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Read a followup on Eat Your Books to the Pandora’s Box I opened last week with the words, “the home cook will blame herself…”.

Cookbooks we love for all the wrong reasons, like starter boyfriends…we all need to make our mistakes sometime.  What cookbooks did you buy when you were 20?  And better yet…do you still have them?  [I bet you do!]

Read my Eat Your Books post on first-love cookbooks.

Something odd is going on in cookbook merchandising, and I’m trying to understand it.

We’re all familiar with the explosion of food websites and food blogs in the last 10 years and their inevitable transition into print. From Heidi Swanson and the Tipsy Baker to Food52 and Serious Eats, there’s an abundance of popular online hosts or communities who’ve turned author, and there are more every day.

Many, like Ree Drummond (the “Pioneer Woman Cooks”) and Fifi O’Neill (the “Romantic Prairie” magazine) sell a DIY kind of lifestyle that their readers don’t necessarily have the time or life circumstances to undertake themselves.  It’s not the first time that  cooks who are also talented photographers and stylists have taken off in print. It’s certainly not the first time a domestic-shelter editor has successfully sold a lifestyle (see “Stewart, Martha”.)  So that’s not what’s odd.

What I don’t quite get is that if you look at these recipes closely, something doesn’t add up.  Consider the Romantic Prairie Cookbook (by an expatriated Parisian living in Florida). Grilled chicken with mandarin oranges?  No mandarin oranges on the prairie, unless I’m mistaken. There are sausages and breads in the recipes, but they’re mostly storebought. Recipes for salmon, mussels, fish in a salt crust?  Exactly where is this prairie?  And is it near Balducci’s?

The new Pioneer Woman Cookbook: Food from My Frontier makes me wonder, in the same sort of way, which frontier we’re dealing with: Italian meatball soup? Thai chicken pizza?  Chicken Parmesan? Mango margaritas?  It’s true that there is a recipe for pickles and a recipe for jam in the back.  But the language of sustainability, self-reliance, and rugged wholesomeness conveyed by the photographs is not spoken equally by the food.

I’m not wearing my reviewer hat, and I don’t mean to denigrate the food itself, which I haven’t tested and which looks perfectly fine.  No matter where it hails from (and I think it’s safe to say it’s not from Kansas), it’s straight-ahead comfort food, like what you might find in hundreds of midrange urban brunch places.

Some may find themselves asking,  “Why make it when I can buy it in Brooklyn?”  I’m not sure I can answer that.  But my guess is that it’s not the cookbook’s content but its aura that you’re buying–that glimpse of a life not lived by most of us–a life of pale sunrises, endless horizons, quiet insights silhouetted on horseback.  Question is: is that life even being lived by those who sell it?

A couple of months ago, while chatting with the smart, food-loving crowd at Celia Sack’s wonderful little cookbook store, Omnivore Books, I posed a question.  How many recipes, I wondered, do you use from any given cookbook?  Two or three, said one voice. Five or six, said another.  Nobody, including me, used more than that.  That got me thinking about all the cookbooks I own from which I only use ONE  recipe–and there are many–which in turn sparked the following rumination.

When you bought the cookbook, you were sure it was forever.  You browsed through it on the first day, turning down corners or maybe sticking post-its on the pages.  Within a week you had tried a few of the recipes and while not every one was great, one of them knocked your socks off.  I’ll have to remember that, you said to yourself.

And you did.  You remembered that the citrus pork roast was in the big book with the blue cover (maybe, if you’re better about these things than I am, you even remembered the name of the book and the author), and you made it many, many times over the years–though not quite enough times to be able to pull it off without at least glancing at the recipe. After a while, the blue book began opening to the page all by itself.  You could even see the crease in the spine corresponding with the location of the much-loved recipe.

And one day, you looked up from preparing the roast to realize that you hadn’t cooked anything else from that book since the week you bought it, and that you had essentially paid $25 or $35 for a single recipe.  On the other hand, you consoled yourself, what a recipe!

We all have books like these–cookbooks full of promise when purchased, yet which gradually became equated with a single iconic recipe in our repertoires. I have dozens of them.  To name just a few: the Everyday 100% Whole Wheat Sandwich Bread from Artisan Breads Every Day,  the lamb burgers with dried fig and mint relish from the New York Times Country Weekend Cookbook, the Butter Roasted Pecans from The Savannah Cookbook, the Corn Salad with Walnuts and Goat Cheese from The Young Man and the Sea, the Chicken and Dumplings from Refined American Cuisine, the Classic Cole Slaw from Bon Appetit Y’all.

A few years ago, to save wear and tear on my one-recipe books, I started xeroxing their single contributions and keeping them in a binder, along with handwritten recipes and recipes from friends and family.  I pull that black binder out almost every week for one old favorite recipe or another, even though I spend most of my stove time testing new recipes from unfamiliar cookbooks.

