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Shop Talk: a rich stock of books for cooks



One Burner Cookery, published in the 1940s, was meant for people in the war years who cooked on an electric hot plate or served from a chafing dish. In the cookbook's narrative portion, however, author Flora Harris seems to speak strictly to the chafing-dish crowd.

"Do you live to entertain friends and be a social influence?" asks Harris. "Have you repressed your desires? Have you always controlled your exhibitionistic tendencies so carefully that your show-off days date back to when you were five years old? Do you love to hold a roomful of people in the hollow of your spoon, while dressed in your best bib-and-tucker you waft witticisms and aromas of delicious food impartially about the room?"

Now you can have it all, says Harris, even if you must rely on a solitary flame. Her recipes run the gamut from creamed codfish to "rum tum titty"--tomato soup and grated American cheese on toast.

You will not find Harris's volume at Kroch's or Field's, but try Season to Taste, just off Clark Street in Lakeview. It's Chicago's first bookstore for cookbooks only, and it bulges with the standard titles--the ones every mom gives her newlywed daughter--as well as such rarities as One Burner Cookery.

Owners Barry Bluestein and Kevin Morrissey, who were new to retailing when they opened Season to Taste last July, now stock some 2,000 titles, including works by Julia Child, Craig Claiborne, and Fannie Farmer. Chocolate maven Maida Heatter is represented, as is Marcella Hazan, the queen of Italian cuisine. But where the usual bookseller will offer just part of Hazan's oeuvre, Season to Taste carries all five books. Every subcategory of food is covered, classed by locale (Australian bush, Nantucket), kind of victual (there's a healthy vegetarian line), or type of course or adjunct element (soup, wine). Spiral-bound cookbooks put out by charities are arranged by region. The literary visitor should remember to ask for the cookbooks by Alice B. Toklas and Marjorie (The Yearling) Rawlings.

The cheapest items are $1.95 booklets put out by the Garden Way Publishing Company on such topics as Jams, Jellies and Preserves and Cooking With Dried Beans. The most expensive offering is a two-volume set carrying recipes from Maxim's in Paris and illustrated by Salvador Dali; it's priced at $500.

The choicest finds are tucked away on back shelves and in the used section. The International School of Sugarcraft is a guide to making marzipan, chocolate Easter eggs, and skunks out of pure sugar. The Night Before Cookbook offers 200 dishes to prepare in the evening and finish up the next day. Electric Blender Recipes is dedicated to Fred Waring, the choral director and inventor of the blender that bears his name.

Kroch's is unlikely to carry Lewd Food, a stew of such edible aphrodisiacs as oysters and caviar. The This-Will-Kill-You Cookbook contains such delights as onion shortcake and roast simmered in coffee. The gross-out award, however, belongs to The Original Road Kill Cookbook. The collection advises motorists on ways to prepare rats, cats, and possums that have been run over. "Skin and clean Poopsie like you would a squirrel," goes the cat recipe. Stuff the cavity with dressing and tie front legs back and back legs forward . . ."

A native Chicagoan, Morrissey was once the public-relations director for the Chicago Anti-Cruelty Society. Of The Original Road Kill Cookbook Morrissey remarks, "That's one I try to hide. I fail to find the humor there." In 1979, he migrated to New York to become the publicist and lobbyist for the National League for Nursing, which accredits nursing schools. Bluestein was once a Motown Records promoter and independent act manager (Thelma Houston, Bonnie Pointer) who had turned to planning meetings as a profession. He met Morrissey when the nursing association became a client.

"One night at 10 o'clock we were sitting around commiserating," recalls Bluestein, "and one of us said, 'We're spending 12 to 14 hours a day working, and we should at least be doing something for ourselves.'"

After weighing various options, they finally settled on some sort of bookstore, and Chicago seemed an untapped market for a specialty shop. Bluestein and Morrissey ruled out a bookstore specializing in mysteries or travel because they thought Chicago already sustained two good ones--the Savvy Traveler in the Loop and Winnetka's Scotland Yard Books. Their model for a cookbook store was Kitchen Arts and Letters, an institution on Manhattan's Upper East Side.

"The growth in cookbook sales has been phenomenal," Bluestein says, "but without counting us there are only eight cookbook stores in North America. Until us, there was none in the midwest."

Morrissey is not a cook, but Bluestein is: a year-round griller and a passionate maker of pies and muffins. "My grandfather was a baker," he says, "and cooking has probably been passed down in the blood. There is something about putting my hands in flour or goop that I just adore. When I'm kneading, I just get transported off to somewhere else. In part, I guess, I saw this store as the cheapest and best way to get a cookbook library for me."

By January of 1988 Morrissey and Bluestein had moved to Chicago. "We crossed our fingers and plunged in," Bluestein recalls. He devoured every cookbook he could get his hands on, while Morrissey mastered business details. The pair rented 1,000 square feet of space on West School Street and decorated the interior in what Morrissey describes as "a 50s-like country-kitchen look." The shelving is pine. An old-fashioned stove (made by People's Gas) is on display. An oaken claw-footed table is provided for browsers (who are encouraged).

There are other goods for sale besides cookbooks. Bluestein indulges his love for old cookie jars by collecting and then selling them. ("A cookie jar just says 'kitchen' to me," he explains.) A Massachusetts company has supplied a line of aprons and oven mitts shaped like fish and peeled bananas. Jams and jellies share a shelf with bread mixes. Recently Morrissey and Bluestein have employed a caterer, Michael Kilgore, to make gingerbread houses as well as dishes selected from the shop's cookbooks.

Since its July opening, the store has developed a devoted following. Regular customers include Evanston restaurateur Leslee Reis, L'Escargot proprietor Alan Tutzer, Nancy Barocci, majordomo of the Convito Italiano gourmet stores, and Abby Mandel, a local writer on food processors. During the holidays, Season to Taste hosted a string of in-store demonstrations, and Bluestein and Morrissey have launched an irregular newsletter for customers.

Season to Taste has realized a profit from its first month, but the owners are pumping the money back into the store. They subsist on their sidelines--Morrissey as a free-lance writer for the nursing profession and Bluestein as an agent for cookbooks. Both swear they are in the cookbook game to stay. Bluestein says, "This is it for the two of us for a long time."

Hours at Season to Taste, 911 W. School St., are 10 to 7 Monday through Friday, 10 to 6 Saturday, and noon to 6 Sunday. Call 327-0210 for information.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Bruce Powell.

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