On Sunday I put a call out on Twitter for books that a 60-year-old guy could use to teach himself to cook and got scores of suggestions: Lots of Julia of course, but others that got three or more votes were Bittman's How to Cook Everything, Alice Waters' The Art of Simple Food, and The Joy of Cooking. A couple mentioned Tom Collichio's Think Like a Chef and Madeleine Kamman's The Making of a Cook. A few kinds souls mentioned Ratio, a not unreasonable suggestion as it explores the fundamentals. But after I read all these comments, and, having been speaking intensively with a couple of publishing executives about the changing nature of cookbooks I wanted to put this out as a post, to discuss the nature of the new cookbooks and also so that people can name their favorite teaching cookbook in comments so we have a more permanent record of them than we do on twitter.
I pulled the above stack (photo by donna, thanks!) randomly but they are all good books and all teach in their own way. And "own way" is the key here. Most of them don't overtly try to teach (Alton's and my books do, and the CIA pro chef series is an explicit culinary textbook), but some are more effective than others by being more than simply a compilation of recipes.
Now that the tsunami of free recipes has flooded the cooking landscape, what is the purpose of cookbooks? Some of the points addressed by Sydny Miner of S&S and Bill LeBlonde of Chronicle Books at The Greenbrier included the fact that once we needed books of recipes, compilations, such as Joy or Craig Claiborne's The New York Times Cookbook. But now, because recipes are a click away, books have evolved. They come now with voice, with story, with a distinct personality. Also, as Miner pointed out, decades ago, somebody in most households cooked (usually a mom) who passed a fundamental set of skills down to the children so that recipes could read, "use a lump of butter the size of a walnut, mix together with flour, egg, sugar, pour into a cake pan and bake in a moderate oven until done." That was enough. Now we must be very specific in our instructions because not everyone knows what moderate means, mix together how, etc. We managed to lose a generation of cooking knowledge.
Bill LeBlond commented that he was much, much more interested in unconventional ideas because the old model is just not selling anymore.
And while at Greenbrier a reader emailed to say this: "After getting used to reading food blogs, I’m
looking for the stories behind the food. Today, for example, I browsed
through 2 older David Lebovitz cookbooks and I missed the stories. I
now find traditional cookbooks to be dry/boring without the wonderful
stories I read on (good) blogs. Plenty of people can make up a recipe,
but not many are good story tellers or have something particularly
interesting to say."
What are the best teaching cookbooks out there and what are we now looking for in today's cookbook?