I had been looking forward to the cookbook with not inconsiderable anticipation.
The idea behind it, at least as I understood it, was right up my metaphoric alley. The book’s two writers took one recipe from each of the 100 years of the 20th century and assigned a top chef to re-create it.
I had dreams of reading Grant Achatz’ take on tri-tip steak and Thomas Keller’s version of blackened salmon. The concept, or at least this version of the concept, was so intriguing that I had thoughts of interviewing the two writers who put it together.
That interview will not take place. Not because the writers are unwilling, but because their book is weak.
The trouble with it, I quickly realized, is that the writers are not actually writers. Well, they write, in the sense that they wrote down words and the words were printed in a book. And they have a certain undeniable facility with language. But they aren’t professional writers, they are bloggers.
Ah. And there is the problem.
Not that long ago, cookbooks were written by chefs — people who are in charge of a commercial kitchen of a certain degree of quality. There were some notable exceptions (Julia Child was not a chef, nor Craig Claiborne, and Betty Crocker did not actually exist), but when you bought a cookbook, you knew it was written by someone who made the preparation of food the center of his or her professional life.
Then celebrities got into the act, because we will buy pretty much anything if it is associated with a celebrity, but at least we knew that those were ghost written by people who made the preparation of food the center of their professional lives.
All was fine. All was good. And then along came bloggers.
I have nothing against blogs or blogging — I’ve done it myself (once, I think, three people read it). And the food blogs that I turn to on occasion have often been interesting, with some worthwhile recipes, or nearly worthwhile.
But by definition, they are written by home cooks, amateurs, hobbyists. People who do other things with their lives and, as an enjoyable sideline, write about cooking and take pictures of the food they have cooked.
What makes blogging so appealing is that there is no layer between them and publication, no editor, no one to vet it. And that is also the problem with them. There is no expert to say, “Yes, this is good, we will print this” or “No, this is not worthy of public distribution.”
When bloggers publish cookbooks, which is happening with increasing frequency, the publishing house acts as that layer. They are the experts who choose which blogs are good enough to be put into a book.
Obviously, the publishers are not perfect and there have been bad cookbooks for as long as there have been cookbooks (I distinctly recall one that, among other things, called for blasting poor, innocent shrimp at 450° for 45 minutes. They came out a little tough). But so far, I have yet to see a blogger-written cookbook that has caught my eye enough to want to keep it.
I have even turned away from the cookbook by what is probably the best, and certainly the best-known, food blogger, Deb Perelman of The Smitten Kitchen (admittedly, that is mainly because of her overly cutesy writing, rather than any fault of her recipes). Other food-blogger books have been even less appealing, with worse recipes and much worse writing.
The book I was looking forward to receiving did not, as I had assumed, take a recipe from each year of the century. Rather, it mentioned something that happened in every year and then had a chef or cook of varying renown create a recipe that is only tenuously related to that event. For instance, because radio was popular in 1925, the authors suggest that the couch potato “may well have been born” in that year. And so, the recipe inspired by 1925 is a potato dumpling.
That’s no way to run a cookbook. Blogging is fun and fine for what it is, but maybe we should leave the cookbooks to the professionals.
Contact Daniel Neman at firstname.lastname@example.org or 419-724-6155.
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