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Cookbooks: Why We Don’t Read Them and Why We Should

Updated: Apr 23, 2019

It was a Friday night when my mom called, and I was in my stretchiest pair of pants reading Gourmet’s 60th anniversary cookbook, edited by my favorite author, Ruth Reichl. My mother chuckled, unable to believe that was how I chose to spend the beginning of my weekend. You’re twenty-one years old and it’s a Friday night in New York City. Yeah, what’s your point?

While I did understand that most people my age probably had more traditionally exciting weekend plans, I spent some time stomping around and refusing to admit defeat before accepting that perhaps I was a generational outlier. Of course, not all of my friends’ interests are as culinarily focused as mine, but I don’t think someone needs to be food-obsessed in order to appreciate the value of a well written cookbook.

Photo by Jaime Wilson

The Problem

In order to confirm my theory, I asked a few friends about their cookbook habits. For the most part, it seems people in our generation—that is, old teenagers and young twenty-somethings—use cookbooks as a tangible version of the internet. Rather than googling a recipe, people find actual books to be somewhat of a more nostalgic, call it 'vintage' way to cook. I started talking with more peers and found this how people, especially in our generation, tend to use cookbooks—it’s a collection of recipes, allowing even the budding adult with a microscopic New York City kitchen to whip up a satisfactory meal.

One recent college grad told me her cooking strategy involves putting sticky notes throughout a cookbook to plan out her weekly meals. She said her main reasoning is that reading a recipe from a book is better than a phone, and I can't argue with that logic. The thing is, when you merely flip through the dishes in any given cookbook, you’re missing a huge piece of the puzzle. Not all cookbooks, but good cookbooks tell a story. They have a beginning, middle, and end, allowing readers to work their way through the entire cooking process. They may start with vegetables and move towards desserts, but they also progress in a narrative. They will not only help you decide what to eat for dinner tonight or tomorrow night, but they will help you learn to cook. If you give a man a fish, you know.

Another friend said she makes her choices based on the personality behind it—‘The cookbooks you buy are the people you’re interested in’. Of course, star status does factor in here—just like how we follow a favorite celebrity’s clothing line, it’s natural to be drawn to purchase Gwenyth Paltrow’s diet in print. I’m certainly guilty of a handful of Hollywood-inspired purchases myself (Yes, I do own Eat Like A Gilmore, and I’m proud of it) but the issue is a lot of these books probably can’t enhance your kitchen skills. They’re writing a cookbook because it seemed like a cool thing to try, which we can’t really fault them for. After all, we’re buying them. But because they’re amateur chefs like the rest of us, a lot of these celebrity cookbooks don’t really have anything unique to offer—I can almost guarantee you’ll find an easy weeknight chicken dish somewhere in there.

The Solution

The first thing is to start buying books that speak to you the way a memoir or historical fiction or murder mystery might—who wrote it? What’s their story? Does it have a pretty cover? That last one’s kind of a joke, but not really. An aesthetically pleasing cookbook can be just as useful as a functional one, plus this helps define the overall style. After all, if it’s more beautifully designed, it’ll probably be easier to flip through. That being said, don’t just flip through it. Start by reading the introduction, or even the back cover. This will give you a hint into what the book is actually about. It’s more than just a collection of recipes to breeze through, so give it a chance to explain how.

Photo by Jaime Wilson

It’s also important to understand that you probably won’t cook every recipe in the book. In fact, you might not even cook half of them. If you do, I’m impressed and you definitely didn’t need this article. What you will do, if you actually sit down and read the book, is get a much more valuable understanding of cooking in general. You’ll get more specific perspectives—what does Southern Cooking really mean to Vivian Howard?— and be able to form your own opinions and cooking style in comparison. You’ll get more comfortable improvising in your own kitchen, with a brain full of ideas and inspiration rather than a strict grocery list and step by step instructions. And if you do need a specific recipe to use up that pound of broccolini that you impulse-purchased last week, well that’s when Google can be your best friend.

When it comes to celebrity books, start finding celebrity chefs you admire. Chances are, they’ll be more insightful into food related matters than your favorite singer. I didn’t buy Mastering The Art of French Cooking only to learn how to make a proper bouillabaisse, but rather because Julia Child is widely considered to be a top tier celebrity in the world of food. Her cooking style and immense knowledge shines through in her book, making it a worthwhile purchase. Sure, it’s also a bit of a status symbol to hang that book on my shelf, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing—Look at me, I’m going to master French cooking too.

Finding The One

So, you’re ready to commit. But finding the right cookbook—a good cookbook—can be a daunting task. Not only are specialty cookbook stores few and far between, but most shelves are saturated with catchy promises of Easy One Pan Dinners and 101 Cookies to Soothe Your Soul. These may satisfy the desire to fluff up a home bookshelf, but they often have little to no long term benefit to your life.

Like shopping for anything, it’s important to do your research here. Look into some chefs and authors whose cooking style you admire, or why maybe live similar lifestyle to your own. As a self-identified scrappy chef, I find Alison Roman’s Dining In to be a perfect supplement to my cooking style. The more experimental home cook may look for a spotlight into a new cuisine. I’ve found Senegal, by Pierre Thiam to strike the perfect balance of cultural context and culinary expertise. If you’re struggling to master the basics, an educational format like Samin Nosrat’s Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat may be the gentle and guided shove you need.

The bottom line, again as with anything, is pay for quality, not quantity. A good way to test this is to ask yourself if you could get the exact same thing online. Do you need a printed version of Tasty’s video archives? Probably not. Could you find 101 sugar cookie recipes with a quick google search? Absolutely. What you most likely can’t get is an in depth history of Senegalese cuisine as it relates to a cultural value for hospitality and community strength. For this, you’ll need to put your phone down and pick up a book.

So if you're thinking about expanding your book collection, or your culinary horizons, don't turn to google. Well, maybe turn to google maps. It may require a bit of digging, but cookbook stores do exist, and I can almost guarantee it's worth making the trip. If you can't find a specialty store, chances are your favorite local bookstore has a cooking section you can pick through—second-hand stores are a great way to find inspiration that's been passed through any number of kitchens. And the next time you're looking for something fun to do on a Friday night in New York City, put on some sweats and start reading.


Cited Books:

Gourmet, Ruth Reichl

Senegal, Pierre Thiam

Mastering the Art of French Cooking, Julia Child

Eat Like A Gilmore, Kristi Carlson

Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat, Samin Nosrat

Dining In, Alison Roman


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