The Future of the Cookbook
The future of the cookbook seems to be a hot topic of the moment (in the social and professional circles I move in, anyway). It was brought up again and again when I moderated a panel at the Smart Kitchen Summit (“Personalized, Shoppable & Guided: Recipes Are Not Dead”), and again when I spoke on a panel at Portsmouth University’s summit on cookbooks. I can only deduce that this question/concern is on peoples’ minds amid the rapidly evolving technology that’s affected every aspect of lives, including how we cook and operate in the kitchen. So, here’s my take on the issue.
First, I’d like to start with some facts. There was a 25% jump in cookbooks in the US in 2018 (due to the proliferation of celebrity chefs, a renewed interest in health and diet, and the rise in the home good industry. Think: instant pot). Globally, 24,000 new cookbooks are published each year (that’s a lot). There are cookbook clubs on Instagram (and accounts that have risen to influencer-status for organizing these “clubs”). Julia Child is as present in the cultural consciousness now as she was when she was alive and on television with a best-selling cookbook under her belt — embodying the fact that cookbook writers are national treasures.
Those observations are just some of the reasons I’m confident that cookbooks are not dying. Technology will not kill paperbound cookbooks that you can touch, flip through, stain the pages of, and file away on a bookshelf. I believe that it’s the stories behind the food in cookbooks that will keep them around because people crave the connection and community inherent in those stories. We crave those things now as much as ever and a recipe isn’t just a recipe — it’s a story. (From a historical and anthropological vantage, the stories of cookbooks can tell us who belonged — and who was not included — at that moment in history).
And let’s get back to the fear that the rise of tablets in the kitchen and other technological inventions will kill cookbooks. Cookbooks are not at odds with technology, although I understand the concern. I’m “part of the problem” because although I cherish my cookbooks, I reach for my phone or laptop to search for recipes on an average weekday evening. But I argue that cookbooks go hand-in-hand with technology. Think of it like this: if there’s a new piece of cooking equipment, there will be a cookbook to accompany it as a way of enticing people to buy it. “This is how it fits into your life,” the brand want to communicate through their product-driven cookbook. They want customers to be both comfortable with the product and maintain the feeling of excitement around it. When refrigerators first became a regular home appliance, there were cookbooks designed to show recipes that incorporated the refrigerator, such as a cookie recipe where the dough is refrigerated between steps. Same goes for the food processor, Vitamix, panini-maker, etc. etc.
Beyond products, the relationship you have as a reader with the cookbook author is more significant than simply providing you with a recipe. It’s not a transactional relationship; cookbooks offer both inspiration and an aspirational life. Further, today’s cookbooks have explicitly literary aims (moving away from their instruction manual origins). Cookbooks aim to have reader read them, remember the stories and discuss the stories, rather than simply cook and eat. Readers (including me) reach for the Google search tab when they need to get Tuesday’s dinner on the table in 30 minutes, but they reach for a cook for a friend, a story…for delight. To look at it through a sociological lens, cookbooks and their stories are a source of cultural capital. “Food should be ‘information dense,’” says Carrie Tippen at Portsmouth University’s symposium. She continued that they are certain to indicate to your dinner party guests that their meal has been “responsibly borrowed.” Carrie proposes that because this offers such a different offering than the free Google-searched recipe, paid content will take on an even more elite status.
And I want to add the fact that I get such deep joy from curling around a favorite cookbook on the couch or hunkered over my kitchen counter. (Sometimes I even take it to bed. If that’s not intimate, I’m not sure what is.) I thumb the pages like a lover, underline sentences like a passionate historian and dog-ear recipes like I’m curating my last-meal menu.
Rolling this topic over in my brain, I posted about it on Instagram to ask others what their relationships are with cookbooks. The result was overwhelming positive; indicating my audience cherishes their cookbooks (although admittedly sourcing recipe ideas from the internet and social media, too).
In conclusion, I believe that as long as there are celebrity chefs there will be cookbooks. As long as there are dinner parties there will be cookbooks. As long as I’m alive, I hope to God there will continue to be cookbooks.