Grace Kirschenbaum says that her mother was a lousy cook. When Grace told her so, she was directed to make the meals herself. Today, the little girl who complained is the author of the touted International Cookbook Newsletter.
She's barely 5 feet tall, but she's packed with passion for the great love of her life: the world of food. Enter her house in the Pico-La Brea neighborhood and it's literally wall-to-wall cookbooks.
Sitting on her couch requires pushing aside books with titles such as "Frutas Brasil Frutas," and "Backyard Bistros, Farmhouse Fare--A French Country Cookbook."
In the midst of the book-littered living room sits a demure woman who declines to give her age. On her desk is a computer and stacks of her blue newsletters. General Foods, Harvard University and Julia Child are subscribers.
Kirschenbaum, a New York native, graduated from Hunter College with a bachelor's degree in English and a minor in Russian. She has held a variety of jobs in her life, but nothing she has ever done compares with the joy of discovering a book she can recommend to her readers.
"I'm doing something I love seven days a week. All the things I love most in the world--travel, food and languages--are all connected," she said.
Before she began publishing her newsletter, she was a collector and a budding food expert. Billie M. Connor, manager of the Los Angeles Public Library section that includes food and drink, remembers getting a call from Kirschenbaum after the Central Library fire in 1986. Kirschenbaum volunteered to help rebuild the cookery collection.
The Central Library is now No. 5 in the country for its collection of food and drink, Connor said. "Having access to Grace's knowledge and expertise has been a contributing factor in our success in redeveloping our collection."
Said Kirschenbaum: "An excellent cookbook is more than food. It's also about people, history, geography and sometimes politics."
She holds up a Nazi cookbook, called "Cakes for the Fuhrer," about baking during World War II. Then she holds up a book about Turkish cooking and makes a connection with today's Germany.
"Turks are Germany's largest ethnic minority, and one of the universal facts of emigre life is that leaving one's homeland, one experiences an intense longing and appreciation of the food that was taken for granted before departure, and so some of the best cookbooks featuring Turkish food come from Germany," she said.
Her latest newsletter highlights her Turkish favorite, "Original Recipes and Interesting Stories of the Land and People" by Funda Engin. The review describes the colorful photography of food and scenes of Turkey: street hawkers, mosques, workers picking garbanzo beans in the fields and, of course, the recipes from every region of the country, including Soup for the Bride-to-Be--a spicy, meatless red lentil-bulgur soup with fresh mint. Kirschenbaum has traveled extensively in Europe, the Middle East and Latin America. She may be the only person who ever saw war-torn El Salvador through culinary eyes.
"I traveled through (El) Salvador in the back of a pickup truck, eating green bananas and xute --a kind of avocado. I went to my only cockfight and the fight promoter offered me the loser. I couldn't take it, I was horrified at the thought, but was told later that I made a mistake because it makes for a wonderful dish served with delicious fruits," she said.
And, since it's impossible for her to have one favorite, she holds up "The Times Cookbook" by Frances Bissell, the London Times food columnist.
"This woman visited the Italian factories where they made pasta (and) watched the women of Hong Kong fold intricate dumplings," she said. "Somebody else might write about a sorbet. This woman writes a whole page on apples used in sorbet. Fantastic!"
The International Cookbook Newsletter is published quarterly and sold by subscription. Information: (213) 933-1645.