Nach Waxman, founder of a bookstore where foodies flock, dies at 84

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Nach Waxman, founder of a bookstore where foodies flock, dies at 84
The bookstore Kitchen Arts & Letters, owned by Nach Waxman, in New York, Feb. 26, 2018. Waxman, who combined his seasoning in anthropology and nonfiction editing to found a Manhattan bookstore that became a global mecca for chefs, cooks, culinary academics, epicurean writers and just about anyone who enjoyed eating as much as he did, died on Wednesday in Manhattan. He was 84. Cole Wilson/The New York Times.

by Sam Roberts

NEW YORK (NYT NEWS SERVICE).- Nach Waxman, who combined his seasoning in anthropology and nonfiction editing to found a Manhattan bookstore that became a global mecca for chefs, cooks, culinary academics, epicurean writers and just about anyone who enjoyed eating as much as he did, died Wednesday in Manhattan. He was 84.

The cause was septic shock, his son, Rabbi Joshua Waxman, said.

Waxman’s passion for, and curiosity about, food made his store, Kitchen Arts & Letters, a go-to source for all kinds of culinary history and customs, as well as for recipes that he insisted should be sources of creative inspiration rather than rigid paint-by-numbers templates. Faced with a dining challenge, customers knew whom to call.

In one instance, Waxman counseled Citibank on its banquet menu for the Venezuelan finance minister; in another, he found Indigenous recipes from New Guinea for the American Museum of Natural History’s dining room during an exhibition on rainforests.

“He could make helpful recommendations, obtain the very cookbook you needed, search for out-of-print editions and discuss the authors,” said Florence Fabricant, a food and wine writer for The New York Times.

Waxman once said that about two-thirds of his customers were culinary careerists purchasing professional tools. “Knives are one tool,” he told the Times in 1998. “Books are another.”

He established the store in 1983 in a former butcher shop on Lexington Avenue, between East 93rd and 94th streets. He owned it with Matt Sartwell, who joined him in 1991.

Waxman, who was distinguished by his white hair and beard and retro suspenders, saw Kitchen Arts & Letters as “a repository of books that are not only what you can’t get elsewhere, but beyond what you knew existed.”

“It isn’t just a cookbook store,” he said in another Times interview, in 2008. “You can find books on the microbiology of cheese manufacturing, the role of gastronomy in Moliere’s plays. You can find books on kitchen antiques, contemporary agriculture, biotechnology.”

The store’s first floor is crammed with thousands of books, and an even more esoteric collection is found in the basement: reference books and coveted rare editions — many for inspection, but not for sale — ranging from “Foods of the Azores Islands” (1977) to “Famine and Food Supply in the Graeco-Roman World” (1988).

“It’s really the professional business that’s the gratifying business,” Waxman told the Times in 1995. “People who are expanding their skills and the scope of their work. I will tell you, when the lease was up a few years ago, I gave serious thought to moving the store to a second floor somewhere just to make it a place for motivated people, not casual drop-ins. The people who come here have a language in common.

“Just sitting and selling books is boring,” he said. “It’s making change and putting books in bags. What’s fun is helping people solve their problems.”

Waxman was inducted in 1995 into the James Beard Foundation’s Who’s Who of Food and Beverage in America.

Nahum Joel Waxman (his nickname, Nach, is pronounced like “knock”) was born Oct. 20, 1938, in Philadelphia, a grandson of Jewish immigrants from Russia and Romania. His father, Jerome, was an insurance and real estate agent who specialized in the poultry farms that proliferated around Vineland, New Jersey, where Jews from Eastern Europe had resettled and where Nach was raised. His mother, Minnie (Kanner) Waxman, was an educator.

After commuting 30 miles by train daily to the Akiba Hebrew Academy in Philadelphia, he went on to Cornell University, earning a bachelor’s degree in anthropology in 1958. He pursued graduate studies at the University of Chicago and at Harvard, where he enrolled in a doctoral program in South Asian anthropology.

He abandoned academia to become a book editor, working at Macmillan, Harper & Row and Crown. But after two decades in publishing, he had wearied of working for conglomerates and wanted to become his own boss.

A second career as a bookshop owner suggested itself from the confluence of his expertise as an editor — he had edited a number of cookbooks — and his training as an anthropologist, one who viewed “food as a bearer of identity,” his wife, Maron Waxman, a former publishing colleague, said.

“We had been sitting down to meals that had been served by our family for generations,” she said. “That meant a great deal to us.”

He loved to cook, and the couple shared rich Jewish traditions associated with food. Waxman inherited his mother’s crockpots, in which every year at Purim he fermented beet brine to make Eastern European borscht from a venerable recipe.

His own recipe for brisket (cut from the breast or lower chest of beef) was featured in “The New Basics” (1989), by Sheila Lukins and Julee Rosso, authors of the popular “The Silver Palate Cookbook.” “I probably get as many calls and correspondence about that recipe as about anything I’ve ever done,” Waxman once said.

He credited the previous generation with the inspiration for that recipe. “A footnote is due to both my mother (for the massive use of onions) and to my mother-in-law (for the pre-slicing),” he told the Times in 2008. He maintained his spiritual ties to his heritage by joining a Sunday reading group that analyzes Hebrew texts at the Ansche Chesed synagogue, near his apartment on the Upper West Side.

He married Maron Loeb, a publishing consultant, in 1967. In addition to her and their son, Joshua, he is survived by a daughter, Sarah Waxman, and three grandchildren. He died at Mount Sinai Hospital.

Surrounded by the printed word, Waxman witnessed the growth of the internet. And though digital food editors today might disagree, he maintained in 2008 that the web was no substitute for cookbooks.

“It will, indeed, provide you every imaginable variety and conception of ‘peanut butter,’ ‘jelly’ and ‘sandwich,’” he said in 2008, “but in the end it will still only be offering you a list; it will not have a viewpoint. It will not assist you in evaluating this massive compilation of what happens when these three food ideas intersect.”

Similarly, he argued that recipes should serve as directional cues that encourage creative detours rather than being mimicked precisely, like a road map. In his contribution to “Dumbing Down: Essays on the Strip-Mining of American Culture” (1996, edited by Katharine Washburn and John Thornton), Waxman wrote:

“Cut loose, as we are, from the example of our mothers (or occasionally our fathers), who showed us how to handle food and how to work with it, and coddled by the printed recipes that encourage obedience and conformity at the expense of knowledge and understanding, we have become a generation of cooks that does not know how to cook.”

He added: “We are cheerfully accepting mediocrity of performance. To be sure, we do not encourage bad results; we rarely rouse ourselves, though, to achieve superior ones. Ends rather than means are our guideline — dependable outcomes rather than ventures that might take us astray.”

His partner, Sartwell, who will continue to run the bookstore, said in an email: “Nach’s purpose in opening the store will last; we’re all as interested in the things that drove him as he was. But his experience, his expertise, his perspective will be impossible to replace.”

“I’ll order copies of a new book on Mayan ethnobotany,” he added, “but I won’t read it with the same gimlet eye that Nach would.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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