silent sunday: are cookbooks still useful?

Are cookbooks still useful? Here’s some food for thought this week in the Guardian.

Food writer Prue Leith insists that “when we come to cook … the cookbook stays on the coffee table. Now the look of the book dictates the sale. In my day you could still buy a good cookbook in paperback with no pictures at all. I doubt if that would sell today. But those books were much used: they lived in the kitchen and got splattered with custard and gravy. Today, if we cook, we Google it. New cookbooks lie on the coffee table and we drool over Tuscan landscapes and rustic bread ovens. Before ordering in a pizza.”

Yotam Ottolenghi and Tim Hayward take up the argument and conclude that cookbooks are still relevant. “I believe many people do still cook from their cookbooks. They may not cook from all of them – many, no doubt, complete their job after an initial speedy flick-through, which is also fine by me – but there are certain books, illustrated and beautiful that we will always go back to, no matter how many more shiny spines are there alongside them on the bookshelves.” -Ottolenghi

“it seems bonkers to take a moral stance on how they should be enjoyed. For me, making a modern, illustrated food book means making an object that balances utility with entertainment in a way that appeals to a new and different kind of audience.” -Tim Hayward

In the comment section of The Guardian, some one brought up Daniel Pennack’s 10 Inalienable Rights of the Reader, suggesting that #6 could apply quite easily to recipes and food writing. I have to admit I agree.

1. The right not to read
2. The right to skip
3. The right not to finish a book
4. The right to re-read
5. The right to read anything
6. The right to “Bovary-ism,” a textually transmitted disease*
7. The right to read anywhere
8. The right dip in*
9. The right to read out loud
10. The right to be silent

*#6 – Bovary-ism: the right to mistake a book for real life
#8 – I’ve also seen this translated as ‘the right to sample and steal (“grappiller”)

“For me, a successful cookbook is one that is pored over at bedtime as much as it’s used in the kitchen. I don’t think one necessarily negates the other.” -Anna Valentine

Your thoughts? And what cookbooks are you cooking and baking from?

  • Reply
    fit kolacji
    Tuesday, October 27, 2015 at 8:39 am

    I have a couple of raw food books that I got years ago that I still love looking through because they’re just so beautiful!

  • Reply
    Marissa @ In My Yellow Cardigan
    Monday, August 31, 2015 at 12:14 pm

    I was catching up on blogs and I just read this! I just bought three cookbooks from Williams-Sonoma yesterday for a steal. Also, it was because of your blog post a while back that I bought Cook’s Illustrated Baking Book (that fudgy brownie recipe is my go-to for everything)! I like cookbooks for inspiration as a supplement to all of the blogs I follow. I LOVE the idea above of committing to cooking/baking at least 50 recipes solely from cookbooks. I’m teaching myself how to make pie so I’ve been browsing cookbooks like crazy.

  • Reply
    Thursday, August 27, 2015 at 2:35 am

    What a fascinating discussion! Until relatively recently I would have fallen into the camp of those with so many cookbooks that I would rarely cook from, because it took too long to search them all for either that one recipe I remember, or even just a recipe to use a particular ingredient. For me at least, the solution has been using Eat Your Books so I can search my own books as easily as the internet. I still enjoy flicking through my books in bed, but now also cook from them a lot more 🙂

  • Reply
    Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 4:40 pm

    I love to look through cookbooks, but when I actually cook, I typically reach for recipes collected from blogs and online sources. To combat that, I challenged myself to make 50 cookbook recipes in 2015. I’ve made about 25 so far (2/3 through the year), but I think I can meet my goal! It’s been a fun exercise, anyway

  • Reply
    Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 7:35 am

    Cookbooks are always relevant! I read them in bed before I go to sleep. Best bedtime stories ever!! 😉 Whilst I do not cook from books as often as I would like (because on a busy weekday you rely on something you know how to make because you are tired and do not want to fail, and weekends are waaaaay too busy for your liking) I love to read them. More often than not I intend to cook this, and oh! that thing form page 69 too! But to be honest: I make golden oldies and use cookbooks more as inspiration for a meal than following recipes to the letter. But still, I drool over cookbooks 🙂

    Currently sleeping with the following: Heidi Swanson, Rachel Allen, Jamie Oliver, Yvette van Boven, Delia Smith, Molly Wizenberg, and way too many blog authors!

