For Russ Parsons, asking how many books he owns centered around food—cook books, histories of cuisines, chef memoirs, how-to guides—is like asking Warren Buffett how much money he has: the fact that you’re asking already means you know it’s an absurd amount.
“Let’s see, I have four built-ins in the living room, two stand-up bookcases, one bookcase and two more built-in in the spare bedroom,” Parsons said before slightly trailing off and chuckling. “I honestly don’t know how many. I fully admit I’m a book hoarder and I’m OK with that because they’re great books—that’s all that really matters.”
This marks the third trove of food books that Parsons has given to the library—a trove, mind you, whose first and second installations put the Long Beach Public Library’s overall culinary collection up with the collections of Santa Monica and Pasadena’s libraries.
“The Russ Parsons Culinary Collection is housed here at the Bille Jean King Main Library,” said Susan Jones, Manager of Main Library Services. “It numbers 338 books before this last donation and all of these are available for patrons to checkout.”
The Main Library’s collection of cooking and food-related books totals some 2,480 different volumes. System-wide, across all 12 library locations, the Long Beach Public Library has approximately 6,400 culinary books.
This latest dump’s size remains unknown—librarians will have to review all the books over the next couple weeks while technical services will catalogue and process the donation; that process can take months—but with this donation, “cuts the deepest,” Parsons admits.
“The first donation was the easiest,” he said. “I knew what I had to get rid of. And with the second unloading, I got smarter—I told them to bring a truck to load up—and it was more a question of, ‘OK, I have six books on Provençal cooking, which single one do I keep?’ Or it was finding a book on Chinese regional cooking and asking myself, ‘Am I really going to cook that?’ But this one… This one was different. I might have even cried a little.”
Books, especially for those who collect them, are deeply personal possessions. Surely, the author might own their words and images, but the individual, physical copy itself is something of an extension of its owner. Books help frame time and places—where and who they were when they completed it, if they ever did; what their life was at the time—i.e. “I bought this because of my newfound love of postmodernism.”
So, it makes sense that the act of giving the books contained equal measures of disconnection and happiness. On one hand, he was parting with his precious texts, on the other, he was handing them off to what figures to be thousands of future cooks, food writers, researchers and historians.
“You know, I have tons of fundamental texts—volumes by Jacques Pépin and Alain Ducasse and whatnot,” Parsons said. “I’ve lived these books and, though they’re very important to me, perhaps they can be used by a new author who will see something I didn’t or just find a new appreciation in the words.”
The largest of the three donations thus far—likely to be more than 150 volumes—Parsons noted they ran out of book bins to fill. This isn’t to say Parsons gave away everything. Signed copies of “Mastering the Art of French Cooking” by Julia Childs or those by M. F. K. Fisher—widely considered the nation’s preeminent food writer—are gems that Parsons has yet the strength to part with.
“Eventually,” he said, trailing off. “But, you know, it just goes back to how this all started. I am a huge fan of the library—everyone who knows me knows this. And one Christmas party, where we used to have an open house type thing, Barbara Egyud and Susan Redfield said they were hoping to expand the culinary collection. My daughter Sarah interjected immediately: ‘You better get him to do something because if you don’t take ’em, I’m gonna have to deal with it all when he dies.'”
Parsons laughed heartily when recounting this, smiling broadly. We all know it wasn’t that Sarah would have to “deal with it” but rather, it was a treasure worth sharing with the world—and thanks to that little jab, we’re all the better for it.
The Russ Parsons Culinary Collection is housed within the Long Beach Main Library, located at 200 W. Broadway.
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