Do I Really Need…All These Cookbooks

October 23, 2012

By Raleigh-Elizabeth.

They’re everywhere. On the counter. On the bookshelf. In that empty space between the top of the kitchen cupboard and the ceiling. Some have found their way to the nightstand. There may even be a few in the powder room. At last count, there were 137 cookbooks in my house, and that sounds like something that could land me my own episode on Hoarders. Hoarders: She Really Likes Food. The worst part? I haven’t even opened many of them in years.

Holidays always make it worse. Do I need this incredibly well photographed and plated book of Thanksgiving suppers? Of course! Will mine look anything like that? Absolutely not. What about a cake pop cookbook with over 40 different, beautiful, absolutely delightful bits of cake on a stick? Will I ever have the time to mold fondant into mini snowmen cake pops for a cookie exchange? I’m sorry, children. Unless a friend is bringing some as a present, you are not getting cake pops meticulously decorated as miniature bags of popcorn for your next slumber party. I will, however, call for pizza and give you some baby carrots. If you want, you can put those on a stick.

And there’s the rub: how many of us have a dozen cookbooks we never even open anymore? With the help of my stepmother, one of my favorite foodies and the best cook I know, I’ve pared my over-the-top library down to the five essential cookbooks you absolutely need… and the ones you’ll really cook with every day.

First, you need the cookbooks that can help you survive weeknight dinners. New Food Fast by Donna Hay may be my favorite cookbook ever written (sliding into a win before any other cookbook she’s ever written) because it’s one I can actually use for dinner at least three times a week. Even better, it’s one I can use when we have company when I actually care about being culinarily impressive. The book is divided into three sections: food you can make in 30 minutes or less, food you can make in 20 minutes or less, and food you can make in ten minutes or less. And although I was concerned at first glance that these time frames might only apply to the Cordon Bleu trained among us, I can tell you from experience: when she says 20 minutes, she means 20 minutes. And she doesn’t mean “This is passable as dinner given how little time went into the making of this dish.” She means “You’re welcome for this delicious recipe. I realize you are crying into your plate out of sheer happiness and delight.” Her recipe for poached chicken curry soup with sweet potato is my go-to for everything from Tuesday night supper to a Tupperware dish for new moms. Every time I’ve served it, people have begged for the recipe. No one believes how simple it is.

Mark Bittman’s Kitchen Express, which my stepmom keeps in the car in case four o’clock rolls around and she’s in the grocery store parking lot with no idea what’s for supper, is another everyday delight. Every single recipe in it can be thrown together in less than 20 minutes. The Splendid Table’s How to Eat Supper is an equal necessity: every recipe is lip-smacking delicious and none are terribly complex. To the book’s credit, the authors, Lynne Rossetto Kasper and Sally Swift, have bothered to put together each recipe into a sample meal: entree, side, and dessert. Sometimes the dessert is just sliced fruit, but you know what? Sometimes sliced fruit really is a terrific end to the meal. Especially when the meal itself was delicious.

Besides meals for the everyday, you also need cookbooks that turn picky eaters into foodies and children who won’t touch a green vegetable into promising organic micro-farmers. Or, at least, vegetable eaters. To the rescue: Local Flavors. Deborah Madison is a vegetable genius, and this gorgeous cookbook is a culinary tour of America’s farmers markets. There are recipes for appetizers, entrees, sides, and desserts. Some of them have changed the way I eat forever. Madison opened my husband up to brussel sprouts, and they are now his favorite vegetable, so long as we make them her way: tossed together with a little mustard, butter, and capers. As a side dish, it goes with everything, and it’s got just enough bite to be the star of the meal. Any chef who can turn a stubborn vegetable-hater into a vegetable-lover wins in my book, and the photographs and stories in this book are so pretty you’ll find yourself taking it to read in bed as you fall asleep. (Note: You will wake up hungry.)

