Top | The Culinate Interview

Pauline Baughman

(article, Miriam Wolf)

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p(blue). A reference librarian for Portland’s Multnomah County Library system, Pauline Baughman is a multitasker: she answers general reference questions, staffs the Science and Business section, creates library guides, and orders books — including the county system's cookbooks. She has also reviewed cookbooks for the trade magazine Library Journal for more than a decade. 

When you're wearing your reference-librarian hat, do you ever get food or cooking-related science questions?
Yeah — we all work at a public desk together, and the cookbooks are in the science and business section. I certainly do get cooking and food-related questions. Sometimes it’s people just wanting a very specific book; sometimes it’s people wanting to browse for a particular type of cuisine. Sometimes it’s people wanting a very specific recipe. 

Recently we had a fellow in and he’d gotten a job in a grocery store, and so he wanted a book that had all the different kinds of fruits and vegetables in it so he could get to know everything for his job in the produce department.

[%image pauline float=left width=400 caption="Pauline Baughman" credit="Photo courtesy Pauline Baughman"]

What do you look for when you’re ordering cookbooks for the library? Or do you just order everything that comes out?
A big thing is the authoritativeness of the material. So we would look at the publisher and we would look at who the author is. Have they published things in the past? Is it a good-quality publisher? Does the book look nice? Is it going to fall apart within a couple of weeks? We tend not to buy anything that has a spiral binding, because they just don’t hold up well for circulating purposes. 

We also look at the timeliness of the material. Is it something that's a popular topic right now? Are people going to be interested in it in the future? But that’s not to say that we don’t buy something knowing full well it’s a more transitory item. Like chicken books, for example. There are so many books published on cooking with chicken that we know that we can buy something this year and next year there will be something new out. So we can always have something new in the collection on that topic. 

The other thing that we look for is something that's going to be a classic work. Is it really going to stand the test of time? And we look at the topic. Do we already have 40 books on this exact same topic? Even if we do, if it’s a great new title we’ll buy it anyway. We definitely look to see if a title will round out our collection or fill in a hole in an area that we don’t have.

And I’m really always looking for something that’s unusual that’s going to be one of the few books published on a certain topic. One thing that came out recently was a book on sprouted baking, and we don’t have anything else like that right now. You know, when you’re on your 10th cupcake book for the year, you kind of want to move on to something new and more interesting, I think. 

Which cookbooks have been popular this year?
It’s always interesting what I think will fade, and then I go and check on how things are circulating, and I’m always still a little bit surprised. But definitely, things that are popular go through cycles, and usually it’s a couple of years that things are stay pretty popular. This year, cupcakes are popular.

No surprise there.
Also chocolate-making is popular, especially artisanal chocolate making. Slow-cooker books for cooking with a Crock-Pot — those are really popular. 

That’s a trend that’s not really new.
Yes, I was just talking about that with one of my co-workers. She was like, "Well, I remember when that was first popular." 

Artisanal bread-making is also really popular. And Asian cooking still seems to be really popular. And the other thing that I thought would have waned a little bit but hasn’t is raw foods. Those books are all still heavily circulating. I think it would be difficult to eat like that, unless I had somebody feeding me.

You could use your stove for storage space.
Right! The other day we were trying to think of things that used to be popular but aren’t so popular anymore. I thought raw foods would be on that list, but no. I think it will take a few more years.

What's on the not-so-popular list?
Mexican is not as popular as it used to be. And we don’t get asked so much for vegetarian, and we think that’s because it’s now so ubiquitous and ingrained into everything. But then the other one that we were really laughing about here in the workroom was microwave cooking. That used to be a pretty big one back when people were actually using their microwaves for something other than warming up leftovers.

True; now the microwave is basically a popcorn popper. What about the books themselves? Are people hard on circulating cookbooks?
Yeah. I had one come back not too long ago that had a big burner mark on the back of it, which was just absolutely hilarious. Definitely there are all kinds of mystery liquids spilled on things. They do get pretty tattered. And unfortunately, there’s a lot of theft of cookbooks. And then there’s a lot of just slicing out of recipes and tearing out of recipes. 

That’s just bad form. Speaking of theft, is there one particular cookbook that gets checked out and just never gets brought back?
There’s a cooking school close by \[the downtown Portland library\], and so things that I wouldn’t necessarily expect to be checked out, they check out for classes. For a while we had a really difficult time keeping any books on sauces in. We were replacing one particular book repeatedly — and, really, I can’t blame the students, because you never really know who’s taking it — it was [%bookLink code=0471572284 "The Sauce Bible"], by David Larousse. We had a really hard time keeping that in, and it was an expensive book! At this point, we only have one copy left: the reference copy.

That’s non-circulating, right?
Which is why I believe it’s still here. It’s why we made it reference. I think a lot of the more professional-type cooking and baking books don’t always come back. Part of it is the cost. They’re expensive books.

In your role as a reviewer for Library Journal, have you noticed any cookbook-publishing trends that don't really match the trends of what people are checking out?
You know, I review for them maybe once a month, and I pretty much only get what they send me. They’ve sent me a lot of history lately, which is not indicative of any kind of trend; it’s just what they’ve been sending me. 

But I think that there’s definitely been more interest in heritage fruits and vegetables. I’m looking at a stack of things I’ve reviewed over the last year or so, and it really covers the spectrum, from Rachael Ray to a book on the rise of French cuisine. 

[%image milk float=right width=300 caption="Is milk the next trendy food topic?"]

Yeah, I keep thinking if I could just figure out what the next trend is and open a place that served it, I’d be a millionaire.
I used to always say that I thought the next big thing was going to be artisanal milk. And it was going to be about different kinds of milk, like two percent or whole milk, pairing them with certain foods, or milk that came from certain areas. So I’m going with milk.

Hey, I actually think that you’ve got something there. You should write the milk book quickly before someone else gets to it.
Exactly. You could tour around and try milk from different dairies . . .

You could probably get a grant for that.
Yeah! I think it would be fun. And there’s actually a new book out on the home creamery. (Editor's note: There's also a new history/cookery book out on milk, Anne Mendelson's Milk.)

Do you have a favorite cookbook that you reviewed last year or that came into the library’s collection? Rachael Ray, maybe?
Um, no. She is popular, though. I really like reference books. I reviewed a book called [%bookLink code=0470009551 "The Pastry Chef’s Companion"]. It’s pretty much an alphabetical reference book; you can look up all sorts of topics and it tells you about them. In some cases it has a little illustration. You can look up, say, shortbread, and the book gives you a description and a little bit of history and when it's usually served and when you would eat it.

There’s another reference book we just got in the other day. It’s called [%bookLink code=1582975256 "Chicken A La King and the Buffalo Wing: Food Names and the People and Places that Inspired Them"]. I love it that people compile all of these things and put them together in a book. 

Are there any cookbooks or reference books that you think are essential for a public institution to have in its collection?
Like my top five? I like The Oxford Companion to Food by Alan Davidson and Shirley O. Corriher’s CookWise. [%bookLink code=0028626036 "Betty Crocker's Cookie Book"] is a good one. We get a lot of questions on preserving foods, so the Ball Complete Book of Home Preserving is important. And also, a subscription to Cook's Illustrated.

p(bio). Miriam Wolf writes about books and food for various publications. She lives in Portland, Oregon.

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pauline, l

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