What do we want from our cookbooks?
One famous cookery writer I know, when I grilled her about another famous cook’s latest bestseller, just rolled her eyes and whispered, “I just couldn’t get into it. It has sat by my bedside for a month now and every time I try to read it I give up and go to sleep. Too syrupy and more than I ever cared to know.” But there’s a distinct pressure to write those sorts of books, simply because they sell so well. One agent told me, “forget recipes…no-one’s interested. They can Google for that. What readers want from a cookbook is lifestyle, an enviable homely lifestyle that they might in their dreams aspire to one day”. Ouch.
Instructional or aspirational?
Is that reader you? It was me in my teens and twenties, before the harsher realties of life and its obstacles became glaringly clear, before I’d learned to have patience for my own emerging style. I’d look at Robert Carrier’s Food, Wine and Friends, the grand daddy of all enviable-lifestyle cookery books, and wonder what it’d be like to have both Bianca Jagger and Tina Turner around for lunch - "would they fight? What about their diets?" - thinking that one day, surely, cooking the dishes in Carrier’s book would at the very least put me in the running should they ever find themselves in my suburban hometown with a spare afternoon. Back then life was full of those possibilities…
Today, though my life does have some glamour (despite that Jagger and Turner still haven’t called), the recipes I turn to are more about finding answers than living up to some aspiration. And many of you feel the same. Years ago I wrote a chapter for The Cook’s Book, for a publisher called Dorling Kindersley known for their how-to manuals. You probably haven’t heard of it, there was no TV-tie in, very little magazine or other press, no celebrity names involved. If there was a stealth cookery title that avoided mainstream press detection, that was it. Last month I got the sales figures through: over 440,000 copies in hardback worldwide, for a book that does nothing else than explain, step-by-step, how to cook and bake.
TV chefs Antonio Carluccio and Gennaro Contaldo
Now that’s not meant to happen, but it does and fairly often it seems. Browsing though Amazon’s bestselling cookbooks there are - bobbing just under the big TV names like Antonio Carluccio, Rick Stein and the latest diets - are many steady selling cookbooks that do little more than teach you how to cook or bake. Books on slow-cooking, BBC Good Food magazines’ brilliant 101 series, The River Cottage’s dinky little specialist handbooks... This is at a time when it’s easier than ever to go to a website like this one and pluck a free recipe from the archive.
So what’s it to be? Do you shun celebrity or authority? Do instructional cookbooks seem too hectoring, or are lifestyle-centred books for anyone but you? As more website and blogs offer free recipes, have you discarded books entirely in favour of that online bonanza, or does the paper and glare-less reading make traditional recipe books essential in your kitchen?
Dan Lepard is a food writer for the Guardian and a baking expert.