|Margo True, “A Menu of Food Books,” in Saveur Magazine, December, 1999, No. 39, pp. 32-33.|
Last July, a small, elegant catalogue of rare books appeared. Simply titled Gastronomy, it was the first collection by a 35-year-old antiquarian book dealer and artist named Ben Kinmont. Within three weeks, 60 of its 100 titles — at prices ranging from $15 to $30,000 — had been snapped up by booksellers, private buyers, and libraries. What accounts for Kinmont's success? To begin with, his collection offers a number of particularly interesting works — mostly first editions, with a few very old ones (the earlies, Hec Sunt Statuta Uictualium, a Milanes book on fot statutes and ordinances, dates back to 1480; De Re Cibaria, a treatis on hundreds of ingredients from camel to chickpeas, is from 1560), as well as classics such as Brillat Savarin's Physiologie du Goût and intriguing stuff like a 1627 Venetian monograph on salads; an 1827 history of New York City's marketplaces by a butcher from the city's Jefferson Market; and The House Servant's Directory (1827), the first cookbook by an African-American.
Then there's the appeal of the catalogue itself, a lovely little bookwith a deep rose cover, cream-colored pages, delicate reproductions of engravings, and color photographs. The descriptions of the books are wonderful. In graceful, amiable prose, Kinmont details each book's appearance (its gilt lettering, its worn but strong joints), points out fascinating facts about its historical context or author, and includes scrupulous bibliographical references establishing the works pedigree and rarity.
Though he's surrounded by beautiful old books, Kinmont won't keep them himself. "My favorite part of the job," he says, "is finding a great book, and then matching it with the right customer." Kinmont has only about fifty copies of his first catalogue left, and doesn't plan a reprint — so you could say that he has produced a rare book himself. He's just published his second catalogue, though; for more information, see THE PANTRY, page 129.