In 2010, "immigration" became a hot-button issue in American politics with the passage of a controversial law in Arizona. But if you want real perspective on America's vibrant cultural milieu, skip the politics section at your local bookstore and head straight to the cookbook aisle. There, in the pages of our cookbooks, one finds the true flavors of America. And the trends in our cookbooks and kitchens might say more about what it means to be American than the caustic bromides of Lou Dobbs or talking heads on 24-hour news networks.
That's because there are no borders in the American kitchen. Surveying the cookbook market and the culinary scene in 2010, it's clear that American cuisine is more diverse than it's ever been, a true—and delicious—reflection of our country and what makes it great.
Just a few decades ago, American cookbooks were a patchwork of red meats, brown gravy, and budget-conscious recipes that relied on Shake 'n Bake and Hamburger Helper. For many Americans, French and Italian cuisines were considered exotic. Not anymore. Today, bookstore shelves brim with titles on ethnic cuisine. Amazon alone carries some 1,500 books with the word "curry" in the title, and more than 500 books about tacos. But dig a little deeper and you'll see the real impact of America's diversity: today's "American" cookbooks are loaded with recipes and flavors from other cultures.
For example, in October, Williams-Sonoma Cooking at Home by Williams-Sonoma founder Chuck Williams hits bookstores—and it includes recipes for tandoori shrimp and baba ghanoush. Also out this fall, a third edition of The Taste of Home Cookbook from Reader's Digest, which gives recipes for corn soup with pico de gallo, and lemony hummus. And The Sunset Cookbook, which collects 1,000 recipes from the magazine's archives, features dishes and ingredients that publisher Oxmoor House calls "American classics," like Baja fish tacos and pho (Vietnamese noodle soup).
Defining American Cuisine
"Our immigration is no longer only Western," observes former New York Times Magazine food columnist and New York Times reporter Molly O'Neill. "It's bringing in new flavor profiles, new flavor combinations that have not before really touched mainstream American cooking in a major way: the use of sours and bitters and more use of heat. We started seeing the heat stuff 10, 20 years ago with [cookbook author] Mark Miller, who was decoding Mexico, and certainly on the West Coast, Asian chilies are not a new story. But none of those changes made it into the mainstream idiom until the last couple of years."
In 2010, that diversity has definitely moved into middle-America households in new and interesting ways, thanks in part to the Internet, but also because the American household has changed. Vietnamese immigrants are carrying on the Cajun crawfish-eating tradition in Louisiana. Korean tacos have already conquered Southern California and are now making their way across the country. Last year, Bon Appétit named a Thai hot sauce called sriracha, which mixes hot, sweet, and spicy flavors, its "ingredient of the year." In 2010, annual production of the sauce surged, and now exceeds 10 million bottles in the U.S. It isn't quite ketchup, but the stuff is so popular that next year, Ten Speed will publish The Sriracha Cookbook: 50 "Rooster Sauce" Recipes That Pack a Punch by Randy Clemens.
Another example: hummus, the chickpea spread that is a staple in Middle Eastern cuisine. In 2006, Sterling published an entire cookbook on hummus—and that turned out to be a prescient publication. According to a recent New York Times report, hummus sales in the U.S. have exploded, up more than 18% in the last year alone and growing. And as hummus has become more popular in America, America has in turn embraced hummus, adding traditionally Western permutations, like sun-dried tomato or artichoke-garlic—a trend emblematic of the increasingly borderless American palate.
O'Neill has seen firsthand how global influences have become part of the American culinary mix as she crisscrossed America researching her forthcoming book: One Big Table: A Portrait of American Cooking: 800 Recipes from the Nation's Best Home Cooks, Farmers, Pit-Masters and Chefs (Simon & Schuster, Nov.). "Unlike any other era since the earliest settlers, we're getting substantial numbers of immigrants coming here that are well-educated, in particular, Middle Eastern and East Indian populations," O'Neill tells PW. "They are very quickly transforming how we're eating in America."
Smaller Houses Lead the Way
Still, while the American palate is expanding rapidly, the cookbook market traditionally moves a little more cautiously, O'Neill notes. "There's always been an assumption, probably based on some sort of reality, that ethnic cookbooks don't sell," she says. "I will be excited to see if that holds true."
And even with the diversity boom in America's kitchens, the fall season's big sellers will be led by the usual suspects. Among the group: Top Chef Masters star Michael Chiarello's latest Italian offering, Bottega (Chronicle, Sept.); Ina Garten's Hamptons-inspired Barefoot Contessa: How Easy Is That? (Clarkson Potter, Oct.), Dorie Greenspan's Gallic-themed Around My French Table (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, Oct.), and yet another Rachael Ray tome, Rachael Ray's Look + Cook (Clarkson Potter, Nov.).
In addition to publishing Greenspan's new French cookbook this fall, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt in December will release As Always, Julia: The Letters of Julia Child and Avis DeVoto, the correspondence between Child and her "pen pal," best friend, and literary mentor. "After years of Italian dominating the market, French cooking is in resurgence," HMH senior executive editor Rux Martin told PW. That's because, inspired by Julie & Julia, she says people are discovering that real French cooking is about "market" cooking—using what's fresh and best, and using "ingredients indigenous to the American countryside."
