Essay

Recipe for success

The rise, fall and rise again of cookbooks

A NOVEL I once read described a protagonist as the sort of woman who reads a cookbook in bed. I glance at my bedside and ponder the hardcovers sitting there. Hetty McKinnon. Anna Jones. Alison Roman. Are these not the great writers of our time? Steinbeck lies under a glass of water – the essential, reliable storyteller and coaster. But for practical, everyday beauty, for hope, for love, for mind-changing advice, it was always cookbooks.

Even in my childhood, books involving food interested me the most. In The Story of Little Black Sambo, out of print now because of its obvious racism, a little boy engages angry tigers in a race in circles, a trick that ultimately churns them into ghee. Roald Dahl both enthralled and informed in his books. In Charlie and the Chocolate Factory: ‘Do you know what breakfast cereal is made of? It’s made of all those little curly wooden shavings you find in pencil sharpeners.’ In How Does a Czar Eat Potatoes? by Anne Rose, a Russian peasant tells how his king demands that hot potatoes be fired from a cannon and through an enormous block of butter, so he can catch them in his mouth.

Even now these literary references affect the food I cook. When I laden my children’s vegetables with generous knobs of unsalted butter, I tell them it’s made from tigers and will help them roar. They eat – daintily nibbling asparagus with their fingers from tip to base, challenging each other to green-bean races, spooning peas into wide-open mouths. They’d be thrilled if I fired potatoes at them through a block of butter as big as our house.

Like them, I learned younger than most that butter makes everything taste better. It’s a lesson my grandmother, Margaret Fulton, proverbed, explaining that ‘butter should be spread so thick you can see your teeth marks in it’. She told a few million others this – albeit less quotably – in her first cookbook, The Margaret Fulton Cookbook. I have always trusted, loved, swallowed whole books about food – and it is a fascination that’s never waned.

In my twenties, my idea of a relaxing after-work activity was to read cookbooks in my London basement flat, inspecting the photography, relishing technique and the turns of phrase of Nigella Lawson or Claudia Roden, dog-earing recipes I wanted to try. I returned to Sydney to write about food for delicious, The Sydney Morning Herald, Australian Gourmet Traveller and The Wall Street Journal, among countless others. I wrote recipes and photographed dishes in my miniature apartment, cooked Hainanese chicken three nights in a row, for fun, to get the recipe just right. I’d tell friends, family, anyone of an excellent salmon en croute recipe I’d developed, or how to make the perfect ramen egg. I’d covet a perfected recipe in the way more fashionable friends did camilla and marc.

My bookshelf heaves with excellent advice: the stories, instructions and bulky tomes of my chosen profession and passion. My grandmother – who sold 1.5 million copies of her first cookbook and went on to write twenty-something others, plus countless mini-books and magazine lift-outs – once explained to me why she chose the profession. I paraphrase: Once you discover something truly magical as well as practical, it’s impossible not to want to share that with people who you can see could really use the help.

Cookbooks – and by that I mean a collection of recipes that have been triple tested, edited, checked and dreamed about by their author, passed by an editor and publisher, re-cooked by a recipe tester, compiled thoughtfully and painstakingly in a helpful way and, perhaps less importantly, printed on paper – are what my family does. My mother, Suzanne Gibbs, is a London Cordon Bleu cook and food editor who has written twenty-something books; my sister, Louise Keats, has written at least a handful. Announcements of a new cookbook deal at my place get a partially attentive nod, the kind of acknowledgement you’d get in another family if you’d been to the supermarket that day. It’s not ‘news’, exactly, and it’s markedly less interesting than telling the table you have a new kvass recipe and asking if anyone would like to try it.

It’s not that we don’t get excited by cookbooks. My mother and I spent two weeks trying recipe after recipe from Danielle Alvarez’s Always Add Lemon recently, texting and calling each other as we returned again and again to her inspiration. ‘The flaky pastry,’ my mother texted me. ‘It’s excellent. You can do it with your apple pie for the kids.’ Food – and the beautiful cookbooks we constantly reference – is not just our love language. It’s what we mostly talk about.

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

 

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 a proper subject for conversation at dinner… Today, the situation is reversed. A hostess who has spent several hours concocting a complicated bouillabaisse would be crushed if not a single one of her dinner guests complimented her on it.’ The writer didn’t have statistics available, she said, but ‘publishers report that they cannot get enough good books on cooking. The demand, they say, is constant… [They] know that the chances of making money are greater on a cookbook than on a novel.’ People suddenly liked talking about food, about cooking, and the conversation has continued ever since.

Earlier that same year, an almost unknown cook called Julia Child handed a 726-page manuscript to her publisher, Alfred A Knopf, who declared: ‘I’ll eat my hat if that title sells.’ By the end of 1964 Mastering the Art of French Cooking was selling 4,000 copies each month, and by 1969 about 600,000 copies had sold. The book, co-authored with Simone Beck and Louisette Bertholle, helped revolutionise cooking in the United States and went on to sell 1.5 million copies.

