- Cooking Books for More Than Cooks
In the age of the Internet, the cookbook—once and perhaps still the most likely genre to have a place in every home on a street—faces an uncertain future. With apps able to create a meal from a list of ingredients, hashtag-friendly recipe blogs like Thug Kitchen, and sites featuring every recipe from the last ten years of the Food Network, the threat of becoming mere conversation starters, status symbols, interior decoration or nostalgia incarnate hovers over every kitchen bookshelf. But cookbooks are still being printed. They might be more food photos than recipes or more celebrity chef than food, but whatever the angle, the need to offer something that makes cookbooks more than just anthologies of recipes is shaping the cookbook industry. Authors and publishers are finding some interesting ways to meet this challenge, and many are consciously leaning into the genre of creative nonfiction to do so. An excellent example is Eddie Huang’s 2013 memoir Fresh off the Boat—which has also now become a family sitcom that Huang is frequently publicly displeased with. The book is far more about Huang’s growing up [End Page 161] Taiwanese-Chinese in America than about his cooking, but most readers who knew him prior to its publication knew him from his acclaimed restaurant Baohaus or his appearances as a guest judge on Top Chef. It is still a book with food at its heart, but in Fresh off the Boat, food is more cultural and historical symbol than subject.
Really, though, the challenge of offering something more than a home cook’s box of 3 × 5 recipe cards is nothing new. The difference is that now the recipes are as likely to be a binder of pages printed from the Internet for quick, splatter-friendly reference if there is no safe space for the laptop. Those recipe cards and printed pages are worthy of discussion as significant cultural symbols and literary works in their own right, but they are not the purview of this review, not really. I am interested in the cooking books—the special subset of cookbooks that supplement the cook’s recipe trove by being explicitly as much about the culture, the style, the methods, the ingredients as about the recipe or the finished meal. This is a class of books as likely to be read in bed or in the living room as in the kitchen, yet most will have a few pages stained by spitting fat or water-spotted from being held open by quickly rinsed hands. They constitute a literature of both cooking and eating. Some of the authors and books here might be familiar, and some are far more cookbook than creative nonfiction cooking book, but they are all interested in the connections between cooking and culture, cooking and memory, and cooking and identity.
In selecting cooking books for this essay, I avoided some of the most archetypal in the hope that one or more of the books discussed here might be welcomed as new additions to the kitchen shelves of readers and cooks. There will, for example, be no mention beyond this of The Joy of Cooking, though it is probably the most ominpresent of this subgenre in kitchens across America. This book is to cooking literature what the Iliad or the Odyssey is to Western literature—an epic poem in linked recipes. Nearly everyone is familiar with its contents, though far fewer have read it from cover to cover. And at eight editions and counting, The Joy of Cooking doesn’t need me to champion it.
The Taste of Country Cooking
Edna Lewis. Knopf, 2006, 304 pp., $24.95.
Edna Lewis’s foundational text of Southern cooking—The Taste of Country Cooking—is a good place to start, as it is the closest thing I...