By Anne Mendelson
Sometimes an article insists on making an unforeseen 180-degree turn. This one certainly did. It was originally meant to take stock of the past year in cookbooks. Almost at once, however, I found myself taking stock of something larger and messier.
As a reviewer of very long standing, I enjoy writing about cookbooks. Or should that be “enjoyed?” Publishers haven’t completely agreed that cookbooks are done for. But few think that they have more than a marginal future without massive transfusions of energy from cyber-culture. Though I don’t expect to write the genre’s obituary in the near future, I think this may be one of the last moments for asking what is, or was, unique about the culinary literature as embodied in real, physical volumes free of “enhanced content.”
A cookbook printed on actual pages is not the same kind of teaching device or thinking experience as anything read online. Take its ability to absorb physical punishment. You can throw it at the wall out of sheer frustration and retrieve it in halfway usable condition, a form of self-expression unsuited to tablet computers. And whether it’s a masterwork or a piece of drivel, it repays cumulative relationships between peruser and perused — hours-long encounters, endless return visits over days or weeks or years — more flexibly than any electronic means.
Many decades ago, that quality of standing still to be grappled with was a blessing tome and many other would-be-accomplished cooks. These young enthusiasts — often the children of non-cooking mothers — spent much time with a comparative handful of trusted cookbooks because there weren’t many other roads to learning. They lastingly bonded with the actual pages on which several pioneering writers (Michael Field, Paula Wolfert, Madhur Jaffrey, Diana Kennedy), along with some remarkable illustrators, had striven to convince the sufficiently motivated that cooking really made sense.
The sustained attention and cumulative effort that devotees focused on their few authorities reflected an ambition summed up in the word “mastering,” as in Mastering the Art of French Cooking. The term in itself implied a work ethic, a set of intelligible values rooted in hands-on skills that nobody expected to acquire overnight.
Did those long-ago hopefuls really beget today’s ubiquitous gastroculture? Only in the sense that some prehistoric velociraptor ultimately begot Angry Birds. When I began reviewing cookbooks for magazines and newspapers, I had a sense of belonging to a community of reader-users linked by a coherent frame of reference. Any such community started falling apart a long time ago.
By way of compensation, the world of culinary books has become wonderfully multifarious throughout the falling-apart process. I’ve never seen more garbage in the field than today, or more first-rate work. I think the framework of judgment that I acquired from walking the home-kitchen walk via Field, Jaffrey, et al remains as relevant to evaluating new books as it was when I wrote my first reviews. But part of what it tells me is that cookbooks do some things better and some things worse than the informational competition.
On the plus side, cookbooks excel as easily navigable collections of fixed and — ideally — reproducible formulas, of which the best will progressively gain meaning as a learner keeps coming back to the page. (To put it another way, being able to hold something in your hands uniquely helps you to hold it in your mind.) Well-conceived recipes are object lessons in the skill of building selective detail into a logically consecutive script. And the overall design of an intelligently thought-out cookbook has space to emerge as you take in the interlocking parts of a stable whole.
On the other hand, the pace of today’s communications leaves cookbooks flatfooted at the starting gate. Because of publishers’ production schedules, they’re fated to be last year’s instead of next Monday’s guess at what, or where, everybody will be eating on Tuesday. They’re also a poor fit with other priorities that arrived along with America’s transformation into Food Fetish Nation.
Cookbooks certainly have accompanied the triumphant foodie bandwagon between the 1980s and the smoked-maple-syrup-slurping present. Still, they don’t wholly belong to it. They can never fully capture the meal-as-rock-concert impact of the evolving foodie scene. Fast-paced live entertainment is just what recipes are worst at reproducing. On the printed page, and especially with repeated consultation of any one piece of text, spontaneous performance loses — well, spontaneity.
Meanwhile, in another part of the forest, the culinary book scene now regularly embraces things that no cook or cookbook reviewer could have remotely imagined when I was cutting my eyeteeth. Today anyone can take for granted marvelously enlightening books that aren’t recipe-driven — prodigious reference works (see the new edition of The Oxford Encyclopedia of American Food and Drink), moving family-centered memoirs (Alex Witchel’s recent All Gone), splendid hybrids of history and ethnobotany (In the Shadow of Slavery, Judith Carney and Richard Nicholas Rosomoff’s study of the African botanical heritage in the Americas), incisive examinations of the global batterie de cuisine (Bee Wilson’s Consider the Fork). The ranks of available cookbooks now include many facsimiles, annotated editions, and English translations of historic culinary documents, as well as explorations of cuisines that once were hopelessly off the U.S. mainstream map (Naomi Duguid’s Burma: Rivers of Flavor; Linda Lau Anusasananan’s The Hakka Cookbook).
I’m lucky to enjoy the riches of such a fantastically diverse scene. But it has a flip side: the aforementioned breakdown of a shared frame of reference. Beginners exploring today’s culinary literature have more learning options than ever — but without the learning ethos that my generation acquired from plugging away at our meager range of authorities.
One community of reader-cooks has fallen apart, another is coalescing in cyberspace and around the altars of celebrity chefs. More often than not, the energy that members of the new gastroculture pour into talking the talk and glorifying off-the-cuff, subjective personal reactions augurs no good for the future of cookbook reviewing. That was precisely why this article turned around and bit me in the ass almost the minute I began it: I made the mistake of looking at a few online “Best Cookbooks of 2012” lists. On the whole, I found them appalling. The problem wasn’t the actual selections; who expects others to share all one’s own likes and dislikes? What bothered me was the brief evaluations accompanying the choices. Most sounded like slapdash jacket blurbs knocked out by people running late for an airline shuttle. By and large, they seemed rooted in no train of thought on the part of the writer, and presupposed none on the part of readers.
Writing book reviews or even capsule notices of any kind should begin with setting yourself standards of critical thinking. It should involve asking yourself how to do justice to both your subject — food, television, politics, the history of toothpaste — and your audience — not a ship of fools, but people who deserve your utmost respect. Such reviewing will surely survive on scattered blogs and websites. But I expect to see less and less of it devoted to cookbooks.