Is there a reason to buy a cookbook today? Can’t we get everything we want from online recipes?
October is National Cookbook Month, a time to peruse book shop shelves and find new ways to prepare the harvest. But today, when we can quickly find a recipe for anything we could possibly want online, do we still need cookbooks? Do they still provide any value whatsoever? And who buys cookbooks these days?
How We Cook Now
As a middle-aged cookbook writer and long-time cookbook collector, I am not the average cookbook purchaser. But I am a cookbook enthusiast, so I did what any self-respecting cook would do, and headed to the local Barnes and Noble book store. There I rummaged the cookbook shelves and observed the other shoppers. My totally unscientific observations:
- This particular store stocks fewer cookbooks than they did ten, or even five, years ago.
- The vegetarian/vegan section has exploded! It used to cover a quarter of one shelf, but now has a whole dedicated section.
- There seems to be (slightly) fewer celebrity chef cookbooks these days, but more celebrity influencer cookbooks.
- Most of the new cookbooks are filled with photos; which indicates that they are either printed overseas, quite expensive, or both.
- There are fewer general cooking cookbooks, and more cookbooks that specialize in one ethnic cuisine, like Italian. Or one eating style, like Paleo. Or one food category, like Bread.
- Appliance cooking rules! Want to know how to use that multi-cooker or air fryer or slow cooker? There are several cookbooks just waiting for you.
- We are all time-crunched, but still need to eat. Many, many, many cookbooks seek to solve this problem with Simple, or Quick, or 5-Ingredient, titles.
- Most cookbook purchasers are still women, but I observed young men, elderly couples, moms with kids, and lots of millennials searching for just the right book.
How Cooking – and Cookbooks – Have Changed
Cookbooks have been around forever. Supposedly the first one was written in 350 B.C. Even ancient Greeks were seeking new and novel ways to prepare dinner. The first U.S. cookbook, American Cookery, was published in 1796.
Most early cookbooks were simply a list of ingredients and a few vague cooking instructions, like my great-grandmother’s old pickle recipes! Luckily, that approach changed at the end of the 19th century when Fannie Farmer opened her cooking school. She advocated standardized measurements – a revolutionary idea!
Since then, cookbooks have become easier to use. One hundred years ago, cookbooks were predominately marketed to homemakers, and included recipes for ingredients we hardly see these days; like fresh game. Although the ingredients changed over the next few decades, as refrigeration and transportation led to supermarkets, most cookbooks remained focused on getting supper on the table. Betty Crocker, Fannie Farmer, and Better Homes and Gardens – all general cookbooks, could be found in almost every home.
But two cultural events in the 1980s changed cookbooks once again. More and more women entered the workplace, so dinner became a meal that had to be fixed quickly. And nutrition science changed how we looked at food. Previously all food was good, we needed enough of it to fuel our body. Now some food was considered bad, – something to limit like eggs or butter, or good – something to substitute instead, like margarine. I still own several cookbooks from this era, they are either Low-Fat something, or use quick ingredients like canned soups and frozen vegetables. Obviously nutrition science continues to evolve and now eggs are good and margarine is bad!
Then came the Celebrity chef. I could rant about this for days, but will try to stifle myself here. I love some celebrity chefs. What I don’t like, is the subtle but pervasive impression that you have to be a chef to fix dinner. That every meal should be a gorgeous collection of fresh ingredients, lovingly prepared via slow roasting or sous vide or grilling on oak planks. Every night. We can’t live up to that. Because when we get home from work at 6pm we just want something to eat!
Thankfully, we seem to be placing chef-worthy meals where they belong – on the weekend. Young people are interested in cooking, and are using today’s new appliances to help guide them. Cookbook sales in the first 6 months of 2018 were up 21% over the same 2017 period. Today’s cookbooks do more than just provide recipes though, they are also a window into a new culture or a new way of eating. Today’s cookbooks tell stories, and stories never go out of style. They don’t supply just the how-to, but also the why, the who, the sense of place, the family story behind the recipe. They bring us into the authors’ homes and share family lore.
My own cookbooks have followed a similar evolution. While my first was a general collection of weeknight dinner recipes – albeit quick and easy – my following books were eating style specific (heart healthy, vegetarian), cooking style specific (Creative Jams and Preserves), and occasion specific (Holiday Gifts from the Kitchen, Food Mixes in a Jar).
Advantages of Buying a Cookbook
Tried and Tested: Published cookbooks have one huge advantage over most online recipes – they are tested. The recipes have been prepared over and over, to make sure that the ingredient amounts and preparation methods work correctly every time.
When you purchase a cookbook, you can be assured that you won’t waste time and money on the recipe. You may not like the end result, perhaps pork sausage with leeks and orange isn’t as good as it sounds, but it will be prepared as the author intended.
Spurs Creativity: A good cookbook also gives you new cooking ideas that you didn’t know you wanted! I originally bought The Moosewood Cookbook for the Cauliflower Marranca recipe, but fell in love with the Stuffed Eggplant, an entrée I hadn’t even considered at the time.
Timeless: Cookbook styles reflect eating styles, but they never “expire.” Although I probably won’t ever prepare Michigan Hash from The Larkin Housewives Cookbook, I could. The recipe may be old-fashioned, but unlike a washing machine repair book from the same era – 1915 – it still works. It can be fun to search old cookbooks and bring a timeless flavor back to today’s dinner table.
Family and Place Connections: I have a Better Homes and Gardens cookbook because my mother always used a Better Homes and Gardens cookbook – and we both still use them over and over. I own a copy of Keep Cooking the Maine Way, not because I like lobster – I don’t – but because I grew up in Maine, eating many of recipes found in the book. Cookbooks connect us to home and family, and help us pass traditions on to the next generation. My daughter-in-law has already requested that I leave her my cookbook collection. No one has asked for my Google recipe search history.
Advantages of Online Recipes
Immediacy: My son once called me from college and said, “We have chicken and milk that need to be used. What can we make?” Today, when the milk is going bad, he does an online search using his phone. When we want a recipe idea, and we want it fast, the world wide web is the place to go. No thumbing through books hunting for something to do with excess broccoli, a search engine finds millions of broccoli recipes in seconds. Of course, some of these recipes may not work, depending on the source, but we will definitely find something to make, using the ingredients we have at home.
Plethora: It’s safe to say that I own more cookbooks than the average person. My cookbooks have their own 6-shelf bookcase, and spill over to other bookcases and boxes throughout the house. And over the years, I have given away even more cookbooks than I currently own. But my recipe collection doesn’t compare to online collections. In many ways, online recipes now serve the same function as those earlier cookbooks – they provide a basic how-to – information for a particular reason without the stories of today’s cookbooks.
So, do we still need cookbooks?
Perhaps we never truly needed a cookbook. After all, one seldom dies from a boring dinner repertoire.
But cookbooks still feed our need to experiment, to explore new tastes and sensations, even to learn about how other people live. Cookbooks connect us to family, to home, to new adventures. The recipes change, the cooking methods change, the ingredients change, the stories and purposes change, but cookbooks continue to fill our shelves.
After all, if something has been around for over 2300 years, I would say it’s still useful and desired. So, celebrate National Cookbook Month. Go buy a cookbook today!