And last, but not least, you need the cookbook you can turn to when the Queen finally calls to say she’s coming for dinner. After all, for whom have you been practicing your table manners all these years? You need a cookbook that’s impressive, but not complicated. A cookbook that doesn’t require visits to eight different groceries just to find the ingredients for the meal. A cookbook that has your friends raving about that amazing dish you made five years ago. A cookbook that doesn’t intimidate you into ordering take-out you every time you open it. That cookbook? Radically Simple. You may know its author, Rozanne Gold, from Recipes 1-2-3 (a great read if you don’t have it — all the dishes are three ingredients or less), but this is her best. It will show you how just a few tricks and some new spices can transform your kitchen — and your eating habits — forever. You’ll suddenly become the person who trades the old bottle of thyme on the spice shelf for a new container of harissa, and ras al hanout will be your favorite way to jazz up your chicken. Radically simple, and radically good.

So there you have it. Five cookbooks you should not live without and, really, the only five you actually need. I’d just like to note, though, that none of this means we should stop buying cookbooks. If you just think of them as gorgeously photographed coffee table books, there’s no reason to stop the addiction. And if you’d like to call Hoarders on me now, I really would understand. Until then, I’m thinking very seriously about that cake pops book. They really are cute. But please, don’t expect me to make any.

I’m sure I’m missing some, Friends! Tell me: What cookbooks do you use daily? Which ones can you not live without?

Since mine are splotched with cooking accidents, post-it notes, and spilled sauces, pretty cookbooks found here.

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{ 56 comments… read them below or add one }

1 robin October 23, 2012 at 8:39 am

If I had to pick 3 I’d choose The Joy of cooking, better homes & gardens cook book, and Jeni’s splendid ice cream. Top favs!!!


2 raleigh-elizabeth October 23, 2012 at 11:18 am

SPLENDID ICE CREAM!!! I must check this out. Thanks for the rec!


3 Alicia October 23, 2012 at 8:39 am

My two go-to cookbooks are the Better Homes and Gardens New Cookbook and most recently Cook’s Illustrated. I’m going to check out the others you listed.


4 raleigh-elizabeth October 23, 2012 at 11:19 am

Cook’s Illustrated is so fantastic. I’m with you there.


5 Faith October 23, 2012 at 8:44 am

I have the same problem with too many cookbooks. I started a blog series where I was going to cook at least one recipe from every book but it’s stalled out lately. This reminds me that I need to pick it up again.

My son is allergic to milk and eggs and I’m half-Korean so I tend to cook a lot of Asian dishes. I really love Jaden Hair’s Steamy Kitchen Cookbook.

Most of her recipes are quick enough for weeknight dinners and they’re all tasty. She has a lot of recipes on her blog too.


6 raleigh-elizabeth October 23, 2012 at 11:21 am

Oh I’m going to check it out right now! I love the title.


7 Hannah Q. October 23, 2012 at 8:46 am

Thankfully I am saved from buying so many because I’m a librarian at a university with a culinary program. We have over 10,000 cookbooks! I do use Food to Live By in my kitchen all the time, though. :)


8 raleigh-elizabeth October 23, 2012 at 11:22 am

I can’t even imagine how wonderful that must be. Maybe I’ve just missed my calling. Either that, or Hoarders.


9 Jan @ Family Bites October 23, 2012 at 8:59 am

I love this post! I’m a food writer/editor/blogger and party planner, so I use my work as an excuse to keep my 200+ cookbook collection well-stocked. I would love to pare down my bookshelves but it’s like choosing which of my children I like best – an impossible task!

I just received a copy of Deb Perelman’s new Smitten Kitchen Cookbook and I’m pretty sure ten years from now it will be one I’m still cooking from regularly. I also like anything from Cook’s Illustrated, Jamie Oliver, Nigella Lawson, Dorie Greenspan, Martha Stewart and Julia, of course.


10 raleigh-elizabeth October 23, 2012 at 11:24 am

DORIE (and, of course, Julia). but Dorie!!! And I love the Smitten Kitchen too. My one beef with everything she makes is simply that it doesn’t look as good on my camera after I’ve taken a picture as it does on hers : )


11 Tricia October 23, 2012 at 9:01 am

It shocked even me, but Supernatural Every Day has become the cookbook I pull down most often from my shelf (shelves) of more than 200.

I think you picked five great books, but I don’t feel the need to pare down my own shelves. I have room for them and I love having them there. I may not use every cookbook every week or even every year, but each one marks some point in my life and I will come back them all eventually.


12 raleigh-elizabeth October 23, 2012 at 11:25 am

I keep picking up Supernatural Every Day but never buying it… I will now bite the bullet. And I should point out: my cookbooks aren’t going anywhere. Except maybe on the floor, because I’ve run out of room elsewhere.


