Since Cooking the Books launched in December 2008, the newsletter has covered bestselling cookbooks and totally obscure ones; written about controversies and happy success stories; and interviewed authors from Grant Achatz, to Lidia Bastianich, to Ina Garten, to Julie Powell. It’s been a great run, and as I hand the reins (er, potholders?) over to Mark Rotella I thought I’d take a look back at some of the stories that got readers talking over the years.
In fall 2009, a Q&A with Thomas Keller—which took place in the garden outside The French Laundry in Yountville, Calif.—highlighted his latest book, Ad Hoc at Home. The esteemed chef pointed out the danger in writing cookbooks: “It's so hard writing a cookbook because you don't know two things. It doesn't matter if it's the simplest cooking or the most complicated cooking: it's about product and execution. And the product goes beyond the food. Product also has to do with equipment. I've baked chocolate chip cookies at my sister's house in Florida and they're just terrible, because the oven's terrible.”
Former Gourmet editor-in-chief Ruth Reichl was much more upbeat, though. About a year before Gourmet folded, she told me, “10 years ago you couldn’t assume everybody had a stand mixer. Now you assume anybody who’s going to buy a cookbook has a stand mixer. We’ve become a pot and pan culture. People used to make do with whatever they had, but you can now assume people have a pretty good collection of sizes of pots and pans. Now the reality is most of our readers have better kitchens than we’re cooking in!”
The past two and a half years have seen enormous changes in the ways people access recipes, too. Websites like Eat Your Books and Cookstr have used the internet to make cookbooks more accessible and useful for everyday home cooks. A lively panel discussion on the future of cookbooks last fall addressed even more ways publishers are using technology to enhance and promote their books.
Cookbooks have always been the focus of Cooking the Books, but I’ve covered plenty of chef memoirs, too. My favorite is a recent one, Gabrielle Hamilton’s Blood, Bones and Butter, one of the most talked about chef memoirs in recent memory. During our conversation, I brought up something the writer Jo Carson once told Hamilton: “Be careful what you get good at doin’ ’cause you’ll be doin’ it for the rest of your life.” Hamilton then offered her take: “I think there are afflictions that can befall you. One is that you don’t know what you were born to be. And I think that’s an incredibly unenviable position to be in. And then there’s the other problem, which I did have, and I prefer it, which is, you know what you were born to be or what you want to do and you get derailed. Somehow that’s more optimistic for me.”
Thanks to all of Cooking the Books readers who, over the past two and a half years, have made me glad I found something I’m glad to be doing.