The Survival of the Cookbook


Nearly two years ago, on this blog, I posted an entry entitled: Do we cook more in a recession? What about the sale of cookbooks? At the time, the United States was being hit quite hard by the recession and I posed the question as to whether the average household would cook more during that time, and when doing so, is a hard copy cookbook the recipe location of choice. I didn’t exactly come to an overall conclusion, but I did site an article stating that cookbook sales were doing well in 2008 and I’ve come across a few mentions of recent sales being quite good compared to other sectors of the book industry. The question remains: can cookbooks survive versus the onslaught of the e-reader (kindle and nook) and tablets like the iPad? Will online blogs (like my own) and other online recipe sources make at cookbooks obsolete? Simply put, no.

When I stare into my refrigerator at my fresh ingredients and then scan my cupboard at the dry ones, I soon find myself picking up a few cookbooks, flipping to the index and seeing what is there. Soon after that, I’ll hop over to my laptop, toss in similar words to google and see what that gives me. Usually the combination of an online recipe, something Mark Bittman wrote in his cookbook and a little improvisation is what I’ll cook. I find that using actual cookbook is helpful in developing an idea from a tried and true recipe. When I go online and look at epicurious or the multitude of food blogs I follow, I am usually greeted with a picture of dish in question. This is something that can’t be ignored. While most cookbooks lack color pictures of recipes they provide, most all blogs (like this one) have a picture of the success, or failure, of the recipe in question. Seeing is often believing. If I know what I’m trying to achieve, in more than just words, then I find myself using that recipe.

So now this makes it seem that old school cookbooks like The New York Times Cookbook, Julia Childs epic French cookbook, among others, are left to collect dust while I find some random blogger who has made some variation of Childs’ recipe with pictures to prove it. This isn’t so. I find that looking at those recipe in the book provide more concrete proof that a recipe will work, though I don’t always use it, as is. Opening a cookbook and seeing pages splattered with tomato sauce or grease, smudges from a chocolate covered fingertip force me to remember making that recipe before and the real reason I trust cookbooks. Cookbooks also can be passed down, as my first version of the NY Times cookbook was given to be by my mom. She even has a cookbook from my grandma, her mother, that was published in 1947. Recipes and cookbooks alike are often passed on from one generation to the next.

Taking various recipes and melding them into one new recipe might be a risk, but isn’t that what cooking is about? I doubt I ever would have had truffle foam or restaurant made “pop rocks” if it weren’t for risks. For those home cooks who do take risks, there are plenty that like to stick to recipes as they come, and there is nothing wrong with that either. I think for those cooks, using cookbook recipes might be the method of choice, though I think that using online sources will slowly move their way into their repertoire.

I have mentioned cookbooks and blogs, but what about magazines like Bon Appetit or Gourmet. Cooking magazines are usually the best of both worlds. Recipes in print, in your hands, and have tons of pictures to go along with them. That being the case, you might think that cooking mags will be here to stay. However, Gourmet is no longer in print, but is now in archive form on epicurious. In general, newspapers and magazines subscriptions are down, partly due to the e-readers and tablets mentioned above. A friend recently pointed out, many Bon Appetit recipes these days are very complex, requiring hours, if not half a day, of cooking. Definitely not recipes for a quick meal. My mom also has a 2 paragraph rule. If a cookbook recipe requires more than two paragraphs, its probably too complicated and will take too long to make.  Another problem with magazines is that they have limited recipes and would require saving lots of them to keep all the recipes. So maybe the magazine recipe as something used all the time for cooking may not be the answer.

While I think it is difficult to determine whether cookbooks will eventually be phased out, there are plenty of reasons for keeping them around. For one, they look nice on your book shelf and are something that can be collected. It is a lot more difficult to display all the bookmarks you’ve made in Internet Explorer for recipes you like. Collecting books, specifically cookbooks isn’t for everyone, but having a nice collection of cookbooks that range from sauce books, to vegetarian to desserts is something that is hard to ignore.  More cookbooks have added pictures to their pages, trying to get readers to drool over recipes like they might on foodgawker or other food porn websites.

Of course the main problem with these cookbooks is that they cost money. Isn’t that what is is all about? If someone can just watch Rachel Ray (god forbid) cook some beef stew and then go to and get it for free, why would they want to buy a cookbook (aside from the fact that her recipes aren’t particularly good)? Nostalgia? Book collecting? Wanting to have every possible recipe in every possible format? I guess I’m not sure, though I can tell you that I wont stop buying cookbooks and I wont stop posting on this website. Cookbooks serve a great purpose and are usually precious to the owner. I’ve found myself giving away old books to charity, though I never give up my cookbooks.

About Evan Halperin

I like to eat. I like to cook. I like to eat what I cook. Now, I will share with you what I like to cook. My wife and I may be a vegetarian and a carnivore, but it doesn’t mean we can’t cook a nice meal with both, without compromising taste. I will share my creative meals of the Carnivore and the Vegetarian.
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