Many thanks to DeborahDawn for alerting me to Laura Miller’s article in the Wall Street Journal about the puzzling and persistent popularity of cookbooks. I waxed poetic on this very topic just last week, when I asked if Julia Child would tweet (many thanks to those of you who left comments. You made some good points).
Miller draws attention to a new trend in cookbook publishing: narrative-driven cookbooks that are heavy on the story and light on the recipes. New books like Molly Wizenberg’s (aka Orangette) A Homemade Life and David Tanis’ A Platter of Figs are slim volumes that promise selectivity over breadth.
Miller doesn’t really delve into why this new cookbook style is becoming so popular, but I think I know why.
It’s the recipe glut.
I first consciously thought about the recipe glut when I read Calvin Tomkin’s profile of Julia Child in The New Yorker’s book of food writing. Written in 1974, the profile captures how her writing and television shows brought new knowledge and techniques into America’s kitchens. When Mastering the Art of French Cooking was published in 1961, most American women didn’t know how to make an authentic French quiche, or beef bourguignon, or mayonnaise. Julia Child opened their eyes to a new way of cooking, and she brought them recipes that they previously didn’t have access to.
Fifty years later, if I google “mayonnaise recipe,” I get 304,000 results.
The truth is, these days we’re drowning in recipes – from food magazines, from television, from blogs (yes, even this one), and even from Twitter. We’re on recipe overload. And while I love that I can go to Epicurious or All Recipes and find twenty different recipes for chocolate frosting, I also hate taking an hour to pick though each one, read the comments, and, hopefully, pick the best one. We have so many recipes, but when it comes to making the best chocolate frosting, it’s still a crap shoot.
Enter the food memoir. The pared down, memoir-style cookbook is a solution of sorts to the recipe glut. Each recipe is chosen with love and care, dressed in layers of personal story and history. These cookbooks promise what we’re really looking for – the best recipes, the only one you’ll ever need, no searching through comments or star ratings required.
I think the Tipsy Baker’s sister summed it up best, when she was critiquing the overwhelming nature of Mark Bittman’s How To Cook Everything Vegetarian:
“I don’t want cream soup with fifty variations. I want him to tell me which is the most delicious so I can make THAT one.”