Where cookbook purchases are concerned I also believe that you have to take the good with the bad. Buy enough cookbooks and you’re going to face the occasional dud – no money back guarantees here. I write this having been sorely tested by a recent purchase (which for good measure will remain unnamed). It is from a source I greatly admire and respect (happily for me there are many cooks and writers who fall into that category).
On first perusal of any cookbook I mark the recipes having the most initial appeal with small tabs. This particular book contains approximately 250 recipes and I marked 13 for immediate trial. The first recipe I prepared was quite good – far short of brilliant – but respectable enough. I don’t know that I’d make it again but I wasn’t unhappy with the results. The second recipe I tried was nothing short of horrible and I say that having given it great consideration. I really wanted to like it but I eventually succumbed and wrote right across its page in the cookbook, “this recipe is horrible” (sparing future users the same disappointment).
You might think that my professional credentials endow me with a special talent for sniffing out the unworkable but sadly, human that I am, what happens to you also happens to me. I can miss the signs of a recipe that is seriously wrong. In this case, the ingredients were out of balance, there was far too much of an inherently sweet vegetable and the only savoury note came from too much of a very hardy herb. I thought on first glance that the ingredients and simplicity of the preparation could produce delicious results. When I finished making it, I knew differently. I thought it might benefit from an overnight stay in the fridge (let the fridge pixies work their magic). The flavours did meld and mingle together more cohesively but that was no improvement. I didn’t want to throw it out (mostly because of the failure it would represent) so I put it in the freezer for future consumption (this time hoping the freezer pixies would intervene). Several weeks later I thawed it for lunch and a few mouthfuls in I conceded defeat and gave myself permission to throw the whole lot out. I wondered how that recipe had made its way into the book? Was this the one last damn recipe, after months of creating and testing that signaled book completion? If that were the case, I’d have been thrilled with just 249 recipes. Did a team of people, that included my cook hero, test this recipe and deem it worthy? I might have to reconsider how much stock I put in their sense of good taste.
Sometimes an experience like that can shake my confidence in a cookbook but in this case I knew I simply needed to press on (I’m also old enough to know that good and bad can happily coexist). I did wonder if this was the book a publisher squeezed out of a successful cookbook writer hoping to capitalize on the current wave of interest in their work? Recipe writing and compiling is no less vulnerable to the sense of urgency that casts its shadow over most of our activities.
To this end, I considered the professional output of one of my culinary heroes, Elizabeth David. Her life work, spanning the years from 1950 through to 1984, registers at 8 books (and several more posthumously). Eight books over 34 years is a book roughly every 4 or 5 years (she had some much longer gaps). Nothing short of leisurely in light of the fact that the author I’m currently considering, in the last 6 years alone, has produced 4 large cookbooks. I’ll acknowledge that where cookbook production is concerned, times have changed. We have a whole hierarchy of professionals who would have been deemed foreign personnel by Elizabeth David - recipe testers, shoppers, food photographers, and stylists, not to mention custom facilities to house the activities of creating a successful cookbook. But does all of this reduce our tolerance for a 4 or 5 years gap between publications? And if a cookbook writer insisted on this (as I’d like to think Elizabeth David would do) is our interest in their work diminished?
One of the pressure points for those producing cookbooks comes from the volume of recipes available on the Internet. ‘Google’ any recipe and variations by the thousands are immediately at hand. I’ve only occasionally ventured into this territory and generally with the same abysmal results. The underbelly of volume is an inconceivable scale of utter rubbish (in all realms) produced for online consumption. As an avid ‘Pinterest’ user, I’ve fallen prey to the enthusiasms of some anonymous individual who proclaims that this is ‘the best recipe EVER!!!’ My disappointment only serves to increase a healthy suspicion of free recipes. Wading through 250 recipes from a reliable writer is a cakewalk in comparison to traversing the immense chasm of online dreck.
And what of the real production costs of a cookbook. I’ve recently seen figures suggesting $40,000 as a very low end starting point. I have some information about the rough costs a friend of mine spent just for food photographs and that figure confirms that costs can run much, much higher. If that doesn’t seem prohibitive, producing 250 print-worthy recipes will entail that a cookbook writer (here skilled and experienced) will create and test close to double that number of recipes. Imagine producing a different dinner every night of the week for more than a year completely from scratch. And recipe testing itself runs along a broad spectrum from non-existent to ‘Thomas Keller’ thorough (a type of OCD I admire in cookbook production). You can’t spend enough money on a well-tested cookbook. Skimping in this area is like abandoning the true purpose of the work. There are books on my shelf that I look at with complete and utter disdain because of a lack of attention in this area. Enough recipes tried and failed will eventually reveal this particular fault line.
I also always follow the instructions of the cookbook writer to the letter when making a recipe for the first time. I assume they possess authority. I suspect that may be remnants of my apprentice past – following and trusting the master. Only after, do I add my own pleasing alternatives or personal flourishes. Although, with a great recipe, very little of me (other than my great skill at the stove) gets added.
The one great recipe is a lovely partnership where the inspiration and rigor of one cook/writer serves to shine a bright and true light on the culinary competence of another cook. I struggle to find an appropriate value for the heaps of love and praise that have come my way from that one delicious recipe.
This holiday season buy cookbooks - from independent booksellers