13 Tricia October 24, 2012 at 11:37 am

You will love it! Things you never would have thought of as everyday dishes will become part of your weekly repetoire!


14 SarahBeth October 23, 2012 at 9:04 am

Keeping a favorite cookbook in the car! What a great idea. We have many cookbooks, and each seems to have its own season of heavy use. The one cookbook we’re too intimidated to open? The Silver Spoon.


15 raleigh-elizabeth October 23, 2012 at 11:26 am

I feel the same way about the Silver Spoon, SarahBeth! And I also was struck with the genius of the cookbook-in-the-car. Maybe I just found room for my cookbooks after all : )


16 Amy October 24, 2012 at 9:23 pm

You really should give The Silver Spoon a try. It’s basically the Italian version of the Joy of Cooking. The recipes are simple, easy to follow and full of flavor. It reminds me of the food my Italian grandmother taught me to make. I know you will love it!


17 Chris July 15, 2013 at 8:28 pm

The Silver Spoon is awesome. Incredibly varied, easy to get (or modify) ingredients, simple cooking, and best of all, delicious!


18 Martha October 23, 2012 at 9:08 am

This is an interesting exercise. Right now my family and I are living in a three month rental while I finish grad school. All my cookbooks got packed up and are in the garage, and it has been interesting to see which ones I have pulled out that I need in the month so far. That says a lot about how essential they are. The three I’ve pulled out so far are:
Simply in Season. I use this cookbook constantly, it is organized by seasons and written by my people, the Mennonites. Awesome if you have a CSA, which we do.
The Homesick Texan. This isn’t really a necessity but we eat Tex-Mex once a week (Taco Tuesdays!) and I use her recipes frequently for that.
James Barber’s Immodest but Honest Cookbook. I love this quirky cookbook that I found in a thrift store, all the recipes are written as cartoons. I make the shepherd’s pie and fried rice frequently, they are great grad school budget foods.
Honestly, these days I get 80-90% of my recipes from the internet, especially Epicurious and Smitten Kitchen but also and random internet searches. I love all my cookbooks though, and I read them sometimes for fun.
This year on my Christmas list I have Jamie at Home, Tartine Bread, Vegetarian Cooking by Deborah Madison, Food in Jars by Marissa MacClellan, and The Art of Fermentation by Sandor Katz.


19 raleigh-elizabeth October 23, 2012 at 11:28 am

All of those sound great. Vegetarian Cooking is FANTASTIC, and I really believe that owning a lot of vegetarian cookbooks is great, even if your family is full of meat eaters. Cookbooks that specialize in veggies have really had to hone in on how to make that vegetable fantastic – and that’s great, side, main, or snack. What great recommendations you added – I’m going to check them all out… especially the Homesick Texan. We do Taco Tuesdays too!


20 jo October 23, 2012 at 9:10 am

i like having a lot of cookbooks in my kitchen, because they’re pretty and inspirational. however, lately i find myself relying a lot more on pinterest and blogs for recipes than i ever thought i would. when you try a new recipe from a cookbook there’s no guarantee that it’s going to turn out well, even if you really like the cookbook author. when you try one from a blog, there are usually helpful reviews and modifications in the comments sections. i’ll always keep my cookbooks around, though!


21 raleigh-elizabeth October 23, 2012 at 11:29 am

I cook often from the internet, too! I love Food52, and we also are big fans of They have an INCREDIBLE ancho chili short rib recipe that is just to-the-teaspoon perfect.


22 Shosh October 23, 2012 at 9:24 am

Norene Gilletz’s book, Norene’s Healthy Kitchen, b/c I guaranteed always have the ingredients at home. Everything is solidly good.


23 Sandra October 23, 2012 at 9:39 am

We just MIGHT be twins…I love Mark Bittman for his simple but yummy recipes. And Deborah Madison is a vegetarian legend! Donna Hay – beautiful photos AND simple, easy recipes that you could serve to anyone!

My best tip is not a cookbook but a list of recipes – go to the NYT website and search Mark Bittman 101 Simple Salads of the Season. He also has one for grilling and a list for picnics too. I’ve printed them off and drag them everywhere – camping, cottage, wherever.


