Literary Hub

Cookbooks Are So Much More Than Recipes and Photographs

I recently came upon a copy of the first US edition of Elizabeth David’s 1951 cookbook, French Country Cooking. Written soon after the end of World War II, as rationing in the UK was coming to an end, the sense of discovery is still present on every page. But like Mastering the Art of French Cooking, co-authored by Julia Child, Simone Beck and Louisette Bertholle, Erma Rombauer’s The Joy of Cooking or Marcella Hazan’s The Classic Italian Cookbook, among others, that provided several generations of cooks, amateur and professional alike, with the knowledge that is a stepping stone to a life of cooking, it offers recipes, instruction, and some basic cultural context but no pictures, no travelogue, no personal stories of cooking or enjoying meals with friends and family, no broader cultural commentary. So different from the cookbooks of today, books that, in addition to providing recipes and instructions on technique and ingredients, often have story, narrative, intended to illuminate a recipe or a culture or context, to be read as personal essay, coffee table book, travel and lifestyle book.

As a longtime home cook and cookbook lover, I have observed this evolution without really stepping back to analyze how cookbooks have changed over the past several decades. When I did, I could think of no better person to speak to than Matt Sartwell, the manager of the New York bookstore, Kitchen Arts and Letters. Kitchen Arts and Letters stocks some 12,000 books about food and drink, including 8,000 cookbooks, and has been a precious resource for food professionals and home cooks alike for more than 30 years.

The most obvious difference, Sartwell told me, is that, with some notable exceptions, even the most practical of cookbooks have, “a strong visual element, made more possible and less expensive by color printing, the fact that everybody now has a camera that doesn’t require film.”

That may be the most obvious difference, but not the most important. “People want something larger than a recipe collection,” Sartwell observes, they “want a voice and an authority.” Not so different from other books.

Some of the authors of cookbooks we grew up on allowed their voices to be heard—the American author Laurie Colwin for example (although her books were more essay with recipes) or the English writer Patience Gray (who described one of her books as an “autobiographical cookery book”). And some writers today stick pretty much to the recipe. But even books that seem more purely instructional, such as David Tanis’s A Platter of Figs, often go beyond recipe. As Tanis describes, “[T]his is a book about eating as much as it is about cooking. About eating with friends—and cooking for friends—and why that matters so much.”

If the author brings personal elements into the book in an elegant and entertaining way, the book can become memoir through food.

Today’s readers are drawn to an authentic voice—it may be fun, it may be conversational, it may be more formal, but the author’s voice must come through.

Michael Smith, the chef and co-owner of the Inn at Bay Fortune on Prince Edward Island, Canada, a place known across Canada and beyond for its open fire “Feast”, made with ingredients from the farm at the Inn or on the island, has written ten cookbooks. Smith is also an avid reader and is thoughtful about books and writing. He describes his books as “conversational,” intended, he told me, “to bring the reader into the recipe.”

Gilbert Pilgram, the executive chef and owner of San Francisco’s Zuni Café, favors books by authors speaking in their own voices, like Cal Peternell, a Chez Panisse alum, whose first cookbook, Twelve Recipes, Pilgram describes as “brilliant, written in fun voice.” For Alex Saggiomo, a New York based CIA-graduate who has an extensive collection of cookbooks and who currently works and has written recipes for Blue Apron, the author must offer something unique, in a voice that allows the reader to be lost in the recipe, to enjoy the experience, not just the instruction.

A good example of this, says Sartwell, is Melissa Clark, who brings her personal voice to her books, as well as to her columns in The New York Times, engaging the reader from the start. Her book, In the Kitchen with a Good Appetite, is great for everyday recipes, ideas, and variations on ideas. It does not have the kind of visuals many books today have, but she pulls the reader in by opening with a family food story and builds that relationship with food stories woven throughout the book.

The balance between the personal, the narrative, and the delivery of the recipe or instruction is a delicate one. Readers do not necessarily need or want the story of every ingredient, or to know where every element of the recipe was developed or even whether the author’s grandmother taught them to make the dish. Like the contemporary restaurant menu, it is possible to provide too much information or detail that does not add to the reader’s understanding and enjoyment.

If the author writes well and illuminates the culture around the dish, I am happy to spend hours poring over it. And if the author brings personal elements into the book in an elegant and entertaining way, the book can become memoir through food, personal essay, and that can be wonderful as well, though even more difficult to pull off.

While an authentic and engaging voice is important, perhaps above all, the author must have and project authority, a thorough knowledge and competency. This has not changed much over the past few decades. Without authority, there is no book. Or at least no book worth reading—or using for that matter.

There are books, often more than one, about many, but not all, cuisines in the world, stretching from Europe to the Americas to Asia.

I was a bit surprised to learn that the biggest selling book at Kitchen Arts and Letters in 2018 was The Noma Guide to Fermentation by Rene Redzepi and David Zilber. Redzepi is recognized in the food world and among foodies as a genius, and there would likely be an audience for the book based solely on his reputation at his Copenhagen restaurant Noma, but it is also meticulously researched, tested, everything you need to know about fermentation and much more. It is not so much voice, but authority that compels people to buy it.

