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The State of Cookbooks: 2010


Chris Amirault
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Some context to get us started.

We have Society member Nathan Myhrvold's epic Modernist Cuisine, which may well change the terrain of cooking as we know it. It's being self-published and costs more than a flight to Paris. (Mine's on order.)

We have Society member Dorie Greenspan's Around My French Table. The genius behind several baking books reports that she still can't use weight in her recipes, just US volume.

Four of the Amazon top ten cookbooks are diet books, one is about something called "cake pops," and Rocco DiSpirito sits in the top spot telling us to Now Eat This -- "this" being "America's Favorite Comfort Foods, All Under 350 Calories." (The cover features a cheeseburger and some mac & cheese -- at least, I think that "cheese" is the correct term....)

What can we make of this and other cookbook publishing phenomena as we head into the end of 2010 and the big buying season? What other data points should we be using? Are you hopeful? Depressed? Jaded?

Chris Amirault

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Modernist Cuisine gives me hope for the future of high-end home cooking as a hobby. The rest? Is that lineup any different than the bestsellers ever are? And remember, most people buying those cookbooks will never cook anything out of them anyway. Most Americans don't cook regularly, or they think that cooking means adding extra cheese to the top of their frozen lasagna. But by the same token, most Americans don't make their own clothes, or build their own furniture, or fix their own cars. Those of us here enjoy cooking, but many don't. I don't see a problem with that.

Chris Hennes
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chennes@egullet.org

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I guess I'm hopeful. If you go back ten years and watch the string, starting with the Keller books, Alinea, Ruhlman's Charcuterie and the like, the new wave of books like McGee (Society friendly link here), Myhrvold, and the Ideas in Food book suggest that home enthusiasts have more and better options than ever before.

Chris Amirault

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Sir Luscious got gator belts and patty melts

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[...]And remember, most people buying those cookbooks will never cook anything out of them anyway. Most Americans don't cook regularly, or they think that cooking means adding extra cheese to the top of their frozen lasagna. But by the same token, most Americans don't make their own clothes, or build their own furniture, or fix their own cars.

Most people in today's societies are specialists. The difference with cooking versus the rest is that no one can reasonably make their own clothes, cars, or furniture. Leather upholstery, airbags, and raw denim are not available at the local Costco.

I do think that most people cook to some extent, even if it is just dried pasta + a can of Prego + cheese in a can once a week. I started cooking in college, because I didn't have anyone cooking for me anymore, and I got tired of eating Taco Hell. Now I spend 20+ hours a week in the kitchen, partially out of love and partially out of necessity. And facing the facts: there's a lot more Americans at home in the kitchen, because they can't afford to eat out five times a week like a decade ago.

Cook books I think are unique compared to self-help and reference books in that one does not have to follow recipes to benefit from the book. Some people indeed follow the recipes to the letter, but there are many, I imagine, who use the books as general rules, or for inspiration. If someone is going to drop $40 on a book that only has 1/4 to 1/2 photos per recipe, I doubt they're buying the book merely for food porn.

I think the forecast for cook books is good, because home cooking interest is growing. There really is a surge of popular interest in cooking, with the success of the Food Network, an Emmy for a cooking show, and cooking competitions on the big networks. More men are cooking, even though less women are cooking, and advertisers like this, because they know that men spend lots and lots of money on their boy toys. Grills were big. Ten years from now: Cuisinart sous vide machines and Betty Crocker Slow Pressure Classics.

As for the immediate state of cook books, I think if Modernist Cuisine actually sells decently, you're going to see a push from publishers for bigger sticker prices. Think of star chefs as the next big brand. Also of note: the push to digital distribution and the fact that Kindle sales, which make of the overwhelming majority of electronic book sales -- are overwhelmingly for fiction titles. Sales in that format are quickly replacing traditional print sales, and digital books have a smaller margin for publishers. The cook book sector is resistant to technofication -- you'll find PDFs (and torrents) available for of virtually every book on the NYT lists, but you'll rarely if ever find a digital version of a cook book for sale. People want to see their food, and barring the iPad, full color hasn't come to the electronic book medium yet.

I think you're going to see more cook books -- more for everyday cooking by home cooks, as well as higher end celebrichef fare -- at higher prices. At least, until they truly go mainstream, which I don't foresee happening any time soon. Men like to cook, but they will always like eating and drinking and watching TV better.

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