‘The Culinary Cellar’ blogger Debbie Vanni is rebuilding her cookbook collection after a flood devastated her home in Chicago.
Starting from scratch is bitter sweet.
Debbie Vanni, a 65-year-old foodie from Chicago who’s been collecting cookbooks since childhood, was forced to start over in July after a flood washed away her basement library, the inspiration for her blog “The Culinary Cellar.”
“It looked like the Titanic,” Vanni tells Moneyish about the flood that damaged more than $25,000 of her previous cookbooks. “I opened my basement and the water was at the very top step.”
The storm in early July wreaked havoc, overflowing a retention pond outside her home in Libertyville, Illinois. Seven feet of water seeped into Vanni’s basement and she says the damage isn’t covered by insurance, so she’ll have to fork over more than $15,000 of her own money to repair her favorite food sanctuary.
Her literary lair was once filled with metal shelves piled high with colorful book sleeves and a day bed that doubled as the perfect reading nook. Stacks of pyrex mixing bowls and cooking tools were displayed next to an old fashioned library card catalog case stuffed with old recipes from magazine clippings. The cookbooks — approximately 4,000 — were categorized by foods like savory and sweet, breads, baked goods, healthy bites, originals and chef biographies.
“All my things were floating – books, cookie cutters, dishes that were inside drawers. It was surreal, everything was gone,” recalls Vanni.
It could take all year to repair the damage, but the mom and proud uterine cancer survivor is determined to revive her precious culinary cellar in part because of her blog devoted to sharing recipes and personal stories with fellow foodies.
Vanni plans on re-buying some of her favorite cookbooks she says she can’t live without, in addition to accepting donations from her loyal blog community of 20,000 people. Others — like her great aunt’s handwritten recipe for chicken casserole and her signed cookbook collection from beloved bread baker Bernard Clayton Jr. — are irreplaceable.
She was devastated when her 1914 original Fannie Farmer cookbook her grandmother gave her was washed away. Luckily, one of her daughter’s was able to find the exact same one on Etsy, and gifted it to Vanni after the flood.
“That was one that really broke my heart. I can’t get that one back, but she found the exact one with the same cover,” she says.
One of the first books she replaced was “The Farm Journal’s Country Cookbook” — her go-to for all things canning with recipes for concord grape butter, and a pickle relish made from green tomatoes and mustard seeds. She found it for $10 on Amazon.
Once her collection grows again, Vanni says she won’t be relocating her whimsical culinary cellar.
“To me, cookbooks take on a life all of their own. They are history, family and memories,” Vanni says, of why she started her blog.
She broke the news of her loss in a blog post titled “Washed Away,” and since then she’s received an outpouring of support from her loyal following.
Readers have sent messages of support, cookbooks and chocolate from places like Ohio, France and New Zealand.
One reader from Michigan sent her a signed Bobby Flay grilling book and caramel pecan chocolates.
“A little something that usually makes me feel a little bit better,” she wrote Vanni.
Another offered to donate her entire cookbook collection.
Vanni is flattered by the kindness strangers have shown her, and she’s determined to cookup her next chapter.
“This Culinary Cellar may be gone, but another will take its place,” she said.
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