24 raleigh-elizabeth October 23, 2012 at 11:32 am

After your endorsement of 101 Simple Salads, I will accept your twinship and raise you friendship. Mark Bittman is something of a food hero.


25 {plum} October 23, 2012 at 9:49 am

the answer is a resounding, YES!

I’m a sucker for every single beautifully styled cover. It’s maddening and exhilerating at the same time!


26 Lisl Sukachevin October 23, 2012 at 9:53 am

Two of my new favorites are Jenny Rosenstrach’s Dinner A Love Story, and Mad Hungry by Lucinda Scala Quinn. Both are great for fast, delicious, everyday meals.


27 Melissa@Julia's Bookbag October 23, 2012 at 10:06 am

well I’m here to tell you that when/if I grow weary of blogging about Children’s Literature on my site, I’ll just move right on to my cookbook collection. I have an entire floor-to-ceiling bookcase filled with my cookbook collection. And that’s the PARED DOWN collection that I put together after we moved homes. I read them like novels, even if I don’t cook from the regularly. My top favs are ‘The Breakfast Book’ by Marion Cunningham ( a Must Own ), my series of Nigella books, the party edition ‘Silver Palate’ and The Joy of Cooking. I think the best dessert book ever written is ‘Country Desserts’ by Lee Bailey. And for any anglophiles like me, Tamasin Day Lewis’ ‘Kitchen Bible’ is the best book on British cooking I’ve seen.

Also, for anyone interested in food memoir-ish types of reads, Laurie Colwin’s ‘Home Cooking’ and ‘More Home Cooking’ books are brilliantly written and have recipes that I’ve treasured for over a decade…oh goodness I could chat about this for ages and ages….:)


28 Sara October 23, 2012 at 10:15 am

I adore The Homemade Pantry by Alana Chernila. Sticky Chewy Messy Gooey Treats for Kids by Jill O’Connor is my go-to for everything from the perfect scones and chocolate chip cookies to holiday treats like ghost meringues or chocolate lava pudding cake! Seriously amazing baked goods. I have to say I’ve been collecting more and more favorites from Smitten Kitchen-Deb Perelman has the most amazing website. I use her website like a cookbook!


29 Lori H October 23, 2012 at 10:34 am

I love the Barefoot Contessa cookbooks…most recipes are easy, and you know that they will work EVERY TIME. I now own both Pioneer Woman cookbooks, and everything I have made is delicious! Thanks for the suggestions…I requested some of them from our library so I can try them out.


30 esther October 23, 2012 at 10:36 am

This post was written for me – some cookbooks i’ve literally never opened years later, but i can’t bear to part with because they’re so “pretty”. More like decorative cookbooks I guess. I just got the Dinner: A Love Story book and love it so far! I also always reach for The Bride and Groom Cookbook someone got us for our wedding 6 years ago, and have yet to be disappointed!


31 esther October 23, 2012 at 10:36 am

This post was written for me – some cookbooks i’ve literally never opened years later, but i can’t bear to part with because they’re so “pretty”. More like decorative cookbooks I guess. I just got the Dinner: A Love Story book and love it so far! I also always reach for The Bride and Groom Cookbook someone got us for our wedding 6 years ago, and have yet to be disappointed!


32 Marie October 23, 2012 at 11:24 am

I started reading this post thinking “I will have to add ‘Radically Simple’ by Rozanne Gold in the comments.” I checked this cookbook out of the library and made about 10 recipes before finally succumbing and buying it. The best thing about it is so many of the recipes are so simple you have them memorized after making them once. My favorite dessert (that people always love) is one of them: 70% dark chocolate, red grapes and slices of paremean. Put on a plate and serve. Delicious! I will have to check out your other favorites.


33 veronica October 23, 2012 at 11:31 am

My favorite is Mark Bittman´s “The food matters Cookbook”. I have tried a lot of recipes. It has taught me to think differently about food, I try to eat more fiber, vegetables, beans. I especially recommend the escarole and brown rice meatballs, the olive oil breadsticks and the squash and apple chowder.
I also love the martha stewart everyday food cookbooks and the magnolia bakery cookbook.


34 Cooking4Me October 23, 2012 at 11:34 am

Cooking4Me — that’s exactly what each of you should be doing. Cooking for meeee!

