Virginia Willis Blog

Faith and Uncertainty in Cookbook Publishing

While walking the trade floor of the Paris Cookbook Festival I caught a glimpse of the quote above by super chef Paul Bocuse, “Without books there are no recipes, without skills there can be no fine cooking.” It made me stop and read it again.

It’s even more sexy and profound, of course, in French.

The diversity of cookbooks at the fair was eye-opening. There were a great many small single subject booklets, almost pamphlets, that contained 30 or so recipes. No photos. No art. They would be unusual in the United States, but the attention to the concept of a single subject was admirable and noteworthy. I was stopped in my tracks more than once as I considered the array of beautiful, well-designed books. Works of art – the paper, the photographs, the subject matter – table after table was astonishing. Writer, colleague, and friend Kat Flinn and I had a sort of heady, breathless moment over Alain Ducasse’s J’Aime Paris coffee table book. It’s just incredible. By the way, by “coffee table” I don’t mean it’s a book for a coffee table. I mean it’s the size of one.

With that level of amazement regarding cookbooks, why it is then, that at the opposite end of the spectrum someone asks, seemingly, on a daily occurrence, “Is the cookbook dead?”

One of those such occurrences recently filtered into my news feed titled “Recipes Begin a New Chapter, about the move from paper pages to Ipads. It was another piece about folks not buying books anymore. Every few months there’s a story debating if cookbooks are obsolete and being replaced by apps. For good measure, tossed in the mix will be the fuzzy slipper comfort story about the timelessness of sauce-splattered pages and the enduring cookbook.

Oddly enough, in this time of cookbook publishing uncertainty, even the most successful bloggers want cookbooks. And, sites like Food52 exist because they are curated web content — and yet have very, very successful traditional paper cookbooks. It’s both confusing and predictable.

In my opinion, the state of cookbook publishing is like most things. It’s not all or nothing. It’s not black or white. It’s not good or bad. It’s grey. It’s uncertain.

There are approximately 10K cookbooks published in the United States per year. Truthfully, the vast majority of them aren’t beautiful or well-designed. They don’t give pause. Hopefully without sounding overly pompous, I think both of my cookbooks are beautiful. Ten Speed Press makes beautiful books.

Yet sadly, we all know the concept of “beautiful” and “good” don’t always go together. The majority of these European books were no different. On both sides of the Atlantic some writers are callous and quick in the test kitchen – if they are in there at all. I work hard on making sure my recipes work. It’s a point of pride with me.

It’s not just the author, the editing may not have been well-executed by the publishing company. Editors are pinched tighter and tighter and designers are given more and more projects at a time with less time to execute them. The basic truth is that when you are doing things too quickly mistakes happen, I don’t care if you are tying your shoe or creating a cookbook or doing brain surgery. I’ve personally experienced this pinch.

What’s a cookbook author to do? Two more major publishing companies are up for sale. There’s a bit of a sinking ship feeling as publishers are trying to figure out what is next and how to stay in business.

It’s not all gloom and doom. I was working on a proposal for a new book last weekend. Granted, it’s a food narrative, not a cookbook, but I wrote one really solid sentence that made me feel like I was absolutely soaring, not sinking. Is that folly? No. Well, I hope not. I’ve held that soaring feeling in my mind.

I want that sentiment in my head and heart.

I believe words mean something. I believe cookbooks mean something. I see the faces of the people who read my stories and I know my words mean something to them. No, I don’t know what next form cookbooks will take.

I do know I believe that without books there are no recipes. I do know I believe that without the skills taught from recipes there is no fine cooking.

Bon Appétit, Y’all!

VA

Check out the recipe below for the Shrimp and Grits I prepared for my demo at the Paris Cookbook Fair. You have no idea how much pleasure it gave me to preach the gospel of Southern Cooking in Paris, France.

Shrimp with Parmigiano Reggiano Grits & Tomatoes

Yield: Serves 6

Shrimp with Parmigiano Reggiano Grits & Tomatoes

By using low fat milk instead of cream, olive oil instead of butter, and full-flavored Parmesan, I've lightened this Low Country classic so the flavor of the grits and shrimp are front and center.

