One of the most unusual cookbooks in the vast culinary library at the Upper Valley campus of Napa Valley College has to be one from 2003, written by Bill Hufnagle.
Its title? “Biker Billy’s Hog Wild on a Harley Cookbook,” a collection of 200 recipes from Harley Davidson enthusiasts and riders.
Lissa Gibbs, interim director of the campus, pulled that book from the shelves at random. It is one of 6,034 textbooks in the library, a space made expressly for the culinary texts, cookbooks, and books on wine and entertaining.
After a short while, it’s clear she has a real love for this collection. “If you begin to look around, you’ll get a sense of how unique this collection is and what it represents,” she said. “We’ve got classics in this library but we also have some one-hit wonders that are very much a part of their time, including some books with Martha Stewart with really ridiculous puffy sleeves.”
The Upper Valley Campus and the Napa Valley Cooking School are hosting the first annual Cookbook Exchange from 1 to 4 p.m. Saturday, March 17, at the college, which is at Pope Street and College Avenue near Silverado Trail. Cost is $10 a person to attend. For those who wish to exchange cookbooks, they will get a voucher for each cookbook they bring and will be allowed to exchange them one-for-one. Other cookbooks will be for sale, either for $1 or $5.
Gibbs said the cookbooks for exchange and for sale are not a part of the library; instead they are duplicates or those that don’t fit into the criteria of the collection.
Additionally, the students will create an array of sweet and savory baked goods for sale, along with marmalades, tarts and other treats.
Proceeds support student scholarships for the Napa Valley Cooking School professional chefs program, administered by the Napa Valley College Foundation.
“There are several scholarships available but we definitely need more,” Gibbs said. “Our students work very hard to be trained in a field that as they launch their careers doesn’t pay very much money. We all like eating good food, we like eating good food that other people make for us and we value fine dining. This is a really good thing to come and support.”
Belle Rhodes collection
The backbone of the collection came from the late Belle Rhodes, who donated her vast cookbook library and some of her service ware to Napa Valley College in 2001. The service ware includes a variety of unique and unusual items, including pots and tureens that she used for entertaining. They are on display in locked cabinets in a room adjacent to the library. Rhodes died Feb. 13, 2007, at the age of 87.
Walking through the shelves and shelves of culinary texts, Gibbs continues to talk about the collection: “The cookbook as a firm is an important part of our culinary history,” she said. Although “lots of people are getting recipes online, there was a period of time when people relied on cookbooks exclusively to exchange knowledge. That’s why it’s important to have them in a library,” she added.
A cookbook is “something tangible that you hold in your hand, that you exchange with another person, that you talk to them about and it is a record that is immune to any sort of hacking,” Gibbs said. These physical books “say something about who we are and what we value as a society. I don’t think it’s an accident that in the heart of the Napa Valley, in St. Helena, we have this amazing collection.”
The collection is part of the Napa County Library system, so the books are available for checkout, either at the Upper Valley campus or online. Beyond that, they are a resource for the students of the Napa Valley Cooking School, who use the collection when they research and develop menus or recipes, Gibbs said. The students search online sources but “they are also pulling out these texts and finding how these recipes relate to other recipes.”
Additionally, the students “come in here to get inspiration,” Gibbs said.
Barbara Alexander, executive chef of the Napa Valley Cooking School, calls the library “an awesome collection of books. I wouldn’t say it’s the most current cookbooks on the market, but you can get those at any cookbook store. But what is really cool about this collection is there are a lot of really historic pieces in here. One-off cookbooks that you can’t find anywhere else. I send the students in here regularly.”
If the students are developing menus dealing with salmon, for example, Alexander said she sent them to the fish area and they started researching and used the collection.
Alexander said from a chef’s practical standpoint, there’s one more important aspect of the collection: the recipes in any cookbook “have been tested and tested and tested again. When you look online for a recipe, you don’t know if anyone has ever made the recipe. Presumably they have, but you know all the work that went into every one of these cookbooks is a huge volume of work. It is all condensed into something that can open and try.”
Gibbs recommends that people take a minute to walk around in the library and get a sense of a unique culinary history. “I come in here when I want to be inspired and when I want to remember why it is I’m here (at the Upper Valley campus) and why I do the job I do,” Gibbs said.
Oldest book is from 1897
The oldest book in the collection is Hood’s Practical Cook’s Book, published in 1897. Because of its rarity, it is kept in the Special Collections Room of the McCarthy Library on the Napa campus. Its subtitle is: “Cook’s book intended for the average family, of average means, average desires, and average resources.”