Does Having More Cookbooks Mean That You Cook Better?

In a bookstore last week, I headed for the cookbook aisle. It’s often a place of cheap inspiration; you don’t have to buy a new cookbook to get new ideas. I love cookbooks. The pages, the words, the stories… a good cookbook is a combination of all these things.

But I also get overwhelmed by cookbooks. Standing in the cookbook aisle looking at all of the bright covers – How to Bake Bread, How to Bake Bread That’s Not Really Bread, How to Stop Baking Bread and Make Cupcakes Instead – I had that feeling. You couldn’t cook fast enough to keep up with the proliferation of cookbooks.

In a world of up close food photos with a shallow depth of field, I find myself drawn to the books without photos. The books that leave a little up to the imagination. You don’t really know how that apple tart is going to turn out do you? But at least you now have a basic recipe.

So I picked up The Flavour Thesaurus, a book about flavors and pairings: categorizing what goes with what. Coffee and coriander? Why not. I flipped through a few pages, and saw only text. No photos at all. Just a reference book for new food ideas. I bought it immediately. (As a complete and utter side note: I was in a Swedish bookstore, bought the Swedish version Smaklexikon, only to later realize that it was originally written in English. Global cooking to say the least.)

I came home and began the introduction, where the author Niki Segnit has a great line about after 20 years of cooking, still questioning her ability to cook food. Had she really learned to cook food or was she just fairly good at following recipes? Then she follows with a line that stuck with me, “My mother is, just like my grandmother was, an amazing cook but owns only two cookbooks and a folder with old cut out recipes, and she rarely looks in any of them.”

I was staying with my own grandmother, who having raised four children, knows her way around the kitchen, and there are always fresh baked rolls and cookies in her apartment. But her cookbook stash is tiny. All she really uses is one from 1985 with a funny photo on the front of a woman with a Farah Fawcett haircut, and even then, it’s only because she wrote down a few family recipes in the blank pages at the end.

My mother’s own cooking base comes from a worn out blue three-ring binder that dates back all the way to when she moved from Sweden to the US with my American father, sometime in the mid-1970s. Pages fall out and get put back in, no matter what the order. Some of her best recipes are in that binder, but she rarely has to consult them.

My mind returned to the bookstore, and the overwhelming amount of shelves with books from what to pair with wine to how to bake with licorice (ok, still sort of upset I didn’t buy that one). In the proliferation of cookbooks, have we actually forgotten how to cook?

Cookbooks have somehow given us the illusion that we are interested in food. That we dream of food. That we think about food. That we know what to do with it. But go to anyone’s home with more than a few cookbooks and see how worn the pages are. Most cookbooks remain only an illusion of a life well lived; we buy them because they provide a break from our everyday reality, but sometimes, we never even use them. A sort of lifestyle porn. We’re seduced by the dream that we too could be serving three course dinners and fresh scones with homemade yogurt every morning for breakfast. But can you whip up a dessert with just a few ingredients or are you stuck to being guided by a recipe? Does everything fall apart when you realize you don’t have three tablespoons of soy sauce?

If, for every time you had to eat, you had to take out a cookbook, you’d never even have the time to leave your position standing in front of the bookshelf. Cooking is a combination of being inspired and learning new things and daring to experiment.

That doesn’t mean we’ll never buy a new cookbook again – I have plenty on my “want” list – but what are the cookbooks that work? The ones that are references. Guidebooks to navigating and understanding the world of food. My own favorite cookbooks are the simple ones. Text-heavy, simply illustrated and straightforward. A good recipe doesn’t have to hide behind a flashy image; it stands alone.

Have cookbooks changed how we cook? Most certainly. A good cookbook collection can provide culinary inspiration as well as guidance for the daily staples. But they have to be used. The pages must be worn. The recipes tried more than once. Notes written in the margins.

Food won’t happen just by having a colorful cookbook on your table. You have to step in to the kitchen and get your hands dirty.

Originally published on EcoSalon.

Image: timsackton

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