Dining rooms across the city may have dimmed their lights, but cookbooks are flying off of shelves at Omnivore Books. San Francisco’s favorite dedicated cookbook shop is in fact the one and only option in the entire Bay Area. Tucked away in Noe Valley, the tiny storefront is known for a wide range of titles, including antiquarian books, as well as free author talks that are so popular they often spill out onto the sidewalk. During sunnier days, strollers and puppies stop by at their leisure. But now that everyone is cooped up at home and doing a lot more cooking, the phone has been ringing off the hook.
Owner Celia Sack, standing in a shop filled with boxes, seems to be suffering from small-business survivor’s guilt. “Honestly, it’s kind of been crazy,” says the cookbook collector. “Way more than we expected. People have been so supportive. Maybe it’s a thank you for all these years of hosting free events and curating book choices.” She’s immensely grateful to be able to continue paying her two employees their full salaries for the foreseeable future, and they’re busy working from home and updating the online shop. Customers can pick up orders from Noe Valley Pet Co just around the corner, also owned by Sack and open as an essential business. Or she’s shipping orders through good old-fashioned snail mail.
Omnivore originally opened during the recession in 2008, maybe a precarious moment to strike out with a small business, but also a time of renaissance in home cooking. Sack says many early customers were considering new careers and digging into DIY projects, particularly canning, jamming, beer, and bread. Christmas of 2009, she couldn’t keep Ad Hoc at Home in stock — fans were obsessed with the big reveal on how Thomas Keller makes fried chicken at home. This economic downturn, however, Sack doesn’t expect the same star chef and restaurant appeal. “That adulation of fine dining has really disappeared from book publishing,” she opines. “Cookbooks have come back around to food writers with strong personalities.”
Wondering what cookbooks to start stockpiling? From bread and beans to absorbing memoirs and French cocktails that take the edge off, here are the best cookbooks to get you through quarantine, according to SF’s favorite cookbook monger.
Sourdough by Sarah Owens
For anyone embarking on adventures in sourdough, there are many authorities, including cookbooks from our local Tartine and Josey Baker. But the bestseller in the shop right now is from Sarah Owens, who ran a popular microbakery in Brooklyn before transplanting to California, and who goes deep on slow fermentation and heirloom grains.
Cool Beans by Joe Yonan
Joe Yonan, the dining editor at the Washington Post, got really fucking lucky that he happened to be releasing a big beans book right when people started hoarding Rancho Gordo. Regardless, it’s a lovely book, digging into different culinary traditions for the pantry staple.
Indian-ish by Priya Krishna
Sack was pleasantly surprised to get customers requesting and returning to this modern Indian cookbook from last year. Priya Krishna does have that Bon Appétit Test Kitchen cool factor, and maybe home cooks are taking comfort in curries and stews, particularly that saucy saag feta that went viral for a minute.
Eat Something by Evan Bloom and Rachel Levin
We can’t say it enough, the new cookbook from Wise Sons is kind of hilarious. Sack confirms that the Jewish comfort food cookbook, featuring favorites from the local deli, has been selling faster than hot latkes.
Aloha Kitchen by Alana Kysar
The new Hawaiian cookbook from a Maui blogger also found fans, who might be going stir crazy. “I don’t really know why this one keeps selling,” Sack confides. “Maybe people are nostalgic for the vacations they’re missing?” Kysar’s beautifully illustrated book includes her favorite recipes for mochiko chicken, Spam musubi, and mac salad, giving a taste of Hawaii’s rich culinary traditions.
Small Victories by Julia Turshen
Sack likes to recommend this feel-good cookbook from Julia Turshen, a veteran cookbook author, who puts the pleasure back into everyday cooking. “The recipes are so easy, and she offers lots of riffs, so you can make it once and get lots of ideas for what to do with the same recipe.”
Vietnamese Food Any Day by Andrea Nguyen
Andrea Nguyen is another career cookbook author, whom we’re lucky to call local to Santa Cruz. She pioneered introducing Vietnamese home cooking to a mainstream American audience, and her latest is weeknight easy.
The Art of Simple Food by Alice Waters
Personally, at the end of a long day of packing up boxes, Sack reaches for the classic from local legend Alice Waters.
Drinking French by David Lebovitz
The Paris-based food writer (and Chez Panisse alum) is taking a brief break from pastries and indulging in drinks. There’s cafe au lait and chocolat chaud, but more to the point, wonderful old-world cocktails that can help take the edge off during quarantine. Snacks most definitely included.
Burn the Place by Iliana Regan
Beyond recipe collections, it’s also worth picking up a food memoir and stepping out of confinement into someone else’s kitchen. Many readers have been drawn to this raw account from Iliana Regan, who grew up on a Midwestern farm and found her place in Michelin-starred restaurants in Chicago.