Little Books For Little Cooks
Southfield couple make kids' cookbooks one of their passions.
ouglas Harris has had just
about all he can take, reading
about Sue and her little
Sue and her mother are going to spend
their afternoon cooking. A bunch of
friends in the neighborhood have come
to join in the fun at Sue's house.
One little girl is from a home where
money is tight. Her mother has to work,
of all things, and everybody knows it.
Sue's mother is nice enough, but the girls
are a bit, well, snooty.
"What a bunch of bratty little kids,"
Harris growls, but adds quickly,
"Don't worry, everything works out all
right in the end."
The 1924 children's book When Sue
Began to Cook, in which Harris discov-
ered the above vignette, is the kind of
book that might sit untouched, dusty,
virtually abandoned for years in a used
bookstore. It's not a best seller. There's
no glitzy cover, no cult following. It's
not going to sell for millions on eBay.
It's even worn down a bit, and copies
often bear a smudge or two of food
from a tiny chef who tried to make.
one of the cookbook's recipes.
Yet to Doug and Elaine Harris, this
book is a treasure.
The Harrises, of Southfield, own
more than 1,000 such treasures: chil-
dren's cookbooks from as early as
1877, in languages ranging from
Hebrew to Japanese to Polish to
Spanish. By just about anyone's esti-
mate, they have one of the largest, if
not the largest, collection of children's
cookbooks out there.
It started, innocently enough, on an
ordinary day. Who could
have imagined that simply
stepping into a bookstore
would change the Harrises'
Elaine Harris was, until
her retirement, an elemen-
tary school teacher. She taught for 40
years, the last 33 in Birmingham. Her
husband was in sales before he retired.
As a teacher, Harris adored reading
to her students. She was always on top
of the latest children's literature and
would find stuffed animals to accom-
pany each book she purchased, mak-
ing the storytelling even more fun for
the boys and girls. In no time, she had
a huge collection — "we have 28 tubs
in our basement filled with stuffed
animals," Elaine says. "As you can see,
we like to collect."
At about the same time the stuffed
Poohs and Big Bad Wolves and
Raggedy Anns and Three Bears began
moving into the Harris home, Elaine
wandered into a bookstore and
noticed a copy of the Little House on
the Prairie cookbook. "I have to have
that," she thought. And so she bought
Her husband was delighted. Unlike
most men who live for the
latest sports scores, Doug
Harris spends his free time
cooking. He has loved cook-
ing since he was a little boy,
when he would voluntarily
help in the kitchen; and he
is famous for his Thanksgiving turkey
and his challah, the recipe for which
he just may give you if you promise
you're actually going to bake it.
So Elaine brought home this one
book. Our collection started as all
collections do," she says. "Gently."
But after that one cookbook, the cou-
ple were addicted. Elaine just hap-
pened to wander into another book-
store where she picked up the Wizard
of Oz cookbook (which remains her
favorite to this day; Doug says the
Mary Frances Cookbook, a century-old
book with endearing illustrations,
including talking pots and pans, and
the "Honorable Mr. Coffee Pot,
Esquire," tops his list). Then she
bought the Wind in the Willows cook-
book and then the Mary Poppins cook-
"That's the definition of a collec-
tion," Elaine says. "You have one, and
you're always looking for another.
Elaine purchased her first children's
cookbook 20 years ago, and her
expertise in finding them has long
since expanded beyond such a mun-
dane activity as walking into a conven-
"I've gone into a lot of used book-
stores, and right away I ask, 'Do you
have any old children's cookbooks?"
she says. "I've gotten some pretty
That's one source.
Doug Harris has found a cookbook
or two on the Internet, where he likes
to access the vast collections of used
bookstores nationwide; but he mostly
eschews online auctions.
The couple regularly travels to an
antiquarian book sale in Lansing and
other collector shows around the
country. They'll hit, thrift shops,
though there the pickings are limited.
Sometimes, the Harrises have to strike
a hard bargain to get what they want;
other times, the cookbooks
are just piled on the floor,
dirty and discarded. That's
why Elaine always wears old
clothes when she's going on
a cookbook search.
On the way home from
the hunt, Doug drives and
Elaine reads, always with
COOKBOOKS on page 46