Savouring the Book

It's cookbook season again. Authors and publishers have been planning for months to hit you in the sweet spot just before the holidays with books that you will excitedly crack open stoveside or give to everyone on your gift list, culinarians or not.

There's the weather as well. As nights draw on sooner and the cold creeps up on us, some atavistic part of our brains propels us to turn toward the hearth where we stew, braise, and roast cosy autumn meals while we look forward to winter baking that stokes our nostalgia for our own, or possibly someone else's, childhood. Thus as September nears its end, we scan our bookshelves and favorite independents for just that right combination of beauty and practicality to fuel our fire.

While some may prefer to curl up with an actual novel, the food revolution has created a peculiar beast who prefers to savour cookbooks as if they were novels. Indeed, people tell me all the time how they take cookbooks to bed, read them on the morning subway commute, and like me, sink into a warm bubble bath with the hottest new baking book from Norway or a primer on making your own cheese. We foodies love our cookbooks. The gorgeous glossy photos, the exotic themes, the personal stories that head the recipes, the juicy tidbits along the sidebars.

As someone who started in academia working on food history and literature, I'm always in awe of the physical book, especially when it comes to cookbooks. When cookbooks in English first started gaining popularity round about the time Shakespeare was penning his plays, these slender volumes, often no larger than a housewife's pocket, let women into a world beyond their station and allowed them to peak into the lives of their betters. While elaborate illustrations were the only visual guide to cooking for centuries after, the marriage of new-fangled photography that could capture the soul of food with advance printing techniques of the 20th century would eventually stir colourful publishing deities like Time-Life to deem it good and on the 7th day to mass produce enormous series by course, by country, or by holiday. And eventually we got Julia. And then Martha, Jaimie, Nigella, until the farmer movement edged in, giving us not just center spreads of stunning dishes but the lush greens of the fields and rich earth trembling on a newly dug potato.

In saying this in favor of the codex, though, I worry I am somewhat biting the hand that feeds me. My first cookbook, Eat Feed: Autumn Winter, came out of my podcast, Eat Feed. Then I got an unexpected boost from the online food site, Epicurious, when it picked mine as one of the best food books of 2008. But despite this I believe recipe websites may be well and good for finding a recipe when you know what you're looking for or exploring and surfing at your desk, but people who want to really cosy up to real food still relish the experience of the physical book for some reason.

Or at least that's what I believed before my agent enticed me further from academia and into trade publishing. Imagine my surprise when, during the process of searching for a publisher, I was told that the cookbook is a dying genre. (And possibly thanks in part to people like me working in the medium of "new media.") Readers who would find a Kindle on their nightstand an abomination happily browse virtual recipe boxes, downloading and printing to their stomach's content. More than one editor rejected my book, declaring adamantly that there's no future in cookbook publishing. Only racy, raucous kitchen nightmares and loving dedications to gastronomic doyennes need apply. And we'll take a food history if you've got one, preferably if it's the fish, potato, or spice that saved the world. Everyone wants their recipe on a screen, not a book, those in the biz tell me, contrary to testimonials of eager readers at book signings who adamantly tell me about their favorite cookbooks.

It's unclear to me what the reality is. Sites like Cookstr try to fulfill both ideas - love of the big book and the free screen. They take the recipes from cookbook authors like me and publish them on their site in the hopes of getting more people interested in the actual books and authors behind them. Loving the book requires thinking about it as something more than just a collection of how-to recipes, of course. What do you think? What is a cookbook to you and what makes one worth buying? What are those food books that you cherish and use again and again? Where do you read and savour cookbooks besides the kitchen?