COOKING THE BOOKS 25/1/22
I have never seen so many cookbooks on the shelves as these days when I wander into a shop but only few lucky dozen of the myriad of new titles actually sell in sufficient numbers each year. You would be surprised as to how many even make any money at all or break even for that matter, hundreds of thousands of copies need to be shifted for the big bucks and most of the thousands of cookbooks published annually just in English alone will only sell a few hundred in fact.
My own shelves are heaving with four decades of amassing a few hundred of them at this stage and even appearing in some myself. I used to wander around the iconic store called Books for Cooks in Notting Hill which is still the Mecca for any foodies looking for literary inspiration and just gaze at the sheer number of volumes written over the years. With the digital revolution still rising relentlessly it seems the cookbook is holding its own even though you can easily type in now for just about any ingredient or recipe ever written and source every book ever published online. It’s hardly worth giving out a recipe these days but the public still love a hard copy book if even for just the glossy photos.
We have come a long way since the Romans started jotting down ingredients and methods while they were busy inventing the rest of the kitchen utensils and equipment. For us in foodie world it’s not just cookbooks from the media, colleagues and food writers but all the associated ones from the history of food and cooking to the technical tomes that we use in training for the cookery profession.
The one thing I find fascinating is the commonality across recipes seeing how much they resemble their previous incarnations. Sometimes it is like there is just the one big master copy of a cookbook and everyone delves into it for the basic recipes and then spins multiple derivative versions of each dish so that it just keeps evolving to eternity. By changing one ingredient here or there or adding an extra step people will still then buy them. These rehashed recipes have been cleverly dressed up each time in new jackets but the basic formula is in there in disguise underneath it all if you peek between the pages.
The other thing is the myth that the author is earning millions from the sales when the reality is that so many people have to grab a piece of the book publishing pie just to get it from an idea to on a shop shelf. The percentage of profit for the actual author is literally pennies unless you are in the top end of the sales figures charts then it is a cash windfall. Take a bow Jamie and Nigella. When you think about the costs of ingredients, test kitchens, researchers, technical assistants, stylists, designers, editors, photographers, ghost writers, printing, marketing, wholesalers, retailers, the list goes on and on. This is why they are mainly just a marketing tool for other elements of the brand like restaurants or TV shows where the investment will be rewarded by bums on seats or views at home.
My own favourites are ones that are from the distant past and more about food as a subject than recipes per se. My go to ones would be still my first purchases from many moons ago and some of them are pictured. If I was to name just one if pushed, then my favourite is The Philosopher in the Kitchen by the great 19th century French foodie called Jean-Anthelme Brillat-Savarin. It gives his take on the emergence of cuisine, eating out, recipes, table manners, amusing stories and more. Its out of print but second hand copies are around.
#cookbooks #booksforcooks #foodwriting #recipebooks #foodphotography #historyoffood