You are currently browsing the tag archive for the ‘cookbook reviewer’ tag.
I’ve been reviewing cookbooks for some 12 years now. Every once in a while, I write a critical review. It doesn’t happen terribly often – maybe 2 or 3 times a year, a small fraction of the total. There’s a reason bad reviews are infrequent: if a book looks really unpromising, my editor and I generally just don’t consider it for review. It’s of no service to anyone for me to waste the paper’s column space trashing a lousy book, when there are so many good ones waiting for coverage.
I test most books for a good week. I might test up to 15 or 16 recipes if I’ve had a chance to dip into the book for non-work-related purposes, but I never test fewer than about 8.
I often give a recipe the benefit of the doubt: say I sloshed a bit when I was pouring soy sauce into my measuring spoon, or my oven thermometer battery died and I didn’t notice. Suppose I eyeballed 1/3 cup of chopped nuts instead of measuring them. My eye is pretty good at this point, but I’m human. If I have any doubt that I didn’t follow the recipe to the letter, I disclose it in the review, or I give the recipe some leeway – for example, if it’s too salty from the sloshed soy, I know not to blame the author. If I “fix” a recipe that’s going wrong, as we all do sometimes, I say so.
When the testing’s going downhill on a book, my heart sinks with it. I know that when the review is published, someone – probably someone really nice – is going to have a bad day. On the other hand, I think of the readers who rush out to buy the book, swept up in the 4-week wave of publicity that carries cookbooks out to the world. I have a responsibility, I tell myself, to share what I know. And cookbooks in particular are hard to judge when you’re standing in a bookstore, trying to guess which recipes will work.
That’s why, when I write a critical review, I pretty much stick to the facts. As Pete Wells so entertainingly demonstrated in his famous takedown of Guy Fieri’s Times Square restaurant, a hatchet job can be a kind of prose holiday – you can take stylistic liberties that normally wouldn’t be on the menu. But I don’t think I’ve penned a rant since my very earliest days reporting (and when I did, my editor had the wisdom to tone it down), because I can’t help thinking about how the author will feel. I know how I’d feel.
In fact, every time I write a story, whether it’s a review or some other kind of feature, there’s comments and feedback. Most of it’s helpful, and some of it is downright pleasant. But every once in a while, someone goes ballistic, and I’m reminded that a tough skin doesn’t usually come with the package for those of us born writers.
On those occasions, I sometimes find it helpful to imagine my own critics as tiny figures on the floor, shouting through miniature megaphones, yet still inaudible. ”What’s that you say?” I reply. “I’m sorry, can you speak a little louder? I just can’t hear you!”
So, cookbook authors, you might consider doing the same. If I’ve reviewed your book unfavorably, imagine me as a very, very small T. Susan Chang, in a grimy apron, brandishing a tiny wooden spoon. After all, in the scope of things, a cookbook reviewer is just a small cog in a great wheel. You won’t be far off from the truth, and it might make you feel a whole lot better.
The views expressed in this blog post are entirely my own and not those of the Boston Globe.
A couple of years ago, I started keeping track of everything we cooked and ate–dinners anyway. It was mostly a practical matter: as I tested more and more and more cookbooks for the Globe and NPR, I never got to enjoy even my favorite recipes more than once or twice because I couldn’t remember what they were or where to find them.
So I started keeping records. And I realized that every month or so, it turned out that there was at least one kind-of-mindblowing recipe worth returning to and telling people about.
As of tomorrow, I will start sharing my favorite 14 or 15 lick-the-pan, sauce-on-your-nose, hoard-the-leftovers recipes from 2012. I’ll post one every few days, with the story of how we discovered it, what book it came from, and how you can get it, too.
The publishers have kindly consented to let me reprint the recipes here on the blog, with original photos where available. So tie on your aprons and fire up your Pinterest! We’ll get underway first thing in the morning.
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.