When I got a yen for lentil soup last week, I understood more viscerally why I keep hearing the old-fashioned cookbook is dead. Instead of turning to one of my packed kitchen bookshelves, I searched online until I found a likely soup contender (the recipe at 101cookbooks.com, if you’re also in a soup mood. Try it with some extra vinegar and chiles.)
That casual dinner made it clear why recipes are so often published now in other forms, in memoirs or other narratives. Cooking directions alone have become easy to find.
The same week, though, I saw room for a different kind of challenge to that fading old cookbook model. It came in the form of “Jam Today: A Diary Of Cooking With What You’ve Got,” one of the first releases by a new Oregon-based small press. The book’s point is creating meals without recipes, via a mix of stories and loose, casual cooking instructions. The tone is so conversational it could have been transcribed from a cooking show.
The truly unconventional part for me, though, was seeing the choice of a front cover blurb. It’s from the author/publisher’s husband: “The best food I ever ate.” Sweet, but most would have gone instead with one of the big-name raves relegated to the back cover, which bookstore browsers only see if the front has already piqued their interest. (One back-cover quote is courtesy of Deborah Madison, praising the book as “a complete pleasure to read,” one is from John Thorne, comparing author Tod Davies to quintessential food writer M.F.K. Fisher.)
Then, there was the matter of pictures. Glossy photographs are expensive additions to cookbooks, but that’s not why Davies wrote that she didn’t want photographs in her book. A picture would pin readers down to making the dish a particular way, she told her husband when he tried to photograph a favorite dinner – and besides, it would be crazy, when the meal was ready, to pause and set up the lighting needed to properly capture the scene.
In the food-blogging world – the modern cookbook – artistic, well-lit, punchy photographs have become a standard feature of success. It’s taken as a given that real-life guests will wait to eat until the dish is visually preserved. Not in the gauntlet that Davies threw down in her book:
“(A) choice between the perfect, immortal picture of my cuisine, and just sitting down to another ephemeral, good tasting dinner when it’s hot and ready to eat? Not even a choice at all. And I can’t help thinking that anyone who would choose immortality over the pleasures involved in small everyday happiness is some kind of fool. And that unfortunately, it seems to be the fools who have their say generally. Maybe because the rest of us are all at home having a nice meal. At least, I am, and I hope you are, too.”
It seems to me an old-fashioned view – but refreshingly new.
Rebekah Denn writes at eatallaboutit.com.