I always feel a twinge of guilt, though, for all the unexplored recipes in those books.  Yet I do have hope that redemption lies in store for my one-recipe cookbooks (thanks principally to Eat Your Books, the cookbook-indexing website).  Sometime I’ll be searching for the perfect non-boring green bean recipe–which I do practically every week, so far in vain–and there it will be! in a book I know has got one great recipe…and maybe, just maybe, so much more.

The first week of every January, I have an enviable problem–a problem of abundance in every way.  Holiday roundups are over, and after a week of bingeing on festive food I need to get back on my treadmill, which kept getting covered in books throughout December.  It’s time for cookbook cleanup!

Only problem is, somewhere between 200 and 300 books came in over the fall, and I want to keep them ALL.  But my bookshelves are already full.  It’s time for some ruthless winnowing.  Heartbreaking, but there you have it.

This morning I rolled up my sleeves and hit the “Single-Subject” section of my library.  Do I really need 4 books on pasta?  8 books on meat cookery (and even more than that on seafood)?  Agonizing over every one, I part with a book here, a book there.  So long to the matched set of little gift cookbooks on Apples, Squash, and Tomatoes–so pretty, but not actually useful. So long to the fifth book just on soup.  Adieu to the Very Ambitious Salad book and the hardbound edition of the seafood book I use in paperback.  Farewell to the book on flavored butters–I think I can figure those out for myself.  Goodbye, sort-of-disappointing stew book!

All in all, I drop about 40 books into the “gift” pile.  Hurray!  Now I have room for I Love Meatballs! and Salsas of the World and yet another book of salad dressings!

To tell the truth, the single-subject section is actually the easiest to winnow.  Most of the books are not on my cookbook-indexing website, Eat Your Books, (an indexed book is harder to part with! ), and the quality is not as consistent or the depth of knowledge as great.  The main virtue of a single-subject cookbook is that it makes it easy to look up, say, a blueberry recipe when blueberries are in season.  But searchable databases make that so easy anyway…so a single-subject book has to have some other compelling virtue (say, thoroughness, or helpfulness) for me to keep it.

I’ll be moving on next to the Baking section, which–despite being the least used section of the  library–accounts for the most calories I consume over the course of a year.  But’s that’s OK.  At least I can find my treadmill now.

A new author interview with questions & answers about A Spoonful of Promises and my life as a food writer, now posted at Eat Your Books.

The photo was taken at Amherst Books this month, with my EYB friends–co-founder Jane and data manager Deborah–just before we split the party and went out for Vietnamese food.

Order your own copy of Spoonful here!

 You know how you’re standing in front of the cookbook shelves at the store, leafing through cookbooks and trying to figure out which one to take home, and you feel paralyzed and uncertain, and you question yourself, and then when you finally make up your mind you’re sure you made the wrong choice?  That’s my life as a cookbook reviewer.  The subjective nature of choosing the best cookbooks can be overwhelming.  Sometimes I question myself into oblivion.  (It doesn’t help knowing that my picks will move the market. They always do. No pressure or anything!)

But this time, I paid very close attention to my questions, and I realized that they basically boiled down to a manageable number.  In fact, just seven.  I was so happy to realize that these could be named that I printed up little cards to score the books and stuck them to all my shortlisted candidates.  Here’s my questions–who knows, maybe they’ll help you the next time you’re having brain freeze in the Cookbooks section.

Question 1:  Is it useful?  This means, would an enthusiastic home cook (anyone ranging from a fast weeknight cook to a thoughtful gourmand) be able to find recipes in this book that would satisfy them for a week straight of cooking?

Question 2:  Is it thoughtful? This means, has the author thought of the reader’s needs? Are there hard-to-find ingredients and if so, is there guidance as to where to find them? Are there multiple sub-recipes you have to hunt around for?  Are there clarifying tips in the instructions?  Are there side essays, helpful sidebars and charts?  Do the headnotes help you cook the recipe?

Question 3:  Is it new?  Are at least a majority of the recipes really new?–i.e. not just another recipe for roast chicken or meatballs or insalata caprese with the exact ingredients you’ve always made them with in more or less the same proportions.

If I can’t say at least a partial yes to all three of those first questions, I don’t get to choose it for the shortlist.  After that we get into the refinements.

Question 4: Does it tell a story?  Not everyone likes a story in their cookbooks, but I do.  I like colorful headnotes, reminiscences, and anecdotes–they show me that the author has really put their heart and soul into the book.

Question 5: Is it well-designed?  Design is so important that a lack of it can ruin a cookbook that is otherwise useful, thoughtful and new.  Cookbooks are working books, and they should look like they’re meant to help you, not like a postmodern art installation.

Question 6: Is it focused?  A lot of cookbooks are simply collections of everything the author has ever cooked, or cooked in the last year.  That isn’t necessarily a bad thing, and this concern can be overridden by awesome design or thoughtfulness or usefulness.  But in such an overcrowded market, focus is important.

Question 7: Is it the best of its kind?  Or at least, the best that I’ve seen.  What a hard question this is to answer!  The answer is almost never Yes.  But asking it helps me sort out my thinking.  If the answer is, “It just might be…” that’s a huge endorsement right there.