My address is:
NoCooking USA


35 Krystle @ Color Transformed Family October 23, 2012 at 11:37 am

My favorites right now are Chloe Coscarelli’s vegan cookbook and Better Homes and Gardens. I love Chloe’s and I’m not even vegan. They are just out of this world flavor packed recipes that are simple to reproduce.


36 katharine October 23, 2012 at 11:50 am

i clipped a recipe by Donna Hay from the Times years ago and it is easy and delicious-salmon with spinach and coconut milk. The problem with your post is now I want to get more cookbooks and I have so many!


37 Regan October 23, 2012 at 11:50 am

Some of my faves are as follows:
The Zuni Cafe Cookbook
Mad Hungry
Chez Panisse Fruit
Martha Stewart’s Cooking School


38 Anna October 23, 2012 at 11:53 am

So true with the hoarding! I was so proud of myself for getting rid of almost a third of my collection with this last move and all I got from my wonderful husband was, “Are you keeping all of those?” Dang it! But he recanted after I pointed out all of the lovely food he gets to eat. Love Dorie!


39 Kate October 23, 2012 at 12:02 pm

We have about 100 cookbooks on the shelf, we could easily cut the stack in half.
My favorites are:
The New Best Recipe (Cook’s Illustrated)
The All American Cookie Book
Better Homes & Gardens New Cookbook (red and white checkered classic)
We subscribe to Bon Appetit, Food & Wine and Cook’s Illustrated and we try to cook from each of them every month. We hang on to them until the season changes.


40 Katie October 23, 2012 at 12:16 pm


You may just be in the running for my top new Design Mom contributor!! Thanks for the great information written in a really friendly, humble way.


41 Rebecca October 23, 2012 at 12:34 pm

We use America’s Test Kitchen and their new lower fat recipes cookbook 4-5 times a week. They’re easy to understand, have accessible ingredients and break down techniques.
We tried the Mark Bittman one you recommended and hated it with a passion. No measurements or even an ingredients list. Just horrible paragraphs with vague directions. Like inheriting your senile Aunts journal. It should come with a warning and a blank check to cover all your wasted groceries.


42 Corinne October 23, 2012 at 2:29 pm

I am excited to try your suggestions! I’ve been needing some fast and good. :)

I was a horrible cook when I got married. Then I simultaneously discovered Alton Brown of Good Eats and Cooks Illustrated. I love the science of food, which helped me understand cooking better. I feel like the Cooks Illustrated books (America’s Test Kitchen Family Cookbook being our go-to) taught me how to cook well. Their instructions are so explicit, well-explained and tested. That said, some of their recipes are a bit too involved for every day!


43 Wendy October 23, 2012 at 4:11 pm

Dinner A Love Story and Time for Dinner are my current faves. Also Real Simple magazine regularly has great, quick, healthy recipes. Thank you for the new books to add to my wish list!!


44 dervla @ The Curator October 23, 2012 at 7:38 pm

Because i read so many cooking blogs, i rarely feel the need to buy a cookbook and if i do, now it’s because I feel connected to that blogger and want to own an extension of the blog. I also work at a cookbook publisher so am surrounded by gorgeous books all day. But of the ones I own, I’m turning to Dinner A Love Story more frequently these days and am also excited about cooking from The Smitten Kitchen Cookbook as well as What Katie Ate and The Sprouted Kitchen. I’m also pinning that chicken curry sweet potato recipe, sounds amazing.


45 Karina Hotard October 23, 2012 at 7:38 pm

I’m a Jacques Pepin kinda girl, can’t get rid of his cookbooks. The great thing about them? I do actually use them. His recipes are surprisingly simple to follow and oh so yummy!


46 julie October 23, 2012 at 9:15 pm

love this post and all the great recommendations in the comments! my family is asian, and we also recently moved to beijing, so i’ve been reading a lot of asian cookbooks. i love everything by andrea nguyen — her latest tofu cookbook is wonderful! also love everything by naomi duguid — her books are big and heavy, full of photos, coffee-table type books, and they are gorgeous. they are both cookbooks and travel photo books. lastly, i adore james oseland’s (of saveur) cradle of flavor.


47 Regina October 23, 2012 at 10:57 pm

I should check out New Food Fast!

I’ve been cooking out of toddler cookbooks at lot lately: Weelicious (she has a website!), and Annabelle Karmel. Adult food is usually inspired by Jamie Oliver, Joy of Cooking, or whatever google turns up.