Ingredients

3 cups water
3 cups low fat milk
1 1/2 cups stoneground grits
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 medium onion, coarsely chopped
3 cloves garlic, finely chopped
1/4 cup dry white wine
2 bay leaves, preferably fresh
1 28 ounce can whole tomatoes, coarsely chopped, juices reserved
1 Pinch cayenne pepper
24 large shrimp, peeled, deveined, and diced
1/4 cup loosely packed fresh herbs such as parsley, oregano, and thyme, coarsely chopped
2 tablespoons freshly grated Parmigiano Reggiano cheese, more for garnish
Coarse salt and freshly ground black pepper

Instructions

  1. For the grits: Heat water, milk, and salt to a gentle boil in a medium saucepan. Whisk in the grits. Reduce the heat to simmer, and cook, stirring often with a wooden spoon, until the mixture is smooth, thick, and falls easily from a spoon, about 45 minutes.
  2. Meanwhile, prepare tomatoes: Heat the olive oil in a large skillet. Add onion and sauté and garlic until soft and translucent, 2 to 3 minutes. Add the garlic and cook until fragrant. Pour in white wine, and cook until dry, 2 to 3 minutes. Add bay leaves, and stir in tomatoes and reserved juice. Season with cayenne pepper. Reduce the heat, and simmer until the mixture is slightly thickened, about 10 minutes. Add the shrimp and cook until pink and cooked through, 3 to 5 minutes. Remove the skillet from the heat and stir in the chopped herbs.
  3. When grits are thickened, stir in the Parmigiano-Reggiano. To serve, put a heaping spoonful of grits onto a plate. Top with the tomatoes and shrimp. Garnish with freshly shaved Parmigiano-Reggiano.
http://blog.virginiawillis.com/2012/03/faith-and-uncertainty-in-cookbook-publishing/

Please be nice. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without permission is prohibited. Feel free to excerpt and link, just give credit where credit is due and send folks to my website, virginiawillis.com. Thanks so much.

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20 Responses to “Faith and Uncertainty in Cookbook Publishing”

  1. Cookbook fest…in Paris, France?? Make me swoon!!! Quelle dream!! I don’t know how much there is to be concerned with cookbooks in the digital form. Everyone loves to poke around on the computer for the on-the-fly recipe, but I think those who like to cook also enjoy the tactile effect of having paper in hand, whether it be old, new, with or without photos. I head for my bookcases before I pick up my ipad. Plenty of room for both! And thank you for sharing!

    Reply
  2. As the digital form for cookbooks evolves (the current ebook format is far from what we need for cookbooks) we will retain the emotional appeal that gets us excited about cooking. But, an electronic form will adds so many benefits that paper could never provide. So, we shouldn’t worry about losing anything. If a digital format doesn’t exceed the benefits that we enjoy from print it won’t succeed.

    So many people were worried that digital music would take away their ability to see their physical music collection on the shelves. The reality is that the search function is a huge help and the living room looks so much nicer without shelves filled with CDs and albums.

    Reply
  3. Hardcopy cookbooks will never die. I have faith. However the cookbook industry is definitely searching for the most profitable path forward, hoping not to fall prey to the same mind set that sunk Polaroid, Kodak, and the record industry. Publishers who insist on industry practices of the pre-digital age will be left behind as those versatile enough to recognize and capitalize on the digital revolution.

    Besides Virginia looks mighty fine on an IPad.

    Reply
  4. I do wonder about the next generation of home cooks. I see how my teens refer to their computers, laptops, iphones for all information. Both of their schools are paper-free; everything is digital and YouTube is a default resource for instruction, replacing the written word. I can’t help but think that they will be far more comfortable using screens for cookbooks as young adults.

    Reply
  5. I think there is room for both. Although we house a rather extensive collection of hard back – and a few coffee table sized – cookbooks, we still find ourselves googling a lot of recipes when we want to make something new. Th iPad has a place in the modern cooks kitchen. The way forward is coming up with a story worth reading combined with tried and tested (we are sticklers for this too!) recipes. Great post by the way! Did you read this article? http://www.boston.com/lifestyle/food/articles/2012/03/14/cookbooks_used_to_be_for_cooking_now_they_are_for_looking/?page=full

    Reply
  6. Hello Virginia – When you wrote, “I do know I believe that without books there are no recipes. I do know I believe that without the skills taught from recipes there is no fine cooking.I thought I couldn’t agree more!

