Today’s topic is why I buy a cookbook. I know everyone cares very deeply about what motivates me to buy a cookbook, so I’m sharing this with you now. There are lots of reasons people buy cookbooks, and I just read interviews with several chefs in which they agreed that they buy a cookbook for the pictures. This couldn’t be further from my reasons.
I would never buy a cookbook solely for the pictures. I know people who insist on a cookbook with a picture of every recipe, and people who like the pictures because they give an idea of what the finished product is supposed to look like (I admit to falling into this latter category). But pictures are not the only thing that drives my purchasing decision.
First and foremost I buy cookbooks based on my current interest. With the recent admission of my Japanese food addiction, I’m now picking up Japanese cookbooks. I like to understand what it is I’m eating, what ingredients are common, and the fundamentals of preparation of foods I like, even if I’m never going to actually make them, although if I buy the cookbook, I usually do wind up making something from it. I don’t find I have to have a picture of every recipe. I like that, of course, but it doesn’t drive me to make the purchase.
I also buy cookbooks based on a specific need. As I’ve discussed before (and no doubt you have committed my earlier postings to memory, so you know this too), I sometimes get into a rut when it comes to what to have for dinners. One thing that will jolt me out of a rut is buying a new cookbook with lots of good things to make for weeknight dinners, or even weekend dinners.
There are authors whose cookbooks I just like to have, to collect, if you will. Many of these are Australian cooks—Donna Hay, Bill Grainger, Jill Dupleix. I don’t follow celebrity chefs much (you’ll find only one Rachael Ray cookbook on my bookshelf, and that was a huge mistake, since her recipes are both bad and annoying at the same time). The books by people like Donna and Bill I do cook from. I’ve recently found a few books I want that may or may not be anything I ever cook from, but that I want anyway. The two that spring most readily to mind are the two that were written by the chef of a local restaurant called The Herb Farm. They just seem like the kind of thing I’d like to have in my collection. As well, I have a bunch of books by people like Julia Child, which I don’t think I’ve ever cooked from, but they’re the kind of thing no cookbook collection is complete without.
Which brings me to the next reason I buy a cookbook—because it’s a classic. I’m still sorting out in my mind what exactly makes a cookbook a classic, so that’s a topic for another time, but suffice to say there are books I feel are “must haves.” New books are always being added to this category (or at least, the version of this category that’s a running list in my mind). Most recently I bought The Silver Spoon cookbook. It came out in this country last Christmas, and is, according to the publisher, the definitive work on Italian cooking. At over 1000 pages, I would hope so. In any event, there are lots of obvious classics—Fannie Farmer, Joy of Cooking (ugh), Betty Crocker. And then there are the more recent classics—the Silver Palate cookbooks, the Dean & Deluca cookbook, How to Cook Everything by Mark Bittman.
And then there’s the fantasy element of a cookbook. Some cookbooks have recipes that I like to visualize myself making, even if I never will. I like the idea that one day I will make Warm Terrine of Sausage, Peppers, Polenta and Mozzarella and serve it as an appetizer at a dinner party. Will I ever do that? Maybe, maybe not, but I like to buy cookbooks that fuel that kind of fantasy. In fact, the first cookbook I read was one of the Silver Palate ones, and I read it because it had that dream element to it. I was in college and it provided fuel for my imagination and what it would be like when I “grew up” (something I’m still waiting on, by the way). Sometimes that fantasy element takes the form of pictures—beautiful table settings and floral arrangements—but other times it’s the recipes themselves that pull me in.
So pictures may be a driving factor, but there are so many more important reasons to buy a cookbook. If it serves a purpose, even if that purpose is only to encourage a certain amount of daydreaming, then it’s a book worth having. Of course, one could then argue that any cookbook is worth having, and I wouldn’t dispute that, although there are cookbooks I’ll never bother buying, simply because they don’t interest me. I will probably never, for instance, bother to buy the Pillsbury cookbook. I already have Fannie Farmer and Better Homes & Gardens. Chances are I probably won’t ever buy any of Jamie Oliver’s cookbooks either. Never say never, of course, but Jamie doesn’t appeal to me much. The only case in which I really can safely say never is with regard to Rachael Ray and her books. I really can say I’ll never buy another of those. One is actually one too many.