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“Come on,” Sue Jimenez said when I appeared on her doorstep. “I’ll take you to the cookbook library.”
We walked past three restored orchestrions (player pianos on steroids) and a harpsichord before reaching what used to be a master bedroom.
When I heard Jimenez had a large collection of cookbooks right here in Albuquerque, so big that she was gunning for a place in the Guinness World Records book, I didn’t imagine this.
Organized on shelves that stretched to the ceiling and filled so much of the floor space that we had to walk through in single file, were books of recipes organized by food – “garlic,” “beans,” “desserts,” “sauces,” “eggs” – and by style – Cajun, Creole, Mexican, Mediterranean.
In all, we were surrounded by 3,054 cookbooks, Jimenez said. Wait, make that 3,058. “I bought four yesterday,” she told me. “You see, I can’t stop.”
Since then, the total has quickly climbed even higher. Last count: 3,123.
Some people collect baseball cards or figurines. Some, like Jimenez’s husband, Stan Rhine, collect orchestrions. Jimenez collects cookbooks.
Jimenez doesn’t just collect cookbooks. She reads them and uses them.
“I read cookbooks like other people read fiction,” Jimenez says. “I usually have a stack next to the bed, and I read them at night.”
I tested that by pointing to the volume titled “The Ogilvie Cookbook” and asking, “What’s this about?”
“It’s Canadian. It was a flour company in Canada.”
Jimenez continued to pull books off the shelves – recipes from Pitcairn Island, a punk rock cookbook, a collection of recipes for dishes favored by dictators around the world – and point out her favorites.
According to Guinness, the record for cookbooks owned by an individual has been held by a woman named Betsy Ross-McCoy since 2011. Ross-McCoy, who has been collecting since 1966, had amassed 1,225 cookbooks.
“I’ve got her beat pants down,” Jimenez said, “although she doesn’t know it yet.”
Jimenez, who buys most of her cookbooks at thrift stores, has the usuals – the “Joy of Cooking” and Betty Crocker in many editions, collections by Jacques Pepin and Julia Child and James Beard.
But when you have more than 3,000 cookbooks, you also have things like “The Biosphere Cookbook,” “How to Peel a Peach,” “Floyd’s Fjord Fiesta” and one of her treasures, a heavy tome of Vincent and Mary Price’s favorite recipes, published in 1965.
Another treasure, the slim “Feed the Brute!” written in 1925 by Marjorie Swift, instructs the housewife putting dinner on the table for her working husband. It contains recipes as well as advice: “The well-fed man is a happy man and a well-managed one too.”
“When you read a cookbook, it’s like a little time capsule,” Jimenez said.
She grew up watching her mother cook, and the first cookbook she used was “Food of the World.” She was 17 and tackled a recipe for a German strudel.
“After that,” Jimenez said, “I was hooked.”
Jimenez and Rhine are retired forensic anthropologists who have a convenient symbiosis. Rhine can’t cook, but he likes to eat. Jimenez eats only one meal a day but likes to cook.
“These don’t sit on the shelves,” Rhine told me as we stood in the towering stacks. “She uses them, and she’s a really good cook.”
Jimenez and her team of verifiers will stage their Guinness World Record attempt on July 14. Jimenez has weeded out the books not allowed by Guinness, promotional recipe pamphlets, for example, and believes she has at least 2,825 – perhaps as many as 2,900 – that qualify for counting.
The Guinness process involves having two witnesses count the books while the count is recorded on video. Chris Pope, Zinc’s executive chef, and Kirin Farrell, owner of Title Wave Books, have agreed to do the counting.
Jimenez is an inveterate cataloguer and has recorded all of her books in a database, along with the number of recipes in each book.
If she were to pick a new recipe for dinner every day, she told me, “I think Stan and I are good for about 767 years.”