What are cookbooks good for? Hope, love and beauty (but not cooking) | Australian food and drink

A novel I once read describes a protagonist as the kind of woman who reads a cookbook in bed. I glance at my bedside and consider the hard covers lying there. Hetty McKinnon. Anna Jones. Alison Romain. Aren’t these the great writers of our time? Steinbeck sits under a glass of water; the essential and reliable storyteller and coaster. But for everyday practical beauty, for hope, for love, for mind-altering advice, it was always cookbooks.

My library is full of excellent advice: the stories, the instructions and the voluminous volumes of the profession and the passion that I have chosen. My grandmother, Margaret Fulton, – who sold 1.5 million copies of her first cookbook and wrote about 20 others, as well as countless mini-books and magazines – gave me a day explained why she had chosen the profession. I’m paraphrasing: once you’ve discovered something truly magical and practical, it’s impossible not to want to share it with people who you can see could really use some help.

Cookbooks – and by that I mean a collection of recipes that have been triple tested, edited, verified and dreamed up by their author, handed down by an editor and publisher, remade by a recipe tester, thoughtfully compiled and meticulously in a useful way and, perhaps less importantly, printed on paper – is what my family does. My mother, Suzanne Gibbs, is a cook and food writer at London’s Cordon Bleu who wrote books in her twenties; my sister, Louise Keats, wrote at least a handful. Announcements of a new cookbook deal at my house get a partially attentive nod, the kind of recognition you’d get in another family if you’d gone to the supermarket that day. It’s not news, exactly, and it’s definitely less interesting than telling the table that you have a new kvass recipe and asking if anyone would like to try it.

The book that started it all: The Margaret Fulton Cookbook was first published in 1968.

So it is with zero objectivity that I watch the rise, fall and rise of cookbooks in recent history, and I ask: is there a future for them in our kitchens, on our nightstands ?

In October 1961, the New York Times reported that publishers could not keep up with the constant demand for cookbooks. “Until very recently,” journalist June Owen began, “food, especially the dishes served, was not an appropriate topic of conversation at dinner… Today, the situation is reversed. A hostess who spent several hours concocting a complicated bouillabaisse would be shocked if not a single one of his guests complimented it.

The writer had no statistics available, she said, but “publishers report that they can’t get enough good cookbooks. The demand, it is said, is constant… [They] know that the chances of making money are greater on a cookbook than on a novel. People suddenly liked to talk about food, cooking, and the conversation has continued ever since.

Earlier that same year, an almost unknown cook named Julia Child delivered a 726-page manuscript to her publisher, Alfred A Knopf, who said, “I’ll eat my hat if this title sells.” By the end of 1964, Mastering the Art of French Cooking was selling 4,000 copies each month, and by 1969 approximately 600,000 copies had been sold. The book, co-authored with Simone Beck and Louisette Bertholle, helped revolutionize cooking in the United States and sold 1.5 million copies.

Thirty years earlier, Irma Rombauer self-published a collection of her recipes in an effort to support her family after the death of her husband. She could only afford an initial print run of 3,000 copies, and her first instruction to readers at the time was “to stand facing the stove.” Her Joy of Cooking sold 18,000,000 copies.

Nobody’s cookbook sells 4,000 copies a month these days. But that’s not the important statistic. Those who say cookbooks are no longer selling are looking at individual author sales, not total cookbook sales. When Julia, Irma and Margaret wrote their books, they were groundbreaking authors, blazing new trails with the backing, eventually, of huge marketing budgets from publishing houses. And there wasn’t – from year to year – a lot of competition. Individual authors rarely/never hit those numbers now, of course. But the appetite for cookbooks has only grown since the 1970s. In 2017, an estimated 17.8 million cookbooks were sold in the United States alone.

Data from Nielsen BookScan shows that cookbook sales in the United States increased 8% year-on-year between 2010 and 2020, as sales figures were further boosted by the pandemic.

However, we don’t usually cook from cookbooks.

Woman reading a cookbook and stirring a bowl full of liquid
A top publisher says if a reader cooks just two recipes from a cookbook, it’s considered a success. Photo: Tetra Images/Getty Images

Toxic recipes and pristine pages

A very experienced editor at a large publishing house once told me that it was considered a good thing – a great success, even – if the consumer cooked two recipes from a cookbook that they he was buying. Of them! I love cookbooks and I have loads of them – over a hundred (I pick them up regularly). But I don’t cook every night from these books; I don’t even cook from all those books. There are some that I have never technically cooked a recipe for. It’s absurd.

In her history of British cookbooks, Culinary Pleasures, Nicola Humble includes a relevant story from the 1940s when a magazine inadvertently published a recipe with a combination of deadly poisonous ingredients. She doesn’t go into detail about what it might have been – rhubarb leaf stew? Leftover rice dish with sautéed fall skullcap mushrooms? Undoubtedly in shock, editors tipped off the police and desperately tried to recall copies, then anxiously awaited reports of people falling ill. They waited…and waited. But none came. The editors could only conclude that none of their readers had actually cooked from the recipe.

Fans used to approach my grandmother, Margaret, at events or book signings, professing their adoration and proudly displaying their original 1969 yellow-bound Margaret Fulton Cookbook. They told stories about the book’s place in their hearts – it had been given to them when they left home, or when they got married, or it had been passed down through two generations. Margaret smiled softly and flipped through the pages as if looking for something. Then, often, she would close the book tightly and smirk at them (I say “up” because she was usually seated, but she was also just over five feet tall). “You have never cooked from this book. Where are the splatters, the kitchen markings, the glued pages?

But her books were loved and treasured — even if sometimes uncooked — so she signed autographs anyway.

But cooking from recipes we must. It’s the only way the food you cook will stop tasting like the food you’ve always cooked. By using higher quality ingredients, following the recipe is the only way to be delicious.

My grandmother also said this: “I tell people to cook the onions until they are soft and translucent. When they don’t, I have to shrug my shoulders and tell them, well, I told you so. They think they know better than the professional cook. Once you’ve mastered the expert way, Margaret advised, add your own spin, but go back to the original every now and then to make sure you haven’t gone completely off the rails.

A close friend of mine—and self-proclaimed “average cook,” author Meg Mason—hilariously wrote in Delicious magazine about the patience of recipe followers:

The cold fact is that no matter what new dish we turn to, it will eventually taste and taste like anything we’ve ever made. It’s truly remarkable that with enough weekday iterations, the average chef’s spicy Asian chicken becomes almost indistinguishable from their sausage pasta. I tried to figure out the moment in a recipe when things start to go wrong for us… The answer is: right away.

Cover of Griffith Review 78: A Matter of Taste

So if people aren’t cooking from the cookbooks they buy, what are they doing? They fantasize, in part. They imagine dinners and beautiful encounters, the laid table and the captivating conversation. It’s the same reason we buy Vogue, even though we never consider taking our Birkenstocks off. That’s why we buy home improvement magazines even though we can barely afford our rent. I’m also unlikely to ever roll my beef in truffles and pastry that I click on “Add to basket” for an Eames recliner in white leather… but a girl can dream.

About Nicole Harmon

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