At the recent Cookbook Conference at the Roger Williams Hotel in New York City, I was on a panel that looked at the role of cookbooks in American culture. Jane Lear, a longtime editor at the late lamented Gourmet talked about the meld of fantasy and instruction that made the magazine a hand-book for the elite and made its books aspirational objects for an ever-widening audience. Paul Freedman, Professor of Medieval History at Yale University, took a deep look at the Time Life cookbook series, considering how the series opened the world and began to bring far-flung cuisines to the mid-American table. He noted the underpinnings of fantasy and aspiration that simmered just below the surface of the book’s photography and its recipes. By publishing the text in big, gorgeous books and the recipes in small, spiral-bound, kitchen-friendly volumes, the series all but formalized the two jobs of traditional American cookbooks — to fuel fantasy and to educate. This series, I realized, could be a rough draft for cookbooks in a future where e-books and web content could take the place of the spiral-bound instruction books.
As ever, the two reasons behind owning a cookbook — to display a totem of upward striving and to have a “cooking teacher between two covers” in the kitchen — will, I think, continue to stoke a desire for cookbooks. I looked at today’s cultural context and the possiblilities that technology affords and considered the question “do cookbooks matter?” Below are are some notes from that talk. The video of the panel can be found here.
Many things about cookbooks have not changed. From the very beginning of American cookbooks, the writer has been either a guide or a teacher or a performer. The only thing different today is that there’s more performance and less teaching. So that underlies a lot of how we look at cookbooks, and experience cookbooks, today.
Otherwise, cookbooks remain class markers, which I thinks means there’s going to be a continued reason for real books, as opposed to only virtual books. And the reason there is room for a real book, is: the book is not so much a textbook as it is a badge of belonging to a particular club, and a particular strata of society (or the aspiration to that particular club or that particular society).
Class signals are always about distinction. Deep in the tidy and affordable “Crate and Barrel,” at the time when the main ingredient we see in a book like The United States of Arugula is now sold at Walmart, the class signals are increasingly about “the dirty life,” “the nasty bits,” and the “raw” (as opposed to the “cooked”) in terms of writing style, imagery, and even recipes. If not “raw,” then at the very least, the ingredient is responsive, and codified recipes are for “the lesser.” The elite do not use a codified recipe, increasingly. There are reasons for that.
Innards are not about being 50 cents on the chitlins circuit, but are rather about pop-up butchering events, such as The Blind Pig dinners in North Carolina, where people pay three to five hundred dollars to get bloody. One’s ability to endure a chile pepper was a measure of fearlessness when I began writing about food; now it’s about blood, guts, and innards. This is intimately connected to travel adventure and to land ownership, each of which is a signal of distinction. One thinks of books like Seven Fires and The Nasty Bits.
But more than conventionally published work, we think of an event-driven blog. If you spend an hour or so cruising around, you’ll see a whole lot of “I killed a cow and got kinky with somebody (not my husband)” as a subtext of a lot of these event driven blogs. The privilege of eating lower on the hog or the cow is a subtle one. It’s about “conspicuous competence,” being able to afford to learn butchering, as well as the detailed minutia of cleaning and cooking these delicacies, having the disposable time to travel to spots where such cuts are traditionally celebrated, and therefore develop an appreciation for them, and perhaps most of all, possessing the intellectual and sort-of psycho-sexual privilege inherent in the permission to bloody the Crate and Barrel linens.
All of this adds up to a certain view of the universe. And as always, we see cookbooks as offering up a counterbalance to reality. So rather than our Crate and Barrel decor, our ABC carpets, our “just enough of something from the Paris flea market to be interesting,” we’re now seeing more chaos being brought into the home. Simultaneously, we’re looking at cookbooks to order our lives and say, “Life is so chaotic. If you do this, you can at least be ordered. You can at least manage this much…be in control of this much.” To the sense of getting home from a very structured life- work life- in which there’s very little room for individual choice to a place that looks more like the farm my father grew up on in Nebraska than it does a city apartment. That’s been a big shift.
In short, the food signals, the class signals we see today reflect the alienation from what’s real. The yearning to return to something that is real. The sense that real is not tidy. It’s predicated on conspicuous consumption, but also on leisure and education. And a highly changed media. It’s easier to contend with the arch of a butcher’s knife to the throat of a steer on YouTube than it is in a coffee table book.
I’d like to just talk a tiny little bit about the two basic schools of cookery, of cookbooks that we’re seeing reflected today. One, as usual, is “the cheerful guide cookbook.” “Hi! Just get on my wagon and I will teach you how to feed your family, how to create a life that is genteel, and admirable, and rather predictable. And how to give a good dinner party. And how to shop at a Farmer’s Market.” That’s one form of cookbook that we’re very familiar with. That was the cookbook pre-food revolution, before a lot of people like me turned into anti-war hippy eating weirdos- I mean granola-eating weirdos. We have that sort of reassuring provincial nostalgia for a past that never was. That’s one school of what’s going on today.
And then we have the voice of an assured and fearless leader, who, like any self-respecting dominant, promises to order a confusing world. Now, some call this molecular cuisine: I think of it as a “kneel and beg” school of cookery…in which the eater is entirely dependent on a greater force seeking to both conquer and subjugate the eater’s mouth. So underneath everything that we are reading and creating today are these same two impulses that have always been there in American cooking, but they take on a different form. They take on a different form because of social change, but also because of change in media.
So what I touched on earlier about how it’s much easier to show how to kill a cow on YouTube than in a step-by-step in a coffee table book, extends also to e-books. I don’t think there’s anybody in this room- or anybody in publishing- who doubts the future is in electronic books. Not exclusively, but certainly as a mass market book. I think of electronic books today in the way that Peter Workman thought of the trade paperback. The hardcover book is released in very small numbers for a very particular reason; a softcover book is seen as the reason to publish. Today we see that anything that is instructive lives better on an electronic reader.
Difficulties with images- images floating around the page- will be over in 18-24 months: all of that stuff is being standardized…the things that were difficult 12-15 years ago are so easy an 8 year old can do them now. We’ll find the same thing increasingly with e-books. We’re in the infancy of that. However, as I stated at the beginning, there is still a reason for the large, shiny, glorious, expensive totem book, because these books say, “I’m a member of the club.” Seven Fires says I’m a member of this club: “I didn’t go to Paris, I went to Argentina and I’m so hip and I’m so cool that I only cook in the backyard. And I only do whole animals. And I know exactly my way around salsas and chiles and chimmichurris and everything else. But I also know my way around wood, and chopping, and butchering, and all of these various activities that call for courage, living off the grid…and call for an extreme degree of competence.”
So I throw those things out for where we are today. It’s an intersection, as ever, of social changes, reflecting those changes and then, whether or not we lead or follow. I think that that remains a huge issue in how we think about writing a cookbook, in how we think about publishing a cookbook.
And to move this issue from theory to a heartfelt reality, here is a link to a gorgeous essay about why cookbooks matter that was posted recently by Elissa on her blog, Poor Man’s Feast.Images: Gourmet Cookbook, Time Life Series