Thirty years earlier, Irma Rombauer self-published a collection of her recipes in a bid to provide for her family after her husband died. She could only afford an initial printing of 3,000 copies, and her first instruction for readers of the day was ‘stand facing the stove’. Her Joy of Cooking went on to sell 18,000,000 copies.

Nobody’s cookbook sells 4,000 copies a month these days. But that is not the important statistic. Those who say cookbooks don’t sell anymore are looking at individual author sales, not total cookbook sales. When Julia, Irma and Margaret wrote their books, they were groundbreaking authors, forging new paths with the backing, eventually, of huge publishing-house marketing budgets. And there was not – year by year – much competition. Individual authors rarely-slash-never hit these numbers now, sure. But the appetite for cookbooks has only grown since the 1970s. In 2017 roughly 17.8 million cookbooks were sold in the US alone.

Nielsen BookScan data shows that cookbook sales in the US grew 8 per cent year-on-year between 2010 and 2020, and sales were boosted even further by the pandemic.

Lockdown had us coddling sourdough starters from work-from-home desks, learning to bake and nurturing windowsill vegetable patches with all our spare, isolated time. We were trussing chickens and making stock from scratch, learning skills that historically fall under ‘grandmother’s’ charge. It was a nostalgic back-to-basics kind of time. We watched Gordon Ramsay, Jamie Oliver and Andrew Rea on YouTube; we listened to cooking podcasts – I even launched my own, Dish with Kate Gibbs – and we bought cookbooks. 

We don’t usually, however, actually cook from cookbooks.     

 

A VERY SENIOR editor in a top publishing house once told me that it is considered good going – a downright success, even – if the consumer cooks two recipes from a cookbook they buy. Two! I love cookbooks and I own an awful lot of them – more than one hundred (I cull regularly). But I do not cook from these books every night; I do not even cook from all these books. There are some I have never technically cooked a recipe from. It’s absurd.

In her history of British cookbooks, Culinary Pleasures, Nicola Humble includes a pertinent story from the 1940s when a magazine inadvertently published a recipe with a fatally poisonous combination of ingredients. She doesn’t go into detail on what that might have been – a rhubarb leaf stew? A leftover rice dish involving sautéed autumn skullcap mushrooms? No doubt reeling, the editors notified the police and desperately tried to recall copies, then waited anxiously for reports of people falling ill. They waited…and waited. But none came. The editors could only conclude that not one 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 presenting their 1969 yellow-bound original of The Margaret Fulton Cookbook. They’d tell stories about the book’s place in their hearts – it had been given to them when they moved out of home, or when they’d married, or it had been passed through two generations. Margaret would smile sweetly and flick through the pages as though looking for something. Then, often, she would close the book firmly and look mock-crossly up at them (I say ‘up’ because she was usually seated, but was also only just over five-foot-tall). ‘You’ve never cooked from this book. Where are the splatters, the markings of the kitchen, the stuck-together pages?’

But her books were loved and treasured – albeit very occasionally uncooked from – so she autographed anyway.

But cook from recipes we must. It’s the only way the food you cook will stop tasting like the food you’ve always cooked. Using better quality ingredients aside, following the recipe is the only way to deliciousness. My grandmother used to say this also: ‘I tell people to cook the onions until soft and translucent. When they do not, I have to shrug and tell them, well, I told you so. They think they know better than the professional cook.’ Once you have mastered the expert’s way, advised Margaret, add your own spin, but come back to the original every now and then to make sure you haven’t steered completely off course.

A best friend of mine – and self-described ‘average cook’, author Meg Mason – wrote hilariously in delicious magazine about the patience of recipe followers:

The cold fact is no matter what new dish we turn a hand to, eventually it will come to taste and look like everything else we’ve ever made. It’s remarkable, really, that given enough weeknight iterations, the middling chef’s spicy Asian chicken becomes almost indistinguishable from their sausagey pasta. I’ve tried to work out the point in a recipe when things start to go off course for us…The answer is: right away. Really, from the moment we realise the chicken should have been marinating since yesterday. We’ve fallen at the first hurdle, and so the substitutions begin. Instead of wasting good tenderloins, why not use up the mince from the weekend that’s nearly on the turn? Next, we’re meant to sauté the onions on a low heat for ten minutes, until translucent. Ten minutes? No. That’s a silly amount of time just on onions, with an ironing pile like the one upstairs.

Then there is the problem of us cooks and readers losing faith in recipe writers. Too many flopped soufflés and underdone pie crusts, ghastly chicken and apricot concoctions the author promised would be delicious. In 1997, following the publication of the first River Cafe Cook Book, a minor scandal erupted. The recipe for chocolate nemesis – a flourless cake that is baked until set in a bain marie – appeared not to work. Many precocious home cooks reported that their best efforts resulted only in a warm puddle that spread slowly across the plates of their guests – and resembled a freshly delivered cow pat.

