The New Cookbook: This Is Not Fannie Farmer!

This past week in Portland, Ooligan brought the city another installment of its ongoing conversation series, Transmit Culture. The topic: Food Writing and Publishing. A food-focused panel of professionals from the publishing world gave their time to clue in the audience about current trends. The panel offered up many insights about what food writing might be and how it differs from other genres. But most interesting to me was the discussion of the modern cookbook.

I love food nearly as much as I love books. I taught myself to cook at a very young age and have spent most of my free time working late nights in kitchens for the past ten or so years. If you have never worked in the industry, it is impossible for me to convey to you the maniacal chaos and sweet high of working through a dinner rush—I won’t even make an attempt. Go hand in a resume at Interurban, work a Friday night dish shift (and yes, the pit is where you will start), and then we can talk. But until you have the experience of working in a kitchen, take my word for it: it’s an intense, adrenaline-pumping culture that attracts passionate and crazy individuals. Having given so much of myself to this lifestyle, I always took it for granted. A comment made by Greg Mowery at Transmit Culture reminded me of the exclusive nature of the restaurant perspective—is a cookbook “cookable?”

Early in the night, Greg spoke of the necessity of platform and branding for the contemporary cookbook writer. In order to be successful in today’s market, the writer needs to be well established through a variety of channels. Think of the wildly popular champion of the infamous all-American thirty-minute meal, Rachael Ray. She is a Food Network and Travel Channel star, daytime television host, has her own magazine, does product endorsements, and, lest we forget, she also publishes the occasional cookbook. The point is, if the shelves at Barnes & Noble are any indicator, it’s becoming increasingly rare to publish a cookbook without some celebrity.

But what about the recent trend of big-name restaurants publishing cookbooks? Who is buying these expensive books? Sure, they might impress friends visiting your home, but are they actually cookable? Unless you are a serious amateur with a lot of extra time and cash, the answer is probably no. The reality is, many of the ingredients, necessary equipment, and techniques required to pull off some of the dishes featured in the books from Momofuku, El Bulli, or Pok Pok are simply not feasible in many home kitchens. Imitation may be within grasp, but it’s doubtful that the experience of dining in these restaurants can ever be matched. So is there a future for the cookbook, or is it destined to become a purely bourgeois object, void of any utility?

Thursday’s talk proved that there is still hope left for the cookbook. We were told there is a growing, collective movement of food-admirers who are reimagining and reshaping the landscape of cookbook publishing. Small cooperative groups are working together to share the work necessary to bring a book to the public, and they are doing it without celebrity. Purely for the love of food and the community that grows out of eating together, these foodies are changing this idea of platform and re-establishing cookability. Suddenly place has become a platform. The rich textured mosaic of food options that a place like Portland has to offer may be a big enough platform in and of itself. But if place is not the route you want to take when publishing a cookbook, specialize! Sacrifice your body, become a connoisseur of charcuterie, sample every bit of savory goodness the Pacific Northwest has to offer, and write about it.

Perhaps the days of the Fannie Farmer your grandmother used are past us. But that doesn’t mean the cookbook is over. Any place where there are people eating together, sharing stories and laughter, there will be an interest in books about cooking. As for the fancy restaurant, brand-extension book object, save your cash and take a loved one out to eat—treat them to a meal and an experience!

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