I also have known biases, which I have to be on rigorous watch for: 1) I’m a total sucker for great design, even in a bad cookbook.  2) I get annoyed when there are 2 systems of measurement in a book.  3) I am happiest when I see a wide variety of publishers, including underdogs.  These I consider unreasonable biases, and much of my time goes into re-weighting my judgements to counter those biases.

I have this grandiose sort of suspicion that the publishers are paying attention to my preferences, because the cookbooks just keep getting better and better with each year.  They may be paying attention, or they may not be,  but it’s still a win for everyone.

As you may have heard, Halloween came early to New England this weekend, in the form of an out-of-season snowstorm of heroic proportions.  It wasn’t the the storm that was so bad, but the damage it inflicted on the trees, their boughs still laden with unfallen foliage–perfect for trapping heavy, wet snow.  All night long we heard the CRACK! of living branches ripping off living trees, to land precariously on power lines and even bring some down.  We woke to a white world, abounding in impassable roads, but completely free of electricity.

What does one cook without power or running water? You might think: raw foods and salad.  Or:  Nothing.  But the answer is actually: Whatever needs using up before it spoils.  That means, meat first.  Yesterday we ate the whole chicken I got on Wednesday.  We braised it with a scattering of prunes and almonds, after the Moroccan fashion.  It was hard cleaning the pan afterward, with its patina of over-caramelized onions, but an hour of scrubbing and soaking did the trick.  It’s not like there was anything else to do.  After dinner, we slept for the entire 12 hours of darkness.

We’ll probably be blacked out for another few days.  But our household was lucky in many ways:  we have a woodstove and plenty of firewood, a propane-fueled range, and a supply of water from the school across the street, which has a generator.  Twice a day we hook our router up to a portable power station for our Internet connection.  We miss our oven and we’re slightly dirty, but we’re pretty comfortable.  The kids even had their Halloween.  We’ll freeze the ice packs outside at night and load them in the fridge during the day.  The menu:  chicken, chicken, pork, lamb, beef, in order of expiration date.

When it’s over, we’ll be a little grubby, but we’ll also be well-rested.  And definitely very well-fed.

Today’s Eat Your Books blog entry (I’ve decided to cross-post them here, as they’re typically full of cookbook observations):

Here’s an interesting exercise I thought we could try.  Let’s take 3 up-to-the-minute cookbooks at random off the pile and see how they address an everyday ingredient. Say shrimp.

Shrimp Biryani (Indian Shrimp and Rice), from The Food52 Cookbook.  It’s a fairly simple one-dish meal, with an attractive photograph at the end.  It has 18 ingredients if you count all the spices; it has 10 steps, and cooks in 1 pot.  Despite all the seasonings, I wouldn’t expect it to take longer than 45 minutes to an hour to complete.  There are some tips at the end, like throwing in vegetables to make it a more complete meal, or what sort of pan to use, and quotes from the cook and a user who tried it.  It serves 6.

I could easily imagine making this at home on a weeknight for the family, and I’m positive they’d eat it all.

Fiery Grilled Shrimp with Honeydew Gazpacho, from Home Cooking with Jean-Georges.  This is, I’m fairly sure, an appetizer, as the serving size works out to 4 shrimp and the gorgeous, restaurant-presentation picture has only 2.  There are 13 ingredients and 5 steps, requiring 2 cooking implements (a blender and a grill).  It serves 4, but in an “OK, what’s next” sort of way.

If I made this, it would be as an appetizer for some guests I really wanted to impress (most of my dinners don’t involve dedicated appetizers these days), and it would serve 4 only because the kids probably wouldn’t go near it.  But chances are I wouldn’t end up making it at all because I’d run out of time after making the main protein.

Asparagus Textures with Shrimp and Anise Hyssop from Eleven Madison Park: The Cookbook. The photograph is so stunning I have no idea what I’m looking at, but it’s probably art.   Even the name of the dish is hard to parse.  The dish is composed of 4 recipes, with 38 ingredients (2 of which are completely different sub-recipes with 10 more ingredients and a sub-sub-recipe) including liquid nitrogen and pea tendrils.  I thought it had 10 steps, not counting the sub- recipes, but then I looked at one of the steps and saw it was really composed of 8 more steps.  The names of the four “basic” recipes making up this dish are: Frozen Asparagus Mousse, Dehydrated Almond Milk Crisp, Almond Milk Snow, and Shrimp.

Likelihood of my ever making this?  Very, very small at the present time.  I could devote a week to tracking down the ingredients, not all of which are available in the same season, and a couple of days to making the sub-recipes, and clear out the fridge to have room for all the prepped components.  But then, what would the family eat those days?  And it’s only an appetizer, after all.  On the other hand, Serves 8.

The moral of the story?  I don’t mean for there to be one.  It’s a curious commentary on the way we live today that all three of these can be called “recipes” despite their very different intents and results.  I’m glad all three of these cookbooks exist, and they each have something to offer someone–though not the same thing, and not to the same someone.  One recipe feeds the soul, another the stomach, the other the imagination–but maybe none of them can feed all three equally well.

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