years old:

When I was a young woman, 18 or 19,  I loved to collect, and these antiquarian book shops would have all the old books behind the counter.  They’d give me the stink eye if I asked to see them. They were very suspicious, and sort of watched me the whole time. It was a very nerve-wracking experience, and it really discouraged collecting.  I wanted to be exactly the opposite. All the antiquarian books are mixed in with the new, or at least reachable for people. I’m going to trust my customer to not take the book and throw it across the room. They’re amazed. They’ll say ‘My god, this is from 1620? And you’re letting me touch it?’ I’ll say, ‘Yeah, actually the paper was stronger then, so feel free to look through it and check it out.’ We need a new generation of people to get excited about collecting.

Omnivore Books also hosts regular events to highlight chefs and authors, like the new cookbook from the San Francisco chocolate maker, Dandelion Chocolate. (Suzie Racho/KQED)

What’s valuable about a paper cookbook vs. a digital recipe:

You get to make notes in it.  My wife loves to write the date that she made something. You get to really interact with the recipe on the page, and see the picture. You get to splatter it.  Some of the historical books are interesting that way. I got Jeremiah Tower’s collection. He  was one of the first chefs at Chez Panisse, and really started California cuisine. One of his books was Mastering the Art of French Cooking by Julia Child. It had splatters on all the pages he had used. You get to think about him learning how to cook from that book, and splattering it, and then becoming this very famous chef in his own right. It’s fascinating to see that confluence. You can print out a recipe, but you know what? You’ll never find it. You’re going to tuck it away in some shelf.

After President Trump proposed his first travel ban, Sack put a display of books from the countries targeted under the ban in her shop window. (Courtesy Celia Sack)

On the window display of books from countries targeted under President Trump’s initial travel ban:

I took one photo of it, and it was so funny because nobody walked by all day. In fact, the couple of people who did never even looked up and saw the sign. But the photo was retweeted thousands and thousands of times.  Then a lot of people started ordering those books. The Aleppo Cookbook became my best seller that week. First of all, it’s great food. People should be cooking that way, but also it stoked people on to really learn and understand those countries through cooking. Cooking is something that brings everyone together around the world. I just feel like it’s really important to be soft and kind, especially at this juncture, and this is a way of doing it.

Omnivore books features cookbooks dating back as far as the 1600s, mixed in the shelves with the latest culinary memoirs and books on contemporary cuisine. (Suzie Racho/KQED)

What’s selling well for the holidays:

Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat, by Samin Nosrat. It’s the best seller this year. She went from being an assistant to Michael Pollan and working at Chez Panisse to becoming this confident woman who’s a wonderful author.  It’s all about salt, fat, acid, and heat, and how each of these is vital to your cooking and why.  She’s a local chef and a wonderful, wonderful teacher.

Dinner in an Instant by Melissa Clark: This is the time of year that we start to see a lot of slow cooker cookbooks doing well. “Instant Pots” are the big cooking implement this year, and her book is a really great introduction to it.

The Grammar of Spice, by Caz Hildebrand. I’m absolutely in love with this book. I find it so beautiful. It’s not only an encyclopedia of different spices: galingale, cassia,  safflower, paprika. Some of it you’ve heard of, some of it you haven’t. This book tells you exactly how to use each spice in your cooking, what the different properties of it are. Then she designed these beautiful pages that evoke each spice root. Every single chef and customer I’ve shown this to has bought it, because it’s just such a gorgeous, exciting book to have in one’s library.

Omnivore packs thousands of books into a tiny room that used to be a butcher shop in San Francisco’s Noe Valley. (Suzie Racho/KQED)

What Celia’s cooking for the holidays: 

I love a pozole this time of year. It’s such a warming, delicious meal. I usually make it with hominy and chicken. Then you get all these toppings: cilantro, radishes, queso duro. I really love cooking Mexican food. There are so many great new Mexican cookbooks out this year with connections to California restaurants: Nopalito, L.A. Mexicano, and Guerrilla Tacos. All three are by Mexican-American authors. That’s kind of of a new trend actually. The bestsellers always used to be Rick Bayless and Dianna Kennedy.

A Tiny San Francisco Cookbook Store with a Big Appetite for Old Recipes 16 December,2017Sasha Khokha

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