  • Reply
    Monday, August 24, 2015 at 8:59 pm

    I have hundreds of cookbooks. I love them and I cook from one every week. They bring me joy. I read my cookbooks on the train ride to work or at night. There are so many new and fresh was to get the most out of your ingredients. Plus my family and friends enjoy the final dish.

  • Reply
    Marty Betty
    Monday, August 24, 2015 at 8:07 pm

    I am a photographer and s chef. I buy cookbooks for the photographs and stories ! The last cookbook I bought was by a French woman. I did not realize it was vegan recipes until I read it. I love her stories,photos and recipes!

  • Reply
    Monday, August 24, 2015 at 5:21 pm

    All of this is SO true! Thank you for writing this. So many people (myself included) have the pinwheel of celebrity chef cookbooks on the coffee table only to end up grabbing yet another Rotisserie chicken in a panic at the end of the day AND then feel badly about doing so! I have watched my own cooking habits change over the years and yes, it’s blogs and google for sure but I still love the appeal of “reading” a good cookbook. Ironically, I even love the books that are derived from blogs such as Joy the Baker or that depressingly perfect woman from Manger, sigh …

  • Reply
    Monday, August 24, 2015 at 1:46 pm

    I love cookbooks. I’ve always been a reader so I now choose to indulge in a good cookbook at bedtime. I do agree that a cookbook with little to no pictures a useless as I believe cooking involves of visuals. However I am sometimes put off cookbooks as sometimes the recipes don’t work as I know a few writers who have only tested recipes once and expect them to work for novice bakers. I do a bit of both I look for recipes on google if I’m looking for something for specific. But if I have time to tweak and search for a recipe I head for the cookbooks!

  • Reply
    Catriona | Analog Eats
    Monday, August 24, 2015 at 11:49 am

    So surprised that people are so divided on this topic! I love cookbooks for many reasons, I absolutely still cook from them, and inevitably splatter them with batter, but sometimes I just flip through them and put them back on the shelf. I get inspiration form the internet as well. Pinterest and blogs. Google I’ve definitely relied on too. But I find if you do enough of those flip throughs of your cookbooks, you can avoid google because you know whats in your cookbooks. I’ve got love for all forms of recipes, but I DO need a picture.

  • Reply
    Rande | RandeMoss.com
    Monday, August 24, 2015 at 11:16 am

    I have a couple of raw food books that I got years ago that I still love looking through because they’re just so beautiful! It’s also kind of nostalgic, they were the first recipe books I bought for myself. I got rid of a couple one time and ended up just buying them again!

  • Reply
    Monday, August 24, 2015 at 10:52 am

    My all-time favorite, most-used cookbooks are from the Silver Palate series. Not a photo in any of them, only line drawings. They were so used that I had to replace all of them as the pages were falling out. That was in the 80’s and 90’s. I now rarely pick up a cookbook that doesn’t have lots of photographs. The internet has spoiled us and we’ve lost our imagination. Sad!

  • Reply
    Monday, August 24, 2015 at 10:21 am

    I actually feel the opposite- I wish that people would publish more practical cookbooks. If I am going to spend money on a book, I want it to be that I will use, not one that is just going to sit on a shelf or coffee table.

  • Reply
    Monday, August 24, 2015 at 9:54 am

    I have to admit to feeling guilty about owning but not using cook books. I’m a serial section pincher; I’ll steal loads of elements of recipes to make my own up. Leading to recipe books being null and void. I have books that I have never intended of making a recipe out of and bought purely so I can immerse myself in their beauty!

