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All His Children 

Kitchen Witch owner Philip Lamancusa's collection of cookbooks makes him the literary/culinary go-to guy of the French Quarter.

Philip Lamancusa permits few customers to leave his used cookbook shop on Rampart Street without a little lagniappe. He might hand over an old Polynesian cruise ship menu for example, or a pamphlet like Husband-Tested Recipes with instructions for making Salmon Noodle Loaf and Mincemeat Cupcakes. The first time I visited his store, Kitchen Witch, I walked away with a murder-mystery about a cop who, by beating the pulp out of a criminal he despises but can't seem to nail, forces himself into early retirement. The cop chooses his real passion for his next career: bookselling.

Lamancusa didn't lend it out at random; he meant for it to elucidate his own obsession for the written word. It's an obsession that makes him say things like, "If books ever became illegal I'd have to claim insanity, because I'm in love with them."

Unlike the cop, the 59-year-old Lamancusa is still working on his retirement plan. He refers to Kitchen Witch as "my back door," which takes on a literal meaning when you learn that only three blocks separate the store from his full-time job as Peristyle's pastry chef. Lamancusa has been that sort of kitchen witch since 1961, when he joined the Navy's galleys. Seven years later, he ran away from his hometown of New York City with someone else's wife and landed in New Orleans. "I liked it so much that I took her back and brought my own wife down here," he chuckles. During 40 years as a gypsy cook he has worked at Commander's Palace under Paul Prudhomme, opened and closed two restaurants of his own, graduated culinary school in San Francisco and cooked on a New Mexican Indian reservation, among countless other sweaty gigs.

He racked up quite a collection of cookbooks in the process. Three years ago, his daughter decided that he had pulled enough 14-hour shifts on his feet for one lifetime, and she helped him open Kitchen Witch with the hope that the shop would sustain him one day. While the long kitchen hours aren't over yet, he now winds down by receiving customers five evenings a week, sometimes still wearing fruit-print chef's pants and a T-shirt with chocolate smudges. If you ask him what he's been up to lately, instead of mentioning tarte tatin or gelato, Lamancusa answers, "Just finding out the value of the written word here."

Even wearing kitchen garb, with a slouch earned from years as a line cook, when the thin-haired Lamancusa slides his rhinestone-studded, black-frame glasses onto his sharp nose, no one would mistake him for anything but a bookworm. Similarly, Kitchen Witch feels more like a private reading room than a retail outlet. It's a dim space with comfy chairs and tilting bookshelves, located on the lowest floor in the heart of an otherwise non-commercial block. When a customer pokes a head in, it's not always clear what piqued his interest: the box of assorted free books outside; the announcement in the window that the oldest known black cookbook published in America has arrived (What Mrs. Fisher Knows About Old Southern Cooking); or the flyer hanging next to it offering a reward for a lost boa constrictor.

"Being a bookseller is almost like being a bartender: name your poison," Lamancusa says, estimating that a half-dozen customers visit Kitchen Witch every day. "There's the person who reads cookbooks like novels. And then there's the waiter that needs a book on napkin folding." A neighbor wandered in recently who wanted to learn about sausage making. A novelist needed a lesson on candy making, so Lamancusa let her copy down recipes for a few hours. There's a cab driver currently cooking his way through Larousse Gastronomique. Another regular, who drops big bucks on the rarest cookbooks, makes his living shipping dogs from one end of the country to another. "I haven't even told you about the homeless person and the streetwalker yet," says Lamancusa, who reports that no French Quarter business is without one of each.

Book scouts are the most frequent, albeit unpredictable, Kitchen Witch customers. Lamancusa describes them as "scavengers" because they scour thrift stores, flea markets, other bookshops and sometimes trashcans for books that booksellers might want for their shops. "One of them is crazy as a bedbug," he says. Another one sleeps in his van. There's no schedule to the scouts' visits; they show up when they have something to sell. If he wants it, Lamancusa pays one-third of the price he will charge for the book once it's on his shelf.

A scavenger himself, Lamancusa spends hours on the Internet -- rummaging, buying, selling and researching the going rate for the written word. He admits that he made several ignorant sales before he learned that he could use the Internet as a sort of Blue Book for books. "I thought, 'How nice that these people are buying up all my Betty Crockers.' Then I went on the Internet to re-order and learned that they knew something I didn't."

It's a capitalist trade: demand determines price. You might have a Braille copy of Paul Prudhomme's Basics of Creole Cooking -- "the best Creole cookbook ever," according to Lamancusa -- but it will sit on your shelf for years, as it sits on his, if no one wants it. The Joy of Cooking, first published in 1931, is one of the most sought-after and valuable cookbooks of "the Betty Crocker" genre. A first-time customer recently gave Lamancusa $45 for a 1940 edition of this longtime standard. "He was this big guy with a full beard, and he was holding it to his chest and smiling like he had just fallen in love. He said that his mother had one but that hers was falling apart. He walked out beaming," recalls Lamancusa. Copies of The Times-Picayune Creole Cookbook, first published in 1901 and currently out of print, "go as fast as they come." You can chart history according to this Creole "Betty Crocker": Alcohol is omitted from all recipes printed during the Prohibition, and then re-inserted during the years following; whole passages pertain to food rationing in the editions published during World War II.

Lamancusa made his most lucrative transaction to date over the phone with an aging woman who wanted to sell her entire collection to a cookbook enthusiast, rather than let her kids squabble over them after she died. So he got 173 mint condition gems for just $3 apiece. An Internet customer from Malta recently sent him $150 for an Elizabeth David from the woman's collection; most of the books that remain at Kitchen Witch from that acquisition wait on the shelves labeled "Collector's Corner." Lamancusa slides The Cheese Cookbook from one of those shelves and points to a black-and-white photo of the author. "Look," he pleads. "She looked like this 50 years ago when she wrote this book. This book is like a person."

He often refers to the cookbooks in his shop as "my children." A cookbook is more profitable if it has its dustcover or an author's signature. And first editions in good condition are like gold, which ironically means that the most valuable cookbooks are the ones never damaged by use in the kitchen. But, just like a good parent -- and a cook whose heart is still in the pot -- Lamancusa loves his cookbooks equally. He turns a graying one with tattered pages over in his hands. "The older the edition is the more you'll be able to tell that, say in 1938, somebody spilled food on it, or that somebody peeling an onion shed tears on its pages." He lifts the book to his face, closes his eyes and says, "Somebody had accidents around this book: smell the book."

click to enlarge Feeling more like a reading room than a bookstore, Philip Lamancusa's Kitchen Witch draws customers in with its comfy atmosphere and mounds of cookbooks. - CHERYL GERBER
  • Cheryl Gerber
  • Feeling more like a reading room than a bookstore, Philip Lamancusa's Kitchen Witch draws customers in with its comfy atmosphere and mounds of cookbooks.
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