An hour and a half north of Boston and just south of Portland you will find cookbook paradise at Don Lindgren’s Rabelais Books. Lindgren is a collector and dealer of antique cookbooks and culinary ephemera. His collection is housed in a large, well lit room in a converted mill building in Biddeford, Maine. Rabelais’s guardian/mascot is a very small, wiry and friendly terrier named Lark. In the far reaches of the space, Don’s wife Samantha Hoyt Lindgren works magic as a textile artist.
It is the kind of place I would not mind being locked into for a week. Or two. Don’s knowledge of cookbooks is beyond encyclopedic because it encompasses not just the facts of publication and trends but also the nuances of interest and innovation. He thinks in categories and publishes catalogs that are invaluable for scholars who need to know what is out there.
To spend a few hours at Rabelais in conversation with Don about what he has, what he’s looking for, and what has passed through his hands is really to hear books speak. They tell us about the people who wrote and published them, read, collected, and bequeathed them. All around the tops of shelves, too, there are large copper pots to remind us that food written is also food cooked and eaten.
I wish I had mapped our progress around the giant room as we started at one end and then moved from case to case as one type of book led to another. It felt like we were really travelling far in time and space, looping around continents and eras—a Korean hand-inked cookbook from the 1930s, a treatise on beer from eighteenth century America—to return to the present in the form of cookbooks hot of the presses.
One of the most interesting things for me to see was a table full of cookbooks and ephemera that had been part of one person’s collection. The collector had obvious fascinations—the agricultural side of food and the instructional, but also a clear appreciation for the marginal—food related things on matchbooks. Here were not just things about food but evidence of a personality, a particular genius. It was hard to resist sitting down at the table and trying to put all the pieces together like a puzzle. Who was he? Why did he care about these things and what connections did he find between them?
Some of my other favorite things were menu templates from the early twentieth century. They are simple sheets of paper with illustrated borders–like invitations–that restaurants could buy for printing the menu of the day. The revelation that an industry existed to supply these templates pointed to the proliferation of restaurants at this time and that in turn pointed to changes in public space and public life. The impulse to offer decorative menus was bound up in the new presence of middle class women in public—these customers were assumed to prefer something pretty to something plain, whatever their personal preferences might have been. A little slip of paper in a big room in Maine showed me a whole world of bustling streets and gender roles in transition but also in stasis… Take a trip to Biddeford and see the world!
And when you suddenly remember that you are corporal being, with a growling stomach, you must visit the Palace Diner, a tiny place in Biddeford that does its own time traveling by keeping alive and yet also perfecting the standard style and foods of traditional American diners: it was the best tuna melt I have ever eaten.