My name is Leslie. And I am a cookbook hoarder.

There are no less than 45 on the increasingly crowded bookshelf in my kitchen, with themes from vegan to regional Southern, from cocktails to crudité. Some I bought myself, while others were gifts or from my past food writer life.

Of those 45 cookbooks, I have only cooked from 17 of them and only six of them with any regularity. And I’m not even counting the recipes I’ve saved on the New York Times Cooking app and Pinterest, and random newspaper clippings shoved into cookbooks and hanging for dear life from refrigerator magnets.

That’s a lot of unexplored culinary territory in one small kitchen. You’d think that would stop me from buying more cookbooks, if only because I’m running out of space, but you would be wrong. I recently purchased the exuberantly titled “Eat Plants, B*tch: 91 Vegan Recipes That Will Blow Your Meat-Loving Mind” by Baltimore native and Slutty Vegan creator Pinky Cole. Like I said, I have a problem.

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Which brings me to my current project for 2023 — trying to cook something from every single one of those books this year, at least one new thing a day. Cooking at home is healthier and more cost-efficient. And I subscribe to two different vegetable delivery services, which often include things I have no idea what to do with. The books probably know. So I asked a critically-acclaimed chef, a food blogger and an accomplished home cook for advice.

The consensus is that cookbooks are more springboards for creativity than strict blueprints, which makes it easier to integrate into my regular kitchen habits.

“Cookbooks are just a guide,” said Amanda Mack, Southern Living Magazine’s 2021 Cook of the Year, whose Crust By Mack bakery and restaurant is expected to reopen this spring on East Preston Street. “Sometimes I’ve found myself doing things different, my way. You have to make it work for you.”

Kara Mae Harris of the Maryland food blog Old Line Plate, a culinary tour guide of historic cookbooks from the state, suggests approaching cookbooks with “a little sense of adventure. Even if you’re not traveling around the world, it’s your neighbor.”

Her professional library has about 300 historic cookbooks, but she also keeps a scrapbook of old newspaper clippings and recipes from books at the Enoch Pratt Free Library. Recipe hoarding isn’t a new phenomenon, she said. “When I go to the recipe collection, I find that women cut out recipes from the newspaper and never used them, like ‘That cake sounded good’ and cut it out and never made it.”

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Harris said she liked having the recipes in her physical scrapbook, even if they’re available online. That resonated with me: As a cookbook packrat, the proliferation of online resources has been both a blessing and a curse, because it makes it too easy to pull up a recipe and not use those sitting in my kitchen.

My friend Paige Lehr, a Baltimore City College classmate who now lives in St. Mary’s County, conquered the culinary clutter with a deliberate edit of her collection, whittling it down to “the same two or three Italian cookbooks and the user manual for my Instant Pot,” in a small basket on her counter. If it doesn’t fit in the basket, it’s not there. She says she even got rid of some family cookbooks that she inherited, but snapped photos of some recipes she thought she’d need.

“If I don’t recall something, it’s easier to Google it. It’s really freeing,” said Lehr, who also has a Pinterest board of recipes she wants to try.

Something that’s stopped me from using a few of my cookbooks is not having some of the specialized ingredients needed for some of the recipes. Everyone I interviewed admits that, at one time or another, they found their pantries becoming graveyards of ingredients they bought for a specific recipe and never used again.

Harris said there’s ways to find out how to use those abandoned additives by researching “what you have to substitute. If you buy miso paste for one recipe, you can use it in your beans, or in other things to add a bit of flavor.”

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Lehr added that the internet is a great tool for figuring out substitutions. “Give yourself the grace to be flexible. If you don’t have mustard greens, but you have baby spinach or kale, you don’t have to stay in rigid confines,” she said.

That’s very good advice. The majority of my cookbooks are vegan or vegetarian, with a smattering of seafood, but I’ve become good at figuring out substitutions to make meat recipes to my taste. Mack cautions that substitutions are a little trickier when baking, which is science, but “something I recommend for people who are just trying things out, who don’t want to go buy a lot of things is to change things that don’t affect the chemistry of the recipe, like fruit.”

I’m going to concentrate on the cookbooks I already own; I won’t pretend I’m never going to buy another one. But there are ways to figure out if I’m going to actually use them before I do, like first using the extensive collection of Enoch Pratt Free Library cookbooks I learned about from Harris.

Mack suggests making cookbook buying an event. “I recommend going to a book signing. It’s not just that you get to meet an author but you get to ask them questions. Most of the time they’ll readily share with you,” she said. “No one is better suited to recommend recipes for you.”

What cookbooks are really about, Mack said, isn’t just recipes, but the memories they evoke. “I find nostalgia in them. I love cookbooks sitting on the counter, turning the pages. There’s something tactile about that, as a baker.”

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I agree. Of those six cookbooks I use frequently, you can tell which are my favorites by the food stains and little tears on the pages, worn with love. I guess it’s time to spread that love to the rest of my collection. I don’t have any more space for another bookshelf in there.

Leslie Gray Streeter is a columnist excited about telling Baltimore stories — about us and the things that we care about, that touch us, that tickle us and that make us tick, from parenting to pop culture to the perfect crab cake. She is especially psyched about discussions that we don't usually have. Open mind and a sense of humor required.

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