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Cookbook enthusiasts find that collecting is to their taste

As the old saying goes, you can never be too rich or too thin. Cookbook aficionados might amend that to add: You can also never have enough cookbooks.

Sally LaRhette, 75, has over 3,000, and she's not letting up anytime soon. In fact, one of the reasons she moved to her Natick home was for extra room to house her collection. Daniela Coleman, 38, of Jamaica Plain has 250 books in her kitchen and another 100 or so boxed up in her mother's attic. Jane Kelly, 49, of Wayland, owns around 850. The 75 she uses most often are in the kitchen, hundreds fill a large bookcase in her office, and the remaining ones are stored in the basement.

While some may wonder how anyone could possibly need, want, or use this many volumes, food lovers admit to pangs of desire when roaming the cookbook section of a well-stocked bookstore.

Coleman, a former elementary school librarian and now the special events coordinator at the Boston Arts Academy, describes herself as ''a book freak to begin with," and, she adds, ''cookbooks are practical because you can use them."

Having received her first two cookbooks -- ''Maida Heatter's Book of Great Desserts" and ''Craig Claiborne's Kitchen Primer" -- at the age of 10, Coleman says she buys books as she goes through cooking phases. When she became a vegetarian at 15 and her mother wouldn't cook especially for her, she bought the original ''Moosewood Cookbook" by Mollie Katzen and later, Deborah Madison's ''The Greens Cookbook." Since then, she's added bread baking and cake decorating books, grilling books (she eats meat again), and classical French and technique-oriented books to her collection.

Coleman's latest interest is old cookbooks, which she seeks out in thrift stores, used bookstores, and on the Internet. ''There's a lot of history and tradition in cookbooks," says Coleman, who also enjoys reading authors ''who have a good story." One of her greatest finds, from a small collection she inherited two years ago, was a 1942 copy of ''Ruth Wakefield's Toll House Tried & True Recipes," signed by Wakefield, the creator of the Toll House cookie.

Kelly, the Wayland resident, prefers new cookbooks because, she says, ''old recipes seem dated." From age 5, when she asked for her own baking set, the native Londoner's interest in cooking hasn't waned. ''By 15, I was making recipes from my mother's Cordon Bleu books."

As a result, many of Kelly's favorite authors are British -- including Nigella Lawson, Nigel Slater, Elizabeth David, and Jane Grigson. But even before she and her husband moved to the United States six years ago, she was buying American books and food magazines. ''I always buy cookbooks to cook from," she says, pointing out a few favorites by baking writers Dede Wilson (''Bake It to the Limit"), Nancy Baggett (''All-American Cookie Book"), and Flo Braker (''Sweet Miniatures"). Kelly tried to parlay her passion into a web-based cookbook business a few years ago, but was unable to compete with and other online catalogs.

LaRhette comes to her cookbook collection not just because of the sheer pleasure of having an immense number of books, but also because she trained with former Newton teacher and author Madeleine Kamman in the mid 1970s. After that, LaRhette was a part-time chef and cooking teacher.

''Food is an emotional thing," says LaRhette, admitting that the abundance of food and books represents something she didn't have growing up. Reading about the history of food and ethnic cuisines teaches her about culture as well. ''Recipes are like social studies," she says.

At the cookbook catalog Jessica's Biscuit, founder David Strymish agrees. ''People look for authenticity," says Strymish, who built the catalog as an offshoot of his family's New England Mobile Book Fair. He finds that customers want books on specific cuisines. Because of America's love of Italian food, Italian cookbooks always sell well (such as the new English translation of Italy's classic ''The Silver Spoon") followed by French books. Mexican, Spanish, Chinese, and Japanese books generally go through phases, says Strymish.

''But to be a mega-seller, you have to be on TV," Strymish says. Stars Mario Batali, Emeril Lagasse, Giada De Laurentiis, and Rachael Ray are in this group. ''People always want to learn chef's secrets," says the bookseller.

LaRhette buys most chef's books. Even if it's just one recipe that catches her eye, the collector thinks it's a fair price to pay.

''Books keep getting better," she says, one reason why it's hard to resist new ones.

Recipe lovers like Kelly also clip from newspapers and magazines. ''I know it's ludicrous," she says. ''I have far more recipes and books than a normal person needs."

The avid collectors do reflect a passion for food and cooking. But you have to wonder if it's a hobby gone out of control.

Perhaps, admit these enthusiasts. ''At least cooking gives pleasure to other people, too," says Kelly. ''Even though I couldn't possibly justify buying another cookbook, I still covet new ones."

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