When questioned on the matter, the author behind the cow pat, the late Rose Gray, insisted the recipe was correct, though challenging, and cooks needed to try it a few times to get it right. Recipes can fail because cooks think they have a better idea of what to do than the actual author, because they mismeasure an ingredient or omit one completely, because something fundamental is broken, such as the oven, or because the recipe said fold not beat furiously. A recipe does not necessarily fail because it takes several times to get right.

Having said that, in 1997 The New York Times reported that the prevalence of errors in cookbooks is the publishing world’s dirty little secret:

The problem is likely to get worse as an industry mired in economic doldrums resorts to cost-cutting, practically guaranteeing less editing and testing before publication. Cookbook editors recognize and, to a degree, expect errors of varying magnitude to pop up and don’t consider it a serious problem.

It is a problem, though. Professional editors – be they in magazines, publishing houses or online – are obsessed with getting it right; making it good. They’re in the business of checking, and so are all the chefs, cooks and writers worth the salt, butter and bread they’re paid. They do get it wrong sometimes, sure, but so do most professions. People in the cookbook industry are not doing it for the money or they’d leave the game. They care about the art, the process, the quality. They want the recipe to work, they want you to buy their new book and to come back for more. There’s a huge amount of pride involved, whether we call it ego or professional integrity. That, right there, is the biggest difference I can think of between cookbooks (and in that I include their more regular, glossy cousins – magazines) and any other forum on which recipes can be found.

 

SO IF PEOPLE are not cooking from the cookbooks they buy, what are they doing with them? They’re fantasising, partly. They’re imagining dinner parties and beautiful gatherings, the table set and the conversation riveting. It’s the same reason why we buy Vogue, even though we never plan to take off our Birkenstocks. It’s why we buy home renovation magazines even though we can barely afford our rent. I’m as unlikely ever to roll my boeuf in truffles and pastry as I am to click ‘Add to Cart’ for a white leather Eames recliner…but a girl can dream.

Reading cookbooks doesn’t just teach us how to debone a chicken. It is why cookbooks continue to occupy a place in our hearts and on our shelves, despite the prevalence and popularity of online recipes. Turn their pages and you see fashions waxing and waning (where once there were spoonfuls of sugar, now there is only a squeeze of lemon and a stern lecture). Social change happens right in front of our eyes: we see the rise of plant-based eating and the resurgence of the tray bakes. We note the soaring niche of health and wellness as humans attempt to take control of what we put in our bodies. Cookbooks – ever on the pulse – help turn our collective new year’s resolutions into a consumer boom. 

The libraries of niche cookbooks now available can push the boundaries of one’s palate – one’s abilities – and, too, widen one’s community beyond the people who eat the food one prepares outwards to the heritage, the history, the cultural story behind the recipes within. A perfect book, for me, is Fuchsia Dunlop’s Sichuan Cookery. The recipes veer from the stunningly simple – such as stir-fried potato slithers with chilli – to the elaborate. After I travelled to rural China while at university, I returned home and sought clarity, explanation, further adventure in her technique. A recipe for fish-fragrant aubergine is so simple and yet so perfect I make it just to undo the monotonous grind of certain days. I love her, I love this food, I love that the process of cooking from this book immerses me in a culture that no restaurant could. I couldn’t replicate this feeling if I searched for her recipes online.

Welcome to the death of cookbooks, they said when the internet seemed poised to ruin print forever. Yes, the digital boom gave us a new avenue through which to find recipes: we scroll and click in search of a Jamie Oliver salad dressing we remember from somewhere, and we ponder what to cook tonight by asking our mate Google. Yet we still buy cookbooks. The reason we do is a close cousin of the digital world: gadgets. We consumers of the twenty-first century love our techy, cooking things. Nothing thrills us more than purchasing, using and, frankly, obsessing over our pressure-cooker-slow-cooker hybrids, our air fryers, our induction cooktops and Thermomixes, our rice cookers and steam ovens. And in a similar way, cookbooks, beautiful and niche and expertly edited, are exactly what we need to feed our fetish for physical objects in the kitchen.

The best cookbooks are not the ones that have won awards, that have a celebrity posing on the cover or that promise to be ‘the only cookbook you’ll ever need’. The best cookbook is the one you use, the one that ignites something within you. The Suzanne Gibbs pressure-cooker book with stuck-together pages, the Yotam Ottolenghi with a grain salad the kids love, the Pippa Middlehurst dumpling book that has you bulk-making chilli sauce for friends. The ones that transport you to China or India, or wherever you want to be in a moment. And the reference books that tweak your capabilities, like the weighty Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat by Samin Nosrat that I plan to take to bed with me tonight.

As someone with an already gluttonous collection, I see a stack of new titles and wonder what they could offer that I won’t already find on my shelves. Then I open one and happily remember: as long as I have a fire to wield and a pot to stir, I’ll want to read new cookbooks.

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