Lead us into temptation: Why we're addicted to cookbooks

By Dionne Christian

Last year we spent almost $12 million on food and wine books. Dionne Christian asks what it is about cookbooks that turns some of us into addicts.

Imaginations run wild at the sight of what could be accomplished with the purchase of the latest, beautifully presented cookbook. Photo /  Richard Robinson
Imaginations run wild at the sight of what could be accomplished with the purchase of the latest, beautifully presented cookbook. Photo / Richard Robinson

Recently, my husband arrived home and, fixing his gaze on my latest acquisition, let out a weary sigh.

"Did you really need that?" he asked