Who needs cookbooks?
As a food journalist I own a lot of books about food. What often surprises people, however, is that I don’t own too many cookery books. Recently on this blog Dan Lepard asked what we wanted from such instructional tomes, the gist being we seem to want lifestyle, not recipes.
Indeed, the recipe count in most cookery books seems to have been falling of late. Rick Stein’s ‘Spain’ contains 140 recipes on 320 pages, while Jamie Oliver’s forthcoming ‘Great Britain’, has 130 recipes also on 320 pages. Compare this to around 180 on 250 pages for his debut ‘The Naked Chef’ way back in 1999. Going back further sees ‘Restaurant Dishes of the World’ by Margaret Fulton (published in 1983) containing around 190 complex recipes on 140 pages, and in the likes of Mrs Beeton there are over a 1000.
But is it always about quantity? Would we ever attempt to ‘complete’ all the recipes in any given cookbook anyway? A quick straw poll of my friends on twitter asking ‘what was the last cookbook you bought and how many recipes have you cooked from it?’ revealed the following:
karen_loasby: Madhur Jaffrey, Curry Easy. Zero recipes
miss_ingredient: Ottolenghi’s ‘Plenty’. 4 recipes so far
BigSpud: Jamie 30 min meals, about 20
I reckon on average we attempt around 10 to 15% of the recipes in any given book, which rather begs the question why are we buying them?
Perhaps the problem is too many cookbooks spoiling the broth? When we want a pork recipe, we have to open each book and search its index. That’s rather time consuming when you’ve got even a moderate collection of books. So much so in fact that a service called eatyourbooks.com has sprung up which lets you search online in the indexes of books you own for $25 a year.
These days we get recipes from a myriad of different sources, not just cookery books, and the biggest provider is the internet. Recipe searches make up such a large part of Google’s traffic that they launched a dedicated recipe searching page – arguably a good or a bad thing. Smart phone and tablet apps are another area of growth. Nearly all Food media personalities have some form of cooking app out now.
Another approach is to catch us when we’re doing our weekly shop. The Delia & Heston campaign for Waitrose goes for the retail jugular with wipe-down cards right next to the ingredients you need. The rise of the food blogger has shaken things up considerably too. Plus there are the food magazines from both the BBC and other publishers.
Is the cookery book doomed?
So facing old enemies like TV shows and glossy magazines, as well as new foes like e-books, smart phone apps and websites, it would seem the writing is on the wall for cookery books. And yet... Jamie Oliver’s ‘30-Minute Meals’ was the fasting selling non-fiction book ever.
Silvia Crompton, Senior Editor at Random House Books thinks there is always a place for big names in the cookery book space. Like the top of the Premiership, it’s the familiar faces out in front, the ‘first name only club’: Gordon, Hugh, Nigella, Heston, Delia... The gap between their books and other food books is huge.
"However that’s not to say that new books can’t break through" she adds. "Hummingbird Bakery did well without TV show support", catching as it did the perfect cupcake wave in 2008. Silvia believes that lifestyle will remain big part of cookery books. "When you read something like Nigel Slater's Kitchen Diaries, you’re buying into Nigel’s philosophy, not just following a recipe."
Most cookery books seem to have left the kitchen table and taken up home on the coffee table. They’re almost too big or precious to use in the kitchen now. Chef Andrew Pern’s lovely book ‘Black Pudding & Fois Gras’ has a suede cover, while Heston’s ‘The Big Fat Duck Cookbook’ costs over £100. No splashes of grease on these beauties!
However publishers, such as Quadrille, are signing up food bloggers for their ‘new voices in food writing’ series, proving that a book deal is still something to covet and that there’s still a market for it.
As to what the future will look like, well maybe we’ll all become publishers in our own right using services like Lulu to print our own cookbooks as some people are already doing. Or perhaps we’ll all have e-book readers in the kitchen, and the printed book will go the way of the illuminated manuscript? Maybe future TV shows will let your smart TV talk wirelessly to your wi-fi printer and print all the recipes out as the credits roll. Who knows? I do know however that the future rarely turns out as people predict.
In the meantime, let us know if you prefer cookbooks, apps or recipes printed off the internet. Also have you ever cooked everything from one cookery book? Please write in the comments box below.
Andrew Webb is a writer and food journalist.