Flour-covered, sticky, and battered: Why are recipe books still so popular in the digital age? – Stuff.co.nz

As our cooking gadgets get increasingly high-tech one thing remains a constant backbone – the good old-fashioned cookbook. How has it survived in a digital world? Kelly Dennett reports.
In publishing The Art of French Cooking in 1961, a cookbook lauded as the “definitive work for nonprofessionals”, Julia Child and co-writers Louisette Bertholle and Simone Beck achieved what a cook or baker in 2022 may struggle to do: publish a cookbook as a virtual nobody.
“If you’re a person in the suburbs and you’re a great cook of lovely recipes, if someone publishes your book and it’s on the shelves at Paper Plus or Unity, is anyone going to pick it up if nobody has heard of you, when it’s next to 300 other books by Jamie Oliver, and Nadia Lim?”
That’s Penguin Random House non-fiction publisher Margaret Sinclair speaking over the phone. “They’re not even going to look at your book, unfortunately.” The bottom line for an aspiring Julia Childs: “You need to be building a following.”
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Perhaps that’s why it’s so easy to Google any recipe you like these days. Enter the contents of your pantry into a search engine and the internet will rescue you. Suffer a dairy intolerance or embarked on a paleo diet? There’s a Facebook page, a blog, a website, a newsletter to subscribe to, invariably written by a kitchen-savvy mum who was trying to save time/lose weight/pinch pennies.
Which begs the question: why are cookbooks not obsolete?
The answer has many ingredients. For one, says Sinclair, cookbooks are just easier to use. There’s no faffing about printing a recipe and then trying to remember where you left it, or where that glorious apricot chicken you made two years ago came from. Likewise, if you’re buying local, our books avoid the confusing US and UK measurements (how many cups in a pint? What’s a stick of butter?) and they’ll make good use of local product – you won’t see snapper and kumara in Julia’s Mastering.
The popularity of cookbooks is evident. Here, they routinely make the bestseller list, more recently prompting one industry commentator to ask why they couldn’t have their own category, as they often oust beautiful memoirs from their perch.
According to Nielsen, sales of food and drink books have climbed. We bought more than 300,000 last year, up from 266,568 copies in 2019. More than a quarter were NZ titles.
Sinclair says particularly notable in the scene are recipes that cater to diets or allergies. Health food, diet and wholefood cook books are extremely popular, and local vegetarian cookbooks have exploded onto the market – 252 were sold in 2017 compared to 55,000 in 2020, and more than 31,000 last year (Nielsen’s numbers are possibly skewed by Covid).
“It’s become mainstream,” says Sinclair. “Vegan, raw, gluten-free – they’re all huge and have grown enormously over the last, say, five years. Eight years ago we might have gone, ‘oh maybe that’s a bit niche’ [to consider publishing].”
And that’s the other thing about cookbooks – they say something about a particular time. In the ‘60s, when Mastering the Art of French Cooking entered the vernacular, many Americans were travelling abroad amid a thriving economy, and the French were seen as tres chic.
In 2022 home cooks are on the optimisation train – we like fuss-free food that won’t harm the environment, and we know all about macros and ‘natural’ sugars and ‘good’ fats. We like food that looks pretty, but… we love our cookbooks when they look a bit battered.
My Kitchen Rules winner and food blogger Belinda MacDonald is about to release Flavourbomb with Penguin, a book dedicated to keto (low carb) recipes.
“I want [a book] that was really colour-driven, flavour-driven, not pretentious and something fun,” she says. “There’s nothing more satisfying than having cookbooks that have lots of sticky dribbles down the pages because you’ve thrashed them.”
Unity Books Wellington owner Tilly Lloyd says her most recent top two cookery bestsellers Ottolenghi Test Kitchen [OTK]: Shelf Love (Ebury Press), and Salad: 70 delicious recipes for every occasion (Allen & Unwin) by ‘Raw Sisters’ Margo and Rosa Flanagan, had major themes in common: pantry-based, anti-waste, and recipe adaptability.
Lloyd, who has many mates now cooking Ottolenghi recipes, recently experimented with it herself in a “flurry of farm cooking” at Wānaka.
“There’s a ‘celebration rice’ recipe with poached chicken and lamb… My note in ‘make it your own’ (admittedly wine-fuelled) is to reduce the rice by 1/3 to intensify the dish and also to reduce the scarfie flat look. It’s hard to believe OTK would ever achieve that Castle St vibe, so I’m pretty sure it must’ve been achieved by my poor plating.”
Locally, titles like Feed the Tribe, The Healthy Chef, Homegrown Kitchen and The Forager’s Treasury really need no explanation about what we’re into. But amidst the wellness craze, baking books continue to do really well, Sinclair says. From the eponymous Edmonds Cookbook (in print since 1908) to vegan recipes from Chelsea Winter (see Supergood).
Winter is a favourite of The Great Kiwi Bakeoff contestant Teniqua Jones, who began baking at 18 when she became a mother. The eldest of 10, she says her family weren’t into the kitchen much, and she wanted to ensure her daughter would have everything she didn’t while growing up – homemade birthday cakes for example.
At Whitcoulls she picked up a Women’s Weekly cupcake recipe book and never looked back. Today, her Instagram is stacked with imagery of luxe cakes, and she estimates she’s got about 50 recipe books on her shelf. She’s handwriting her own, to pass onto her daughter. Books, she says, have an edge in that they’ve been tried and tested by experts.
It’s fortunate that recipe books do well, as they tend to have high production values – all that food and photography – and after that, says Sinclair, measurements and instructions are pored over by specialist editors and proofreaders who check all the ingredients are listed, in the right order. By the end of it, it’s basically a work of art – a beautiful book also makes a great gift, or memento.
“Giving someone a link to a [recipe] is one thing, but wrapping up a beautiful book knowing they will use it and it’s practical and lovely is really a different level.”
What makes an excellent cookbook?
“Ooh. It’s quite a personal question really. The first thing that springs to my mind is that it’s easy to make, ingredients are available, that you’ll get a good consistent result, and it doesn’t take too much time.”
It’s different strokes for different folks, but Sinclair says there are some common themes.
“The perfect cookbook is by a high-profile person and covers a range of recipes and covers quick everyday meals and entertainment meals that would challenge a cook.
“I think I’m continually searching for the perfect book that will help me prepare a weeknight meal in 20 minutes.”
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