I’m also guilty of having too many cookbooks that I don’t cook out of. But I enjoy reading cookbooks, I’ve come to consider them as reading material, and not necessarily an instructional book :)


48 Emily October 24, 2012 at 3:34 am

Donna Hay is a staple here in Australia – everyone I know has at least one of her cookbooks, or her magazines, or even her ipad app! And she puts out a yearly kids issue which has the most gorgeous birthday parties with EASY recipes.
I would also cook from one of Bill Grainger’s cookbooks at least once a week – again with the EASY recipes! But always delish!
I stopped buying food magazines when the website started, which collates a lot of the recipes into one place. Now I have lots of pieces of paper with recipes, as well as lots of books with recipes!


49 Lynn October 24, 2012 at 11:25 am

Will all due respect, I could never just have 5 cookbooks. Sure I probably only use 3 or 4 as my go tos for recipes in a pinch but that’s not why I bought them in the first place. I bought them because those gorgeous photographs are every bit as delicious as the actual meals. Because all of those local church groups & women’s auxillary cookbooks tell a story of the time and place those recipes were compiled. Because they create a sense of hominess & comfort. Because they remind me of my favorite aunt and the wonderful things that woman can make on a stove & in an over. Because they make me believe that I really can cook anything if I try….To me cookbooks are worth so much more than the space they take up on my shelf.


50 jHill October 24, 2012 at 11:39 am

i LOVE that your stepmom keeps Bitman’s book in her car.


51 marilee pittman October 24, 2012 at 1:14 pm

Great question! my five would be:
The Silver Palate
Joy of Cooking
The Canadian Living Cookbook
Madhur Jeffrey’s Quick and Easy Indian Cooking
The Land O Lakes Cookbook


52 Shawna Greenway - Brush Dance October 24, 2012 at 5:34 pm

My top 5 that I cannot possibly live without:

Joy of Cooking

Art of Mexican Cooking – Diana Kennedy

Mastering the Art of French Cooking – Julia Childs

Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking – Marcella Hazan

The Pie and Pastry Bible – Rose Levy Beranbaum

But I’m also addicted to Rick Bayless, Nigella Lawson and Jamie Oliver. The green curry recipe in Jamie’s Naked Chef book is a family favorite that I probably make about 5 times a month. I have it memorized by now.


53 Amy October 24, 2012 at 9:31 pm

I have a weakness when it comes to cook books. It is really hard to pick just five, but here goes…

The Silver Palate by Julee Rosso & Sheila Lukins
The Art of Simple Food by Alice Waters
The Silver Spoon
Quick and Easy Indian Cooking by Madhur Jeffrey
Mastering the Art of French Cooking by Julia Child


54 Karen P. October 25, 2012 at 1:26 am

I love Ina Garten’s Barefoot in Paris and Martin Yan’s Quick and Easy. Thanks for the recommendations. Can’t wait to check them out.


55 Justine @ The Lone Home Ranger October 26, 2012 at 4:31 pm

You and I are kindred spirits! I agree with your selections, and there are a few I just added to my library list thanks to you. A few days ago I wrote my own list of 10 cookbooks I love. If I had to narrow that list down to 5, it would have to be:
The Best Recipes in the World by Mark Bittman
Essential Pepin by Jacques Pepin
Local Flavors by Deborah Madison
The Beekman 1802 Cookbook by The Fabulous Beekman Boys
The Barefoot Contessa Cookbook by Ina Garten

Thanks for sharing!


56 Sonya January 6, 2014 at 12:59 am

What a fun post and comments! I use all of my books regularly because I have so few:

The America’s Test Kitchen Family Cookbook
Cooking for Two 2009
King Arthur Flour Whole Grain Baking
The Mixer Bible
Ina Garten’s Barefoot in Paris
Ben & Jerry’s Icecream and Dessert Book

I also love my collection of free “trial” magazines from Cook’s Illustrated and Cook’s Country magazines (15 or so), and I also have a binder with online recipes. I have about 2700 recipes and my goal is to try most of the recipes. It took me five years to get through about half so I figure another five years. I don’t want any new cookbooks because I really want to cook my way through mine. Strange, but I think I can do it because I cook a LOT. :)


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