Saturday, 15 October 2011

Ask Foodycat: Are Cookbooks Dead?


I've been thinking about this post for months. My friend Ms Crankypants emailed me the link to this article asking whether cookbooks are obsolete, and asked for my thoughts.

My immediate reaction was Hell No! But I thought I should come up with a well-reasoned and scholarly argument for my position. The difficulty is, of course, that I fucking love cookbooks, which puts me in a compromised position for well-reasoned arguments. If you have a short attention span you can skip to the end, with the good bit about the cheesecake, safe in the knowledge that my final answer is still a resounding Hell No.

I do appreciate the notion of a paperless office (although a decade or so working in offices demonstrates that there is really no such thing). I do, however, genuinely grasp the idea that it might be pleasant to reduce the amount of clutter in one's life and have all the cookbooks scanned onto the computer. I would like to offload some of my cookbooks, although I confess it is just to make room for the ones that currently sit in piles on the floor.

I don't know what the average number of cookbooks is that the average family owns, but I am quite happy to go out on a limb and say we have several more than that. If I had a less-good memory for food and recipes, I might be more keen on an electronic filing system but as it is I know my library well enough to know where to find recipes I want pretty quickly without dependence on sometimes-obscure internet search terms.

There is a lot to be said for the internet as a source of recipes, obviously. I am a huge fan of having my grocery page open in one tab and my recipe open in the next, so I can make sure I have all the ingredients. I like googling a list of ingredients and seeing what combinations come up. I like happening upon recipes and ideas I had never even imagined. None of those things is a match for browsing through a good cookbook.

You can develop a relationship with a cookbook author, or even publishing house that you will rarely find when you google. You can know absolutely that if this book has these quantities you will need to reduce the amount of water, or spice, or that you can follow the baking time to the minute. One of the reasons you can know this is because the page is covered in splashes and scribbles, notes that you have made over the years. Your cookbooks are a personal history. I cannot believe I made a tamarillo and kiwifruit tart at one point in my life, but I see the picture on the page and know it was the 80s. I know also that I had an icecream maker at that point, because the same book contains the utterly divine rum and berry icecream I used to make. Cookbooks track fashions more clearly than your wardrobe does - you won't often see a recipe telling you to substitute sherry for rice wine now, because most of us hip foody types are much less likely to have the first now. Oh wait, tapas are in now, so sherry is back on the menu.

The book publishing industry (in the US) saw a 4.5% drop in printed book sales from 2009-2010, but cookbook sales rose 4%. This increase is attributed to the recession (people eating at home more), the power of the blogosphere and foody personalities. Apparently at this stage densely illustrated cookbooks don't translate so well to e-books, which partly protects the sales from the hit that novels and some other books are taking. Publishing houses expect a cookbook title to sell a minimum of 20,000 copies, so they are talking about quite large volumes as well. Clearly it isn't just me who thinks that cookbooks are far from obsolete.

Plus, of course, when Virgin has a recorded message saying that North London is experiencing internet service outages, and the 6 cheesecake recipes I have bookmarked are out of my grasp, with a cookbook a cheesecake is still possible.

This is a smoked salt caramel cheesecake. I used the Australian Women's Weekly 100 Fabulous Cheesecakes book (first published 1971 - a very good example of changing fashion in food!), basing my recipe on their Luscious Gourmet Cheesecake recipe. I substituted dulce de leche and black treacle for the sugar and lemon juice, and added a scant half teaspoon of oak-smoked salt. I made a topping based on the one for the Caramel Topped Cheesecake, although I used dulce de leche and cream instead of butter, brown sugar and water.

It was divine. So divine that it is an appropriate way to celebrate Louise's blogoversary, and America's National Caramel Month. Louise is having a cookbook party to celebrate 4 years of blogging and I am sure a smoked salt caramel cheesecake will be welcome!



32 comments:

C said...

Love the idea of that cheesecake - sounds fabulous!

Cookbooks aren't dead in my house, I can rarely resist a new one, and love browsing all the ones I've got, especially those with plenty of pictures. And cook books can (obviously) go in the kitchen. My laptop can too, but I can't tell you how upset I'll be when I splash cooking stuff on that - for a cookery book it's a mark of use and usefulness. Not so much when your laptop stops working...

Agree about getting to know an author/publisher too, there are some I trust implicitly, some not so much. Long live the cook book!

