Why Do We Buy Cookbooks?
One of my kitchen cabinets has a shelf that is crammed full of cookbooks. Then there's the overflow that is on a baker's rack and others that are upstairs in a pile. I have cookbooks on everything from slow-cooker meals to holiday appetizers to home canning. And I don't even like to cook! So why? Why do I have so many cookbooks? Is it just me? Or are there other people out there like me that have oodles of cookbooks and don't like to cook? As I pondered this, I came up with a few reasons why I am obsessed with these little gems.
The answer seems simple enough--we buy cookbooks for the recipes. Cookbooks are one of the best selling types of literature. They have been around for centuries, with some that are merely lists of favorite dishes of royalty dating back to ancient times. More recent editions of cookbooks, say from the 1950’s or 1960’s, may be heirlooms passed from one generation to the next like a family Bible. Then there’s the spiral bound paperbacks that are dutifully purchased because of a school fundraiser. Most are packed with recipes and pictures and sometimes stories. But oftentimes these books of culinary information are rarely used. So why do we have such a love affair with cookbooks? Why are they so popular?
Travel and food often go hand-in-hand. Sometimes the main reason people visit different places is just so that they can try the food of the region. But travel can be quite expensive. For around $20 a cookbook can immediately send you to a far-off land. Even if you have no intention of making Pakora, a delicious Indian appetizer, or Falafel, a "veggie burger" usually made from chickpeas from the Middle East, you can read about the spices and herbs and begin to dream of the places where these dishes originate, the culture, and the people that live there. You can put yourself in a pastoral setting like an Irish countryside as you study a recipe for scones, or pretend you have just hopped off the subway in a lively urban metropolis like Cape Town, South Africa, to grab twisted pastries called koeksisters, on your way to work. You can even combine cultures as you imagine the aroma of Turkish coffee brewing strong in a briki while someone prepares Pizzelles, a traditional Italian waffle cookie.
Cookbooks can also bring you close to home, stirring up childhood memories as you look over a recipe for Mom's tuna casserole or your auntie's Red Velvet Cake, a favorite in the US South. Cookbooks can take you to a place of familiarity or for a walk on the wild side with something exotic, all without leaving your home.
Imagine dining at a French bistro
Cookbooks go beyond being a mere tool for cooking techniques and cataloging recipes. They make us believe that we too, the ordinary home cook, can crank out restaurant-worthy cuisine. Ahh, let me try THIS! Oooo, that will be so-o-o good! I’ll put on my apron, gather ingredients, place my sharpened knives next to the oiled cutting board and slice, chop, sauté, braise and flambe with the best of them. If I follow the instructions and digest all of the vocabulary and terms I will become a master chef--or at least a really sought-after sous chef.
Cookbooks are a feast for the eyes and their editors know it. The pictures tantalize and begin to whet your appetite before you even begin to gather your ingredients or write your shopping list. The pictures are not only pretty but they bring the pages to life. We're enticed by exotic locales like Morocco, far-away lands like China, and cafes lining the Champs Elysees. We're tempted by the vibrant colors, being wooed and charmed. And when there are stories to go along with the pictures it makes the scene complete.
In the book, "Like Water for Chocolate" by Laura Esquivel, which was later made into a movie, the character of Tita is quoted as saying, “It was very pleasant to savor its aroma, for smells have the power to evoke the past, bringing back sounds and even other smells that have no match in the present." Food and the memories it brings forth can transport you to a different place and time like few other things can. And beautiful pictures of food can do the same thing.
We can’t leave out the fact that cookbooks can actually be useful. I have a 1976 edition of Better Homes and Gardens New Cook Book that my mother gave me. I’m sure you know the one. It has the famous red and white plaid cover, 3-ring binder version. I burnt it. No, I wasn't frustrated and threw it in the fire. Well, maybe I was frustrated as I often am when I cook. I had it laying on top of the stove as I was reading the directions for some long-forgotten meal, and turned the burner on. You can still see the circular markings even though the black charred edges have since peeled off, and the pages are ragged and falling out.
But the point is I still use this as my go-to reference for measurements, substitutions and basic recipes. And then there’s the fact that my mother gave it to me and she had an earlier printing of the same cookbook. She wasn’t a great cook, but she was devoted to giving us a meat, starch and vegetable at every meal after she came home from work. This was her source. Now it’s mine.
Looking like you know something
If you have hoards of cookbooks, surely you must be a smashing cook! And it just looks good to show off all of those cooking tomes. I've got cookbooks that feature Mexican cuisine. One that specializes in seafood. I have a cookbook for cheesecakes and one devoted just to creme brulee. I've got cookbooks written and signed by well-known chefs. Have I made anything from any of these wonderful books? I think you can guess the answer. But if I don't tell anybody I haven't used them they will never know, right? But they sure look fabulous and fancy on that shelf or coffee table and I, in turn, look really savvy about food!
Selling the Dream
All of this goes together to make "the dream", a smooth marketing technique. Cookbooks tickle the imagination. The glamour, the precision, the notoriety of the wanna-be chef in all of us. Anya von Bremzen, author of "Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking," wrote, "Dreaming about food...was just as rewarding as eating." Beyond being necessary for basic survival, food is exciting, soulful, sensual.
The current trend of cooking shows on TV adds to the glamour. There’s whole channels devoted just to food, 24 hours a day, for crying out loud! They show us step-by-step just what we need to do with such ease that we become convinced we can be the next best chef too. We stand at the stove and dream of having our own show with our name in the title, the cameras capturing every detail as we amaze an audience with our culinary skills and artistry.
There is one caveat with those beautiful pictures and shimmery dreams though. I don't know about anyone else, but my dishes never come out looking like the ones in the cookbooks. What's up with that? Is it fair that there are photographers who specialize in making food look appetizing? Should this be considered false advertising? There should be a disclaimer or something, letting us regular home cooks know that our food will probably not come out looking like the picture in the book. Hmph. Granted, no one would make a recipe if the picture in the cookbook looked like slop, but I would bet that the average person does not turn out magazine-quality food.
But does this stop us from our insatiable need for more cookbooks? No! Those pictures are a big part of the allure. We become even more determined that the next one will be THE ONE, the cookbook to end all cookbooks! The one that outlines the steps in such beautiful detail that surely the resulting dish will be worthy of the cover of the next issue of Bon Appetit Magazine. That elusive, perfect cookbook. When you find it, let me know. I will gladly add it to my stash.