It’s probably surprising to no one that I have a fair amount of cookbooks in my collection. At last count, I was near two dozen. And if you must know, Five of them deal with Italian food (the latest is The Gastronomy of Italy which has been keeping me in various states of fantasizing bliss since it arrived).
That being said, I think the culture of the cookbook is misunderstood.
It seems that many people think that a cookbook should be judged by the quality of the recipes within. Personally? I think that any cookbook that motivates someone to go to the oven, or head out to their local gourmet supermarket in search of that one ingredient carries far more weight than a book that is technically proficient, but does not inspire.
As I said, I have five books on Italian cooking. And oddly, I have five different recipes for Puttanesca. If I were to judge one of the books recipe as technically proficient, would that mean that the other four recipes were less than proficient? Is there a “best” Puttanesca? Although not all recipes are created equal, the idea that one recipe in a cookbook can outshine another is often not true. Each recipe brings something to the knowledge base that I already carry with me (I’m talking about my mind here).
It’s through this knowledge base that I decide to cook…wait for it…exactly what I want to. I look at a Puttanesca recipe, and I think to myself “olive oil, Chili pepper flakes, anchovies, Tomatoes, capers, kalamata olives”. If that’s what’s in the recipe I read then all the better. If not, then I see if what differs inspires me to add something else. If it doesn’t, well heck, I’m still cooking and isn’t that the point?
The other reason I think that cookbooks are misunderstood is the fact that in teh real world, most people will not cook every recipe in the cookbook. In fact, I’ll go out on a limb and say that only 25% of recipes are ever made within a cookbook. Sure that percentage is arbitrary, but I find it hard to believe that people cook every recipe in every book they own. Considering many books have hundreds, if not thousands of recipes, it’s unlikely that most of these recipes become ultra-popular?
So why buy a cookbook? Well, I suppose I’m an exception to the rule (due to the 2 dozen cookbooks on my shelf), but I buy for two reasons:
1) Reference: If I need how to braise a goat, or make chicken stock, or grilling salmon, I have information readily available.
2) Food Porn: This is the big one. I can think of several recipes, both in books and online that make my mind salivate. There are several recipes with new techniques I want to try. There are several recipes with ingredients that I want to try (Mmmm…fresh sardines!). I’m already equating these recipes with future bliss.
And that’s what cookbooks are all about. It matters not that the food must be spectacular. Cooking is like any other skill…The more one cooks, the better one gets. If the Pillsbury Cookbook gets someone away from the Frozen Food section and makes then want something “better”, then that’s as significant as The Gourmet Cookbook.
My hope is that in that search for something “better”, those using the Pillsbury Cookbooks will eventually migrate to Gourmet.