“They've gone fairly quickly,” says rare book expert and store owner Celia Sack. But you can still pick up such hot items as Tower's 1912 edition of Le Guide Culinaire by Auguste Escoffier ($400) and La Cuisine de Tous les Pays by Urbain-Dubois ($450).
Even better, you could grab Tower's beat-up, taped-together copy of Julia Child's Mastering the Art of French Cooking, which bears the tangible imprint of hands that turned out brilliant food at Chez Panisse and Santa Fe Bar and Grill in Berkeley, Stars in San Francisco, the Peak Café in Hong Kong and other top spots. “You can tell it really inspired him,” Sack says. Tower's signature is inside, which makes it a steal at only $75.
Sorry, but you're too late for inscribed books by Richard Olney and Elizabeth David. They went fast, for $500 to $600. Some older French books sold just as quickly, for $700 to $800.
The buyers are collectors and chefs. Thomas Keller picked up Fernand Point's Ma Gastronomie, and Cindy Pawlcyn got an Elizabeth David book. Alice Waters made a purchase, too, but Sack can't remember what she bought. And a guy who played the piano at Stars when he was only 14 bought a book with Tower's signature as a memento.
How could Tower part with such treasures? Letting go was not entirely his choice. The 2005 hurricanes Katrina and Wilma made some decisions for him. “Almost all my photos and records were lost in Katrina and Wilma, although I was able to send a lot of things to the University of Michigan before I left New Orleans,” Tower says.
“I sold what was left of the books because I was living in a tropical climate and that is no good for leather bindings or paper. Also I had read all of them, including the 18th and 19th century books, a few times, was completely inspired by them, and it was time for them to go on and inspire their new owners.”
Sack bought 400 to 500 books on food. A nonculinary collection with first editions of such books as Willa Cather's Death Comes for the Archbishop and Ernest Hemingway's For Whom the Bell Tolls is in New York and will be sold, too.
At the moment, Tower is living in Mérida, Yucatán, hopping over to Cozumel for diving. He's as creative as ever, fixing up colonial houses and selling them. And he hasn't given up the kitchen. “Yes, I cook,” he says, “experimenting with local ingredients and astonishing my Yucatecan friends at what can be done (heresy to some).”
And who knows, he may start another restaurant. “Would love to open an American bar in Mérida,” he says, “or on the beach in Tulum.”
Read more from Barbara Hansen at www.eatmx.com, www.tableconversation.com., @foodandwinegal and Facebook.