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Hopleaf

Cookbook reviews

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I don't know about trends, but I've noticed that there's a cookbook review section now (in Chicago).  I'd like to see more of that, cuz right now it runs a little hot and cold.  Sometimes they review a new cookbook, other times they just don't have anything on cookbooks.  There's always new cookbooks coming out and reading reviews helps me decide whether or not to even bother getting it.  This section could also review food writing, anthologies, new books about travel and food, etc.

How do you handle this?

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We run cookbook reviews, when we have space, so it’s really not a regular feature and we wish we had the space to run more of them. I think it’s a huge reader service, and we’re in a great position to provide this service, since we see dozens of  cookbooks every week and many of them are expensive. (By the way, there are many good  cookbooks but whoa boy are there some bad ones: I got three copies of “The Classic Zucchini Cookbook” this week. Trees died to print this book!)

We’ve come up with a standard format, a sort of report card for these reviews: Book and Author; ; and Who Would Use This Book. We try to give you background on the author, tell you how the book is arranged (by technique, by menu course, haphazardly, etc.) then help you target whether the book is right for your level of expertise. We also run a few sample recipes from the book, and we choose them carefully so that they are really representative of the type of recipe within the book’s covers. We hope that steers readers toward  a book that matches their interests and talents. We sometimes run features on several books: I did a piece last December on the annual cookbook collections of food magazines:  Saveur, Gourmet, Food and Wine, Taste, Bon Appetit and Martha Stewart, so that if you were looking for a holiday gift for someone you could find the book that was right. (The Taste book was abysmal.)

I know that other Food  sections run lists of  best-sellers. I don’t see the value in this.  So what if it’s sold 50,000 copies? The people who bought it won’t find out until they’ve bought it that they’ll wind up scraping $30 of salmon down the drain, as I did with the Martha Stewart annual collection.

I’d love to hear thoughts on this, though. Do you find the lists—without reviews—helpful at all?

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I don't find bestseller lists useful in general, and I certainly wouldn't like to see the Food section devote precious column inches to a list of cookbook bestsellers. I do agree that more cookbook coverage would be nice to see in Food, but I don't think a list of bestsellers is the way to fit it in.

I assume that if you made space for such a thing regularly it'd appear in the "On the Fridge" section, where you place short descriptions of those previously referenced odd gadgets and products you liked and where Tom Sietsema's "Weekly Dish" appears. (I know you changed your format a little recently, and I normally read Food on washingtonpost.com rather than getting the print edition, so I may not be totally on here.) Could you make room for shorter reviews more frequently in this space? I'd appreciate capsules almost as much as I appreciate longer cookbook articles such as the one you ran recently on Diet Simple by Katherine Tallmadge and A New Way to Cook. Do you necessarily have to run a recipe to discuss a cookbook?

I am very interested in reviews of what I call "meta-food" books such as you reference (food writing anthologies, food travel) as well, and would like to see them covered more frequently in the Post. That being said, I don't usually read the Book pages but I wonder if those may be better placed with other book reviews.

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I agree about best-seller lists.  In general, even for fiction those lists are a waste of time, but especially so for cookbooks.  Maybe because I'm more particular than the average cookbook consumer, but I figure what do I care if a book is selling like hotcakes?  Not at all, as it turns out.  

I couldn't find an example of what you were talking about with the cookbook report cards, but at least have a sense of what you're describing (maybe you could post a URL of an example?).  The lists without reviews might be a useful quick reference, if, say, you're running to the bookstore for a last minute gift.  But people that read reviews, be it cookbooks, restaurants, movies, music, are more inclined to read the articles for the breakdown of the thing reviewed.  When I read a book review it reminds me of some of the discussions I was a part of as an English major in college.  I enjoy hearing the good AND the bad about something I'm interested in buying, eating at, or whatever.  

At any rate, you could make a great case to include food writing reviews on a regular basis...something that would include food anthologies (which are such good reading, people need to know!!!), cookbooks, even magazine reviews (though as a daily newspaper, you might be prone to steer clear of reviewing such a close brethren as a monthly), even online food portals (eGullet perhaps  :wink: ).  What do you think, Jeanne?

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Short answer Jeanne--no, I wouldn't find lists of best-selling cookbooks helpful and much prefer your method. That information is readily available elsewhere.

I do think asking local chefs/winemakers/restaurateurs/food pros/readers/politicians/Tony Kornheiser et al what their 5 favorite food books are--and running a list like that occasionally, might be fun and be interesting to a wide swath of readers--with a sentence why each particular book was selected.

A tangent--Jonathan Yardley of Style/Books "reviewed" the recent Barbara Haber book--From Hardtack to Homefries--which dealt with culinary history.  Were you aware he was going to write about it or consulted and given the opportunity to review it in Food--as Charlie Perry in the the LA Times Food section did?

Which review did you prefer?  Link here to Yardley:

http://www.washingtonpost.com/ac2....nd=true

Or do you not really mind if books like this--or Bourdain's Kitchen Confidential--are handled outside of your section?

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These are all very helpful responses and I thank you for them. I had a feeling that the best-seller list was NOT the way to go and, as one of you suggested, shorter reviews, even if they didn't include a recipe, have been part of my plans for a while. Sometimes, too, if we don't have the space, we run a Dinner in XX Minutes from a cookbook we like, in the hope that readers will make note, but that may be too subtle a flag.

Steve: Re Yardley's review: we didn't know it was coming. Sometimes sections coordinate with us and sometimes they don't. In a perfect world, they do. But it's not a perfect world. And weekly sections often get overlooked when the daily is working on a project that tracks over what we are doing or might be doing. It's just a fact of life.

But we actually are doing a small piece about Barbara Haber, that mentions some of the strengths of the book (the Roosevelt White House, for example) that we think our readers might be interested in.

Re coordination in the newsroom: Tom Sietsema and I always let each other know what we're doing, and Eve Zibart too.

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