Authority today can be relatively specific. As Matt Sartwell points out, no one would mistake a Thomas Keller cookbook for a book on weeknight menu planning and 30-minute recipes for a family of four. Nor would Gwyneth Paltrow, to name just one, whose healthy recipes are very well suited to a busy family life, be viewed as an authority on the types of complex dishes for which great chefs like Keller or Joel Robuchon are known. Healthy eating too is its own category. The same goes for Chinese cooking or Peruvian or Indian cuisine.

That specificity reflects another shift in the focus of cookbooks, according to Sartwell, away from the general cookbooks of the past toward the more specialized. As tastes evolve and become broader and more sophisticated, as readers eat more globally and ingredients that were once considered unusual become more available, it is difficult for a single book or even series of books to deliver recipes appealing to all of those tastes. And for the author to establish authority beyond the specific. There are certainly a few exceptions, but for the most part, professionals and home cooks alike look to books in the specific region, style, type of ingredient, for recipes and cooking tips.

There are books, often more than one, about many, but not all, cuisines in the world, stretching from Europe to the Americas to Asia and elsewhere. And within those cuisines there are books devoted to single preparations or ingredients, be it paella, or gnocchi or ramen. Michael Smith currently collects cookbooks focused on open fire cooking. Two recent cookbooks Kitchen Arts and Letters features are a book on gnocchi and a scientific guide to Neapolitan pizza making. Such books offer obvious benefits to culinary professionals, but even home cooks, with backyard pizza ovens and cryovac machines, are buying them up.

What about the visual elements, the photographs or drawings of the food, the kitchen, the countryside or city streets that at their best convey not only the beauty of the food, but its context and culture? Images are so common, even expected, according to Sartwell, that there are “plenty of people who won’t buy a cookbook that doesn’t have lots of images and people who won’t buy a cookbook that doesn’t have a picture for every recipe.”

A picture accompanying a recipe, suggests Alex Saggiamo, is used by readers as a point of comparison, a “measuring stick.”

Gilbert Pilgram told me he thinks pictures give people comfort, that readers are nurtured by images that provide the opportunity to imagine or enjoy the convivial dining experience or at least an idealized version of that experience, the experience described by David Tanis.

Beyond the recipes and the glimpse into the mind of the chefs, such books can be souvenirs of experiences that are special.

There is something to that as well. But whether cooking from a recipe or just leafing through a cookbook in my favorite reading chair, I am drawn to photographs or drawings that express the aesthetics and art of the food, the experience of preparing and sharing a meal, and that convey the context, the culture, the place food occupies in people’s lives.

One other development that is hard to ignore—the waves of celebrity chef cookbooks that seem to be prominently displayed in restaurants as well as bookstores. I am not talking about cookbooks by celebrities, although some of those can be useful, but books by professional chefs. Most of them are aspirational for the home cook—“aspirational” is a word I heard a lot when asking around—except for the rare weekend warrior, we lack the time, the access to ingredients, the staff of sous chefs, the knife skills, to execute many of the dishes in such books.

It seems obvious why a chef would do such a book. Gilbert Pilgram told me that at certain levels of the business, a cookbook is expected, even a requirement. Every public relations firm in the business, he says, will push a chef to publish—to get the name of your restaurant out there, to separate yourself from the crowd, to expand your audience. A successful cookbook, according to Pilgram, can expand the chef’s reputation, and restaurant, to a national market.

Culinary professionals may buy such books to get into the mind of the chef. Why do home cooks buy such cookbooks? Gilbert Pilgram and Matt Sartwell agree that such books have value only if they include recipes for the dishes and techniques for which the chef is known, not made easier or more accessible for the reader. Home cooks want to see what Thomas Keller or Paul Bocuse or Massimo Bottura is thinking, what makes them different, unique, genius.

And beyond the recipes and the glimpse into the mind of the chefs, such books can be souvenirs of wonderful meals, reminders of dishes, places, and experiences that are special.

There are cookbooks that manage to bridge the gap between the aspirational and the practical, books by professional (or celebrity) chefs that teach, illuminate, lead the home cook to make choices and to own the result.  The Zuni Café Cookbook, by the late Judy Rogers, is one such book. David Tanis has written several in addition to his New York Times columns. Alex Guarnaschelli, whose mother was cookbook editor, and is herself a chef—in fact, an “Iron Chef” as well as a frequent guest on numerous Food Channel shows—has a book on everyday cooking that Matt Sartwell says is particularly attuned to the needs of a busy home chef. And every home cook, and chef, has favorites as well.

So while I still turn to cookbooks for recipes and cooking ideas and instruction, and treasure the sense of discovery that all great cookbooks seem to convey, there is no better souvenir of a trip to a wonderful place, or birthday present, or armchair vacation, than a cookbook with a voice that touches me, drawings or photographs that express and amplify the beauty of the food, describe the culture and food’s place in it, the people who grow it, who make it, and who eat it. And that explores the experience of eating as a communal act.

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