    B x

  • Reply
    Becca | Spices and Spatulas
    Monday, August 24, 2015 at 9:30 am

    SO great that you brought this up. I collect cookbooks like others collect coins or stamps, and read them for fun, but not necessarily for cooking. I definitely reach for my laptop/phone when looking for a quick recipe..with all the amazing blogs and food media sites, there’s so much at our fingertips! However, one of my favorite things to do if I have a free few hours is to play cookbook roulette: I close my eyes, pick a random cookbook from my shelf, then flip through and make the first thing that catches my eye. Never disappoints! But when I’m in a bind, there’s nothing like the Fannie Farmer cookbook when looking for a foolproof recipe for anything. Though it doesn’t have the gorgeous pictures I yearn for after so much blog-hopping. xo

  • Reply
    Monday, August 24, 2015 at 8:52 am

    I prefer to cook from cookbooks or paper recipe cards. I like that I know which is the pancake recipe my kids like because it’s the one with the stains on it. I like taking a pencil and adding my own changes and thoughts. I check cookbooks out from the library and read them at night cover to cover, then copy down things I think I’ll actually make. I have noticed the trend in newer cookbooks is that many of them feel less accessible for a home cook, or a busy cook, or a nervous cook. Ingredients that are not likely to be in someone’s pantry or multiple steps that would be difficult to accomplish in the short time between coming home from work and hungry children. My mother bought me ‘The Joy of Cooking’ when I got married and it is still one of my favorites.

  • Reply
    Sasha | Eatmeblog
    Monday, August 24, 2015 at 7:24 am

    There are books for photography inspiration and there are books that you constantly return to for ideas and recipes. It doesn’t matter if you take a recipe and follow it step by step but you can take a look at a pic and an idea comes up to you out of the blue or may find an interesting tasty combo you’d never have thought of.
    This way I love Nigel Slater’s books.

  • Reply
    Hannah Olding
    Monday, August 24, 2015 at 2:41 am

    I love my cookbooks but until recently they sat on my shelves gathering dust. I now pick a cookbook each week and plan my meals from that book. I do need to have a picture for every recipe though otherwise I won’t use it!

  • Reply
    Lisa Robles
    Sunday, August 23, 2015 at 2:16 pm

    Agree with Abby. I have shelves and shelves of books but I search for recipes on Google! I wouldn’t give them up though. So pretty!

  • Reply
    Sunday, August 23, 2015 at 1:31 pm

    Oh, this is so interesting, Sarah. I personally love cookbooks, but rarely- if ever – cook from them. I’m attracted to pretty ones, and like to use them as decor. Recipes I actually use are either printed from the internet, scrawled on old sheets or paper, or are read from pictures on my phone.

  • Reply
    Sunday, August 23, 2015 at 12:17 pm

    Yes I’ve read an article about it as well. I have to admit I have a few cooking books (some were gifts) but I end up looking at them and finding the pictures pretty and too many steps for me to do. I rely a lot on specific recipes I print and mostly youtube videos as it’s a lot easier to follow. I still have 1 classic book without any pictures and that holds the best brownie recipe ever 🙂
    I would say the best cookbook is my grandma’s notebook, hand-written and with bits of flour inside 🙂

  • Reply
    Heather (Delicious Not Gorgeous)
    Sunday, August 23, 2015 at 11:21 am

    agree with leith’s argument that no one would buy a picture-less cookbook. i’d say cookbooks aren’t as universal as they used to be, but are still used and useful in the kitchen (i still curl up with them, though). would all those ottolenghi books been so popular, and would people have relied on dorie greenspan’s tomes otherwise?

  • Reply
    Sunday, August 23, 2015 at 10:47 am

    I’ve ways had an enormous collection but ditched the majority of them on my last move. I don’t miss them. I like the idea of cookbooks better than the cookbooks themselves. Mostly, I kept a few solid – mostly older/ vintage books. I get most of my recipes online now – from wonderful blogs like yours.

  • Reply
    [email protected]'sBookbag
    Sunday, August 23, 2015 at 10:25 am

    Darling Sarah- I have so many thoughts on this that I have to do a blog post about it! I have close to 100 cookbooks. I just the other day purged 17. I live and breathe cookbooks – many of my super favs are ones I barely cook from! I read and re-read them, like novels.

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