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.