Shelf Esteem is a weekly measure of the books on the shelves of writers, editors, and other word lovers, as told to Emily M. Keeler. This week’s shelf belongs Corey Mintz, the man behind the Toronto Star’s weekly dinner party, Fed. Mintz is a former professional cook and still keeps his home kitchen up to municipal code. He is also the author of the forthcoming book How to Host a Dinner Party.
Mintz’s books are kept in various space saving devices throughout his very neat Toronto third floor apartment, which is decorated with repeating shades of blue and white. When he brought out a few selections from his thousands of comic books, we sat on his bedroom floor and fanned them out around us.
I actually cleaned this shelf up the other night. This is sort of all general, but there is more reference stuff. This Flavor Thesaurus is gorgeous. It’s great. Between that and Culinary Artistry—which is just straight-up lists of classically accepted food pairings, and is really helpful, in a dry sense—but then this is like the opposite. When you look up something like Cashews, and Lamb, and maybe it’s a poem in there, or something. Sometimes it’s a story. Sometimes it’s a recipe. It’s more of a personal interpretation of why these flavours work well. Most often I’ll reach for this when I’ve got a guest who’s like, I don’t eat this or that, but they do say one thing, like I love lamb, I love shrimp. Or if I’ve got that ingredient myself. Then I’m like what’s one new thing. I think sometimes you’re reading, and you’re like, Cucumber and Shellfish, cucumber and shellfish, and you’re going through it, and you’ll be like, Oh! Maybe a sandwich. You get an idea.
The other book here, On Food and Cooking is like the resource for food science. Harold McGee is amazing. Any time you need to actually explain something, and you need to go to a higher source than Wikipedia—to explain, you know, how beef ages, or how vegetables cook—he’s the guy. I’m reaching for that book constantly.
There are two types of cookbooks: home cookbooks and professional cookbooks. Every home cookbook is almost the same, it seems. Recipes for fish and meat. And they’re all the way we do recipes in the Star. It’s designed for easy use and not exploring radical ideas. Here’s another recipe for macaroni and cheese. And then the chef cookbook is half of the time a vanity project. Sometimes it really is like a coffee-table book. There are words that purport to tell you how to do things, but it’s more like, here’s the evidence, we didn’t just make this in the studio. Mission Street Food, I’d say it’s 70 percent story, and within that story there’s a very specific moral origin for their work. And that’s unusual.
And then you’ve got something like Cooking by Hand, which is an amazing book someone suggested to me. There’s maybe three pictures in the whole book. So it gets away from that belief that every page has to be a spread of words and picture, with the finished product. But the way he writes his recipes—they don’t have ingredient lists. They’re really about him actually talking to you and explaining here’s how you make this, never mind the timing. The home cook has been trained to cook by time. When you make a tomato sauce, you should sauté the onions until they’re done, then pour in the tomatoes and the red wine. When you’re writing for the home cook, you have to tell them sauté until brown, about 5-7 minutes. And if you don’t say 5-7 minutes, they will email you. They would call you if they could to say how long? How long do I sauté the onions for? It’s all kind of infantalizing, I think.
Ruth Reichl. She’s a huge influence. I read all her stuff before I started writing professionally, Tender At the Bone got me started. A friend gave it to me as a gift, and the next year I was writing professionally. I had Ruth Reichl over for lunch a few years after that, and I interviewed her, and that’s what led to the Fed column. I had asked a few people where I should take Ruth Reichl for lunch, and the same friend suggested I cook for her. I was like, That’s crazy! Who would do that? And then I realized, because at the time I was a restaurant critic, you know what? It’d be lovely if someone made me a sandwich and a cup of tea. And I so I did it. And months later my boss was like, you did this interview, but you also did a blogpost about the sandwich you made for her. Could you do that every week? And that’s how I became a columnist.
So the actual comic books—when I say comic books I usually mean floppies. They’re in there. There’s 10 or 20 of those boxes, so a couple thousand comic books in my closet.
You know what’s really sad? Because these are sort of inaccessible, it’s just such a hassle reaching in here—recently I thought, you know what I really wanna read? Jack Kirby’s Thor. I’d been collecting those, and then I just sort of dropped the ball and stopped. You know that piece that Alex Molotkow wrote about music in the Times? It’s true of comic books too. And I Googled Jack Kirby, Thor, Torrent. And in two minutes, the things that I spent years collecting were all on my computer. Sad. It kills the hunt, which is what was satisfying. That day that you went in, and were like, Oh my God! That’s awesome, it’s Avengers 24! But Avengers 1–100 takes up only a hundred MBs. And I like to read in the bath, but I wont read comic books in the bath. Or, not old comic books at least. So I’ll have the lap top by the side of the bath, and it’s more convenient.
But I do go into these periodically. As much as I love that moment, where you let go, where you say it’s not important that I posses these things, I am not there yet with my comic books.
I love throwing things out. I love that moment of saying I don’t need something, whatever was taking up space in my life or in my head, and just getting rid of it. And people too. But I am so not close to there with comic books. This was years of amassing—and I still buy comic books! Well, rarely. I go to the comic bookstore every Wednesday, but I probably buy one comic book a month. When you go into a comic bookstore on a Wednesday, that’s like, the day. The comic books all come out, and all the guys are there, and the two girls, and people come in like, Where are my comic books?! There are people who buy 20 comic books a week. I still like the ritual of going there. And I have a relationship with Chris [Butcher, at The Beguiling,] where he’ll just tell me, Hey, can I recommend a comic book to you? And I’ll say, Hmm, I don’t know… and it’s a standard deal. He’ll say If you don’t like it, bring it back.
For example, he recommended this Thermae Romae book. I read the first chapter and was like, Oh my god, someone wrote this FOR ME. It’s about a designer of bath houses in ancient Rome, who in every story, troubled by some bath design challenge, somehow falls into a hot springs or something and arises in modern day Japan, where he learns the lesson for that episode. So he wakes up and he’s like, Oh, what an ingenious way to scrub your back! And he goes back to ancient Rome, and he’s the toast of the town! I love baths. I love Japan, too. But the topic of baths, that always gets me. I like to get in there and make it an event! Candles, a drink, you know, really produce it.
There’s a prized possession. Fantastic Four. I guess that’s my lowest issue.
I started collecting comic books when I was nine. I think there was a kid at school who told me about them. I knew of them, I had these two uncles—who I now realize…Back then I thought they were super cool, they had comic books and toys. But now, I get it. I’m them. Whenever they’d see me they’d give me a comic book. It didn’t click then, that these guys were way too old to be living with their mother.
And then I had a friend in grade four, and there was this connection between the Amazing Spiderman cartoon, which I was really into, and something about the X-Men. He told me about the X-Men. And sometime in that period I went to the comic book store and got X-Men No. 184, and Secret Wars No…6? Don’t quote me on that, it might’ve been 7. But that was it. I was totally addicted. But that’s the weird thing about superheroes. You’re hooked for life.