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.