Suelle said...

I agree that cookbooks are not dead yet.

The cheesecake looks delicious - it would be welcome here!

Barbara said...

I was going to say: check out Louise....and then as I read on, you were doing her game! :) I hope to join in before October is over.
Cookbooks are alive and well at my house. I use the internet too, but I do love to sit and peruse a good cookbook. Old ones and new ones...those old church ones are the best.
Great cheesecake recipe but must admit anything with dulce de leche in it is going to be a hit with me!

mscrankypants said...

Awwww, Foodycat, what a well-thought post and you gave me some ideas as to why I think cookbooks aren't dead.

I think my main reason is that I like flicking the pages and knowing which authors have had their recipes properly tested (go Women's Weekly!) and just propping a cookbook open on my kitchen bookholder thingy.

But until someone writes a pirate cupcake art book, the internet has been amazing for pirate cupcake ideas, yarrrrrrrr.

leaf (the indolent cook) said...

That cheesecake sounds very sweet and decadent! As for cookbooks, I don't actually use them often but I do enjoy flipping through them. It gives something different to browsing online.

hungryandfrozen said...

Long live the cookbook! I absolutely use and love mine - and I know what you mean about the fashion, it really is a barometer of trends at the time. Just by having a quick flick through a particular cookbook I was able to guess what year it was published (1996)! I love blogs and looking up recipes on foodgawker or tastespotting or just on google, but an e-cookbook doesn't interest me much.

what does interest me though, is that gorgeous cheesecake!

ARLENE said...

All I can say to whomever posited that cookbooks may be obsolete is a loud Hrrrrmph. You make a cogent case for why they are not (and then sweeten the pot with that incredible cheesecake). My favorite cookbooks are like those scratch and sniff books; they are also marked up with all my changes. I also assign a rating to every recipe I make (0-10). They are my history in food. Great post and gorgeous cat.

The Cat's Mother said...

I do use the internet to search for specific recipes - but nothing beats a browse through the cook book collection when inspiration is needed.

I am currently reading Elizabeth David's book of bread & yeast cookery. She thanks the writers of earlier books she referred to for transcribing verbatim some very old recipes rather than converting them to a standard recipe format. Much rich historical detail would have been lost if they had done that.

Foodycat said...

C - I don't buy so many now, when I do they have to really work for me!

Suelle - It was very welcome at the barbecue I took it to, as well!

Barbara - Caramel and cookbooks, it was the perfect match for Louise's party! I also have a couple of old church and women's association ones. The only trouble with them is the lack of pictures.

Cranky - you could always write the pirate cupcake art book? I really want a cookbook stand. I've been saying it for years and never managed to buy one!

Leafy - it wasn't as sweet as you would think; the black treacle gives flavour without a lot of sweetness.

Laura - I'm a bit tempted to go back through the many ages of my cooking at the moment. Resurrect some stuff!

Arlene - I love the idea of the ratings! The cat is Mac, my aunt's cat. He looked particularly thoughtful in that pic so I adopted it as the Ask Foodycat logo!

Mother - Elizabeth David is the reason for cookbooks to survive, if nothing else. You wouldn't look her recipes up on the internet but the beauty of the prose!

Mary said...

I love to page through cookbooks while sitting in from of a roaring fire. The internet can never replace that lovely lazy feeling and the kindle is also a poor substitute. I suspect that books as we know them will disappear, but it won't happen today or tomorrow and I plan to enjoy hem while I can. Your cheesecake looks wonderful and begs to be tried. I hope you have a great weekend. Blessings...Mary

Janet Rudolph said...

This looks postively divine. Cookbooks are not dead!

Angie's Recipes said...

I think I have that cheesecake book too...and I don't think cookbooks are dead..not at all. I love to own them..using them or not..it's just great to have some around.
The cheesecake looks divine!

Foodycat said...

Mary - it would be tragic if they were to disappear! I want a kindle, for convenience, but books themselves are such wonderful objects!

Janet - as long as we have breath in our bodies they aren't dead!

Yasmeen said...

I'l never stop buying cookbooks. I'll never totally detach from the printed word in general. I love the tactile nature of reading real books, the saucy spills that inevitably splatter over the pages, and so forth.

Foodycat said...

Angie - it is a great book. Dated, but good!

