What do you do when you need to find a recipe for dinner? We’re willing to bet you don’t pull a book off your shelf and flip through the pages in search for an idea. Chances are you pull out your phone and Google something like: easy chicken recipes or what’s for dinner, or something along that vein.
The way we source our recipes has drastically changed over the past decade. Gone is our dependence on printed recipes. We can find everything we need ― and more ― online. HuffPost Taste alone can give you more ways to make chicken for dinner than you may even want. We have recipes for the breast, thigh and wing. Recipes to fry chicken, cook it in cast iron, or toss into a slow cooker. And that’s just our site. Then there are all the other online food publications putting out great recipes and hundreds of talented food bloggers doing the same, every single day.
Why in the world would you bother with a cookbook in 2017, anyway?
Here’s the short answer: because just like TV didn’t kill the radio, online recipes have not rendered cookbooks obsolete. In fact, they have made them better.
“Cookbooks have to offer more than just recipes since anyone can get a recipe online. In many ways they have become big, beautiful story books,” says Sally Ekus, culinary literary agent at The Lisa Ekus Group. She’s not talking coffee table cookbooks, either, but books that offer more. “They are showpieces that are paying homage to a cuisine or place or an ingredient. They are collectors pieces to cook and love and imprint on,” she explains.
Cookbooks are no longer just cookbooks. Sure, there will always books dedicated to chicken recipes, but these days perusing the cookbook aisle at the bookstore will reveal so much more depth. You’ll uncover books that you’ll want to keep by your bedside just as much as you’ll want to bring into the kitchen.
Francis Lam, the current editor-at-large at Clarkson Potter (who also happens to be a James Beard and IACP award-winning food writer) has more to say on the subject. “If you pick up cookbooks that from 10 to 15 years ago, you’ll find a lot of books that are all text, the recipes run into one another,” Lam says. “It’s basically a collection of information. Some of the classic great cookbooks follow that mold.”
“A modern way to think of cookbooks ― and this is the way I tend to think of them ― is to think of them as a book. A book you’ll want to read; a book that has a story; a book that might evoke emotion in you; or that might provoke you; or that might challenge you; or that might ask you questions about society and culture; and cause you to question some things that you didn’t think about before,” elaborates Lam.
A recent book that exemplifies both Ekus’ and Lam’s thoughts is Ronni Lundy’s latest book, Victuals. Victuals is a cookbook at its heart, but it is in fact so much more than that. It is a documentation of a food culture rooted in Appalachia. It is a collection of essays on food traditions. It is a story that will wrap you up and engage you from cover to cover. And after you’ve read the tales, you still get to cook the recipes ― like the Swing Shift Steak or Lisa Donovan’s Pimento Cheese Nabs ― and the recipes will feel so much more intimate than if they were just plucked from the internet. But, only if you want. You can also just read the recipe and learn something from that experience alone, suggests Lam.
Other examples of cookbooks that have been published in the past couple of years that demonstrate this shift include Tacos: Recipes And Provocations by Alex Stupak and Jordana Rothman. This book is an important lens that looks at what we value as a culture, all disguised in a book of recipes. Rene Redzepi: A Work In Progress is yet another example. This book includes the chef’s journal, which gives the reader insight into the mind of the chef of one of the world’s best restaurants, in a way no collection of recipes ever could. And then there are books like Tyler Kord’s A Super Upsetting Cookbook About Sandwiches that will make you belt out a serious belly laugh. Yes, humor has found its place in cookbooks, too.
Readers can expect a lot more in the year to come. Lam recommends keeping an eye out for a book by Kris Yenbamroong called Night + Market, which is also the name of his LA restaurant. Ekus is excited about How to Eat a Lobster by Ashley Blom and Lucy Engelman, coming out in the spring.
Despite these transitions, there is one thing that cookbooks have always offered ― and will always offer ― that online recipes simply cannot, and that is their permanence. Cookbooks have the ability to be passed down from generation to generation, which feels more important now than ever, as we try to preserve and underline the importance of culture in today’s world.