Still, there is a definite uptick in the number of authentic ethnic cookbooks coming to the U.S. market, led mostly by smaller houses that appear more open to take chances. In 2011, for example, the University of North Carolina Press will publish Sandra Gutierrez's The New Southern-Latino Cookbook.
Interlink, a Northampton, Mass., publisher, has a deep backlist of international cookbooks, most written by natives of the countries whose cuisine they're writing about, including the Middle East, Portugal, Africa, the Caribbean, India, Japan, Greece, and Indonesia. Publicity director Moira Megargee says that Interlink gets a lot of individual orders for cookbooks, many of them from American immigrants looking for authentic recipes from their homelands, or from children or grandchildren of immigrants who want to learn to cook the way their parents and grandparents did. "I think this is the highest praise we can get for these cookbooks," Megargee says.
Interlink's all-time bestselling cookbook is A Taste of Lebanon by Mary Salloum, published in 1992, which Megargee says "sells consistently year in and out." In fact, all of Interlink's Middle Eastern cookbooks sell extremely well, including The Iraqi Cookbook by Lamees Ibrahim, Cardamom and Lime: Recipes from the Arabian Gulf by Sarah al-Hamad, From the Land of Figs and Olives by Habeeb Salloum and James Peters, and Secrets of Healthy Middle Eastern Cuisine by Sanaa Abourezk. This fall, Interlink has high expectations for The Turkish Cookbook by Nur Ilkin and Sheilah Kaufman, which has received an endorsement from Paula Wolfert, the American doyenne of Middle Eastern and Mediterranean ethnic cuisine.
Of course, there is one drawback, publishers say, when it comes to publishing books by foreign experts: they are usually unknown in the U.S., and in American cookbook publishing, if you don't have a TV show or other major platform, there's little hope of achieving bestsellerdom. In fact, the Chicago Tribune recently noted that books by "food celebrities" sell 20-to-1 over books by unknown writers. But with the growth of the Web, and now the new Cooking Channel, which the Food Network launched in May, publishers are hopeful that more authors will have the chance to break through.
Wiley, for example, is investing in one of the Cooking Channel's global personalities, Anand Anjum. Her show, Anand Anjum's Indian Food Made Easy, aired its first episode May 31; the show focuses on making British-style Indian food at home, even if you're a novice cook (Anjum grew up in London and has homes in Delhi and Calcutta). Wiley will release Anjum's New Indian in October. Stewart, Tabori & Chang, meanwhile, has high hopes for How to Cook Indian by Sanjeev Kapoor, which it will publish next March. CNN has called Kapoor the "Rachael Ray of India," and Kapoor's cooking show, Food Treasure, is the longest-running TV show in Asia, airing in 120 countries and with more than 500 million viewers (in the U.S., it's broadcast on Zee TV via Dish Network). His line of Indian foods, Khazana, is sold in 1,200 stores across the U.S. He has published more than three dozen books around the world, which have sold an estimated 10 million copies, but, incredibly, How to Cook Indian will be his first U.S. release.
The Pot Melts
It is a quintessentially American tale: as immigrant cultures establish themselves and become a major part of the fabric of our culture, American culture gets better—whether it's music, literature, athletics, or food.
Consider California-born Ming Tsai, a chef, restaurateur, and cooking show star known for making Chinese food accessible for non-Chinese home cooks. His first book in five years, Simply Ming One-Pot Meals (Nov.), will be published by Kyle Books, which is developing a strong cookbook program in the U.S. after having established itself in the U.K. The book's initial title was Simply Ming One-Pot Asian Meals. But inside, recipes for garlic osso buco with celeriac, and chicken meatballs with penne and tomato sauce are featured alongside ones for red-roast duck legs with sweet potatoes and daikon, and sweet and sour mango pork. Eventually, the publisher decided to take out the word "Asian" from the title.
This kind of happy commingling of traditionally American and foreign flavors has become a hallmark of American cuisine, and a particular strength of our culture at large. In the recent Times story on hummus, Majdi Wadi, chief executive of specialty foods producer Holy Land, told reporters his company now makes hummus in 14 varieties, including artichoke-garlic and spinach. "Back home [Kuwait]," he told the paper, "they would shoot me in the head for doing this to hummus." Yet forging this kind of new culinary tradition is common to and rewarded by American culture. As Top Chef host and chef Tom Colicchio writes in his foreword to James Beard's American Cookery, which Little, Brown is reissuing in October, "I consider myself an American chef because I was born here, but also because I borrow from all the traditions that have made their way to our shores."
In the season five premiere of his popular TV show, No Reservations, bestselling author Anthony Bourdain visits Mexico City with his friend Carlos Llaguna Morales, the man Bourdain once hired to run the fry station at his New York restaurant Les Halles, and who now runs the kitchen as executive chef. In the episode, Bourdain shares a key observation, something he also discusses in his latest book, Medium Raw: A Bloody Valentine to the World of Food and the People Who Cook (Ecco, June): go into any great French restaurant in New York—any restaurant, for that matter—and you'll likely find a Mexican chef in the kitchen. Not just dishwashers, or prep or line cooks—but chefs.
"There's a real disconnect between that reality and a lot of the immigration stuff now being talked about," Bourdain tells PW in a recent interview on the subject of diversity. "The kitchen is still a place where you are judged on how well you do and nothing else. It's kind of wonderful. It's the last meritocracy."
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