Yasmeen - It's nice that so many foody people love books as well! Somehow they seem to go together.

grace said...

i'm not quite ready to part ways with cookbooks yet. i like the feel of them in my hands, i like the goo and gunk that causes the pages to get stuck together, i like the jottings in the margins. hang on to 'em! :)

Ben eats Mexico said...

I don't think cookbooks are dead, even if the world seems to be moving in the opposite direction. I'll always keep my favorite cookbooks next to me, but that's just me. hehe

That cheesecake looks so good!

Foodycat said...

Grace - The stuck together pages are the best!

Ben - Yup, you can pry my cookbooks out of my cold dead hands!

~~louise~~ said...

Well, you probably know by now how I feel about the whole cookbook thing, Foodycat. LOVE them and they are not dead nor will they ever be!

I've had so many comments about that cheesecake of yours, simply heavenly.

I thought you might get a kick out of seeing your post in the headlines:) Check it out in my online newspaper.

girlichef said...

Oh boy, that does look and sound divine! And I am 100% with you on cookbooks not being obsolete. I love holding them in my hands, paging through them, writing in the margins, drooling over the pictures and the words. I can take it to the sofa, to bed, in the car to browse while waiting for the kids to get out of school. I don't own an e-reader, but I'm not necessarily lamenting that. I can supplement with the internet. I feel the same way about ALL books, though. I'm not giving up my many sagging shelves or scattered piles anytime soon. Never if I can help it.

Quay Po Cooks said...

Although I can get a lot of recipes from the WWW but when I go to a book shop, there is not once I left without a cook book. Just got a new one last week on noodles. I wish I can have a piece of your smoked salt caramel cheesecake.

Gemma said...

smoked salt caramel cheesecake - that sounds amazing!

I also have 'several more' cookbooks than the average person so can't really offer a well reasoned opinion. I love reading blogs and often cook from them but, for me, nothing can replace the pleasure of holding a book, browsing and gathering ideas.

Choclette said...

That cheesecake would certainly be welcome at any party I was hosting or attending come to that.

Taking a computer to bed with you is somehow just not as satisfying as a book. Bedtime reading of cookbooks feels like a bit of a luxury but I do it a lot. I also use my cookbooks a lot. I think the internet is great. I've been really inspired by the various blogs I've come across but one of the main things using the internet has done for me is to seduce me into buying more cookbooks. They are by no means dead yet.

Foodycat said...

Louise - your online newspaper is great! Thanks for including me!

Heather - I do want a Kindle, because I spend 2 hours a day on the train, but it will never replace buying books.

Quay Po - I can go into a bookshop and not buy a cookbook, but it's hard-fought!

Gemma - thank you!

Choclette - I love reading cookbooks in bed too!

kat said...

We have a ton of cookbooks at our house too but I have to say we use them less and less. Actually we tend to make up most of our dishes on our own these days using. When we do use a cookbook its for a specific ethic recipe or for a technique from Joy or Julia

Jude said...

That cheesecake sounds right up my street!

A cookery book is much nicer to take to bed than a laptop.

Foodycat said...

Kat - yeah, mine are mostly for inspiration too!

Jude - Since my laptop died I haven't had the option!

tasteofbeirut said...

Everytime I buy a cookbook, I expect this to be my final one, the one that will keep me satisfied for a long long time (kind of like a love affair I guess!); I agree with your point that one does develop a relationship with cookbook authors; when I met the authors of some of my favorite cookbooks, I felt like a groupie!

Nora said...

I'm with Choclette - I've actually bought a lot more cookbooks since I started reading blogs. And I still have a huge wishlist of books I've seen recommended online. I do love books themselves, but I also think a book is a collection of recipes around a theme, idea or vision, so it's a different experience from looking up a recipe online. (Kind of like an album v. a single, I guess!)

Deb in Hawaii said...

I would have a heck of a lot more space if cookbooks were dead at my place. ;-) I will never give them up. Recipes on a Kindle are not fun and even on a bright shiny iPad it is not the same. I'll keep buying them and making space!

Foodycat said...

Joumana - I've never met the authors of my favourite books, but I can just imagine how you felt!

Nora - you are so right about the different experience! The internet is much more task oriented, isn't it?

Deb - I just need to be ruthless and ditch the ones that aren't working for me.

foodjunkie.eu said...

I LOVE my cookbooks too! I have cut down on the amount I buy per year, but I still cannot resist a good publication!

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