On September 7, The Flavor Bible celebrated one year on Amazon’s “Cooking, Food & Wine” top 100 bestseller list. And, its authors are quick to add, before Julie & Julia-related books took over much of list’s prime real estate, The Flavor Bible spent most of its life in the top 25. How did a book without a movie tie-in, national TV presence or celebrity authors, that doesn’t contain one recipe, achieve such success?
The Flavor Bible teaches readers to cook without recipes, inspired by tried-and-true compatible flavors. Authors Karen Page and Andrew Dornenburg, a husband-and-wife team who have written a string of books chefs love, think of the book as “a thesaurus of flavors that work well together.” The book explains, for instance, that tropical fruit goes with lime juice, lime zest and rum; quail is well-matched with thyme and vinegar; and that one of Swedish cuisine’s main flavors is dill (and that you should avoid garlic and piquancy when making Swedish dishes). It’s a smart, useful book that won a 2009 James Beard Award and has garnered praise from publications ranging from O to the Chicago Tribune to the popular food blog 101 Cookbooks. Little, Brown published The Flavor Bible a year ago this week—and went into its fourth printing this summer, marking 65,000 copies in print. Page says The Flavor Bible is hers and Dornenburg’s fastest selling book ever.
The factors in The Flavor Bible’s success are as wide-ranging as the book itself. Page thinks reality cooking shows like Top Chef have helped push home cooks into the kitchen to wing it with ingredients and not rely on cookbooks for recipes. “A lot of home cooks are watching to see how professional chefs are pulling things together,” she said. (Incidentally, two former Top Chef champs, Hung Huynh and Stephanie Izard, both say their favorite book is Page and Dornenburg’s earlier Culinary Artistry.) Page also cites a recent UCLA study that looked at how often people turn to cookbooks. It revealed that people only cook from a recipe in a cookbook or magazine 5% of the time. “People are just too busy” to follow detailed cookbook recipes, Page says. The recession may have something to do with The Flavor Bible’s success, too: pinching pennies often means making dinner out of what’s in the refrigerator or pantry—a task that’s infinitely easier if you have some knowledge of what flavors go together.
Page and Dornenburg are serious about self-promotion; cookbooks are their only source of income and they take publicity seriously. They Twitter, blog and are in close contact with most culinary bookstore owners, many of whom are big fans of The Flavor Bible. They’ve even infiltrated bookstores overseas; Matthew Wake, owner of Books Books Books in Lausanne, Switzerland, told PW, “In my experience as a bookseller, I think that this book is going to burn slowly and fiercely for a long time. It’s… a must-have for those who take food seriously.”
The Flavor Bible was the second in a two-book deal Page and Dornenburg signed with Michael Sand at Little, Brown. Sand says the publisher did see a boost in sales when the book won the Beard award in May. However, sales have continued through the fall and “it’s still going strong,” says Sand. The book should “backlist well,” he said, noting that “Drawing on the flavor compatibility that [Page and Dornenburg have]researched is really liberating for people. It’s amazing what they do.” Plans for an iPhone app are in the works. Until then, the $35 hardcover is the only place to learn what to serve with those juniper berries you pick up at the market this fall.
This story originally appeared in Cooking the Books, PW's e-newsletter for cookbooks.