    The book publishing business has radically changed over the past 10 years, opening up many new avenues in this medium, but there is nothing like holding a good (beautiful) cook book in your hands and being able to leaf through it. I think we (cookbook authors) are all exploring ways to incorporate digital technology into our written message, but I truly hope that cookbooks will continue to exist in the printed form.

    Looks like Paris was fun and interesting! Thanks for your informative and insightful post.

    Reply
  7. Thank you Virginia. Like you, I believe that there will always be room for both: the eVersion and the hard copy. A hard copy always feels more authoritative to me, especially for reference. (That said, my next book will be brought into the world as an Ebook!

    Oui, les francais aiment bien la cuisine americaine, bien qu’ils ne le disent pas toujours tout haut! One of my neighbors in Morocco always asks me to bring tortillas so she can make “real” American quesadillas!

    Reply
  8. Virginia, I have over 400 cookbooks in my collection and continue to crave more. I hope to one day pass them on to my children who hopefully will cherish every last splatter, stain, notation and food memory I plan on leaving behind amid their thousands of pages. And as much as I value my food blog for helping me keep track of and share my family recipes, I don’t think it will ever be as meaningful as the family cookbook I hope to one day publish and place in my relatives’ hands. Thanks for keeping it real and continuing to share the virtues of Southern cooking with the rest of the world through “beautiful” AND “good” cookbooks!

    Reply
  9. By the way, I think the next big cookbook in France, published in French, will be an American cookbook…..They seem to be fascinated by American food right now. (A?nd what IS it with the French fascination for Les Whoopies?).

    Reply
  10. chezbonnefemme

    Thank you so much for this Virginia. I do believe that worthy cookbooks will emerge from the 10,000, and they’ll emerge the old-fashioned way: Through word of mouth, from one cook telling another: “I got this recipe from XXX’s cookbook–it’s amazing.”

    “Beautiful” books that are filled with recipes that don’t work may continue to sell because of their bling, but “good” books–thoroughly tested, well edited, thoughtfully packaged–will continue to make their way into the kitchens of good cooks. It may just take a little time.

    Thanks again for a hopeful, thoughtful posting.
    Wini Moranville–Author of The Bonne Femme Cookbook: Simple, Splendid Food That French Women Cook Every Day

    Reply
  11. I can’t imagine a world without honest-to-goodness, page-flipping, responsible de-foresting cookbooks. And if e-cookbooks are the future, I don’t want to live in that world. I want the promise of Paris, magnificent cookbooks the size of coffee tables, a big ol’ bowl of Miz Virginia’s uptown shrimp & grits, and the assurance that your next book includes your opinionated prose as well as your first-rate recipes and photography. Keep the faith!

    Reply
  12. Elise Garner

    Beautiful post! The one thing about you is when reading your cookbooks and reading the stories, you can feel your heart! So proud of you!

    Reply
  13. Great article Virginia! This I know for certain. My grandmother Lula Mae would pull the tattered cookbook out of the drawer next to the stove and complain (along with many other things) that there were no pictures. For her and me, I made sure my first cookbook was beautiful and the recipes were simple and delicious. I am a believer that there will always be a need for a beautiful and well tested hardbound cookery book. I may be naive, but I see no grey. Vive la cookbook! (Disclaimer: I don’t speak French, I just kiss that way)

    Reply
  14. Thanks for sharing this great article, As a Chef and cookbook author, I love cookbooks and just can’t seems to collect enough. Having them around me gives me a joy. I guess I am passionate about cooking, food, and every thing that goes with it. Its great to find recipes online or have them on your ipads. Butt for me nothing gives me more joy than buying them where ever I go. It would be sad if we loose not have cookbooks around. However I am going to keep collecting them maybe someday I hope someone might find some joy in my collection like I did

    Reply
  15. I’m delighted to hear of a cookery writer who values words over pictures and sees the importance of narrative whilst being aware that recipes that don’t work are like one legged chairs. I should mention that I have been a food photographer in London for many years, and still the thing that gets me cooking are words or shopping.

    Reply

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