As our kitchen gadgets become more and more high-tech, one thing remains a constant backbone – the good old cookbook. How did it survive in a digital world? reports Kelly Dennett.
In the edition The art of French cuisine in 1961, a cookbook hailed as the “definitive work for non-professionals”, Julia Child and co-authors Louisette Bertholle and Simone Beck realized what a cook or baker in 2022 can struggle to do: publish a cookbook as a virtual person.
“If you’re a suburban person and you’re a great cook of great recipes, if someone publishes your book and it’s on the shelves of Paper Plus or Unity, is anyone going to pick it up if no one has heard of you, when it’s next to 300 other books by Jamie Oliver and Nadia Lim?
This is Margaret Sinclair, non-fiction editor of Penguin Random House, speaking on the phone. “They won’t even look at your book, unfortunately.” The bottom line for an aspiring Julia Childs: “You need to create a following.”
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Maybe that’s why it’s so easy to Google any recipe you like these days. Enter the contents of your pantry into a search engine and the Internet will save you. Do you suffer from a dairy intolerance or have you embarked on a paleo diet? There’s a Facebook page, a blog, a website, a newsletter to subscribe to, invariably written by a kitchen savvy mom trying to save time/lose weight/pinch some pennies.
The Edmonds cookbook is over 100 years old. So what’s changed with the much-loved icon?
Which begs the question: why aren’t cookbooks obsolete?
The answer has many ingredients. On the one hand, says Sinclair, cookbooks are simply easier to use. It’s no problem printing out a recipe and trying to remember where you left off, or where that glorious Apricot Chicken you made two years ago came from. Likewise, if you’re buying local, our books avoid confusing measurements in the US and UK (how many cups in a pint? What’s a stick of butter?) and they’ll make good use of local produce – you won’t see snapper and kumara at Julia’s To master.
The popularity of cookbooks is obvious. Here, they regularly make the bestseller list, more recently prompting an industry commentator to ask why they couldn’t have their own category, as they often oust fine memoirs from their perch.
According to Nielsen, sales of food and drink books have soared. We bought over 300,000 last year, up from 266,568 copies in 2019. More than a quarter were New Zealand titles.
Sinclair says recipes that cater to diets or allergies are particularly notable in the scene. Healthy, dietary and wholefood cookbooks are extremely popular, and local vegetarian cookbooks have exploded in the market – 252 were sold in 2017 compared to 55,000 in 2020 and more than 31,000 last year (figures from Nielsen are possibly skewed by Covid).
“It’s become mainstream,” Sinclair says. “Vegan, raw, gluten-free – they’re all huge and have grown tremendously over the last, say, five years. Eight years ago we might have gone, ‘oh maybe that’s a bit niche’ [to consider publishing].”
And that’s the other thing about cookbooks – they say something about a particular moment. In the 60s, when Master the art of French cuisine entered the vernacular, many Americans traveled abroad amidst a booming economy, and the French were considered very posh.
In 2022, home cooks are on the optimization bandwagon – we love simple foods that don’t harm the environment, and we know all about macros, “natural” sugars, and “good” fats. We love food that looks pretty, but…we love our cookbooks when they look a little shabby.
My kitchen rules winner and food blogger Belinda MacDonald is about to be released flavor bomb with Penguin, a book dedicated to keto (low carb) recipes.
“I want [a book] it was really about color, flavor, not pretentious and something fun,” she says. “There’s nothing more satisfying than having cookbooks that have a lot of sticky drips on the pages because you beat them up.”
Tilly Lloyd, owner of Unity Books Wellington, declares her latest two cooking bestsellers Ottolenghi test kitchen [OTK]: Love shelf (Ebury Press), and Salad: 70 delicious recipes for every occasion (Allen & Unwin) of ‘Raw Sisters’ Margo and Rosa Flanagan, had major themes in common: pantry, anti-waste and recipe adaptability.
Lloyd, who has a lot of buddies who cook now Ottolenghi recipes, recently experienced herself in a “farmer’s kitchen burst” in Wānaka.
“There’s a recipe for ‘party rice’ with poached chicken and lamb… My note in ‘do it yourself’ (admittedly in wine) is to reduce the rice by 1/3 for stepping up the flat and also reducing the scarf flat look It’s hard to believe that OTK would ever achieve that Castle St vibe so I’m pretty sure it must have been achieved thanks to my poor plating.
Locally, titles like Feed the tribeTthe healthy leader, Home cooking and Forager’s Treasure really need no explanation on what we are into. But amid the wellness craze, baking books are still going strong, Sinclair says. From Edmonds’ eponymous cookbook (in print since 1908) to Chelsea Winter’s vegan recipes (see Super good).
Winter is a favorite of The Big Kiwi Bakeoff Teniqua Jones, who started cooking at 18 when she became a mother. The eldest of 10 children, she says her family wasn’t in the kitchen much and she wanted to make sure her daughter would have everything she didn’t have growing up – birthday cakes made house for example.
In Whitcoulls she picked up a Women’s Weekly cupcake cookbook and I’ve never looked back. Today, her Instagram is full of images of fancy cakes, and she estimates she has around 50 cookbooks on her shelf. She writes her own, to pass it on to her daughter. The books, she says, have the benefit of being tried and tested by experts.
It’s fortunate that cookbooks do well, because they tend to have high production values — all that food and photography — and after that, Sinclair says, the measurements and instructions are reviewed by specialist editors and reviewers who verify that all ingredients are listed, in the correct order. In the end, it’s essentially a work of art – a beautiful book also makes a great gift, or keepsake.
“Give someone a link to a [recipe] is one thing, but packing a beautiful book knowing they’ll use it and that it’s practical and enjoyable is really a different level.
What makes a great cookbook?
” Oh. This is really a very personal question. The first thing that comes to mind is that it’s easy to do, the ingredients are available, you’ll get a consistently good result, and it doesn’t take too long.
It’s different for different people, but Sinclair says there are common themes.
“The perfect cookbook is written by a top person and covers a range of recipes and covers quick everyday meals and entertaining meals that would challenge a cook.
“I think I’m continually on the hunt for the perfect book that will help me cook a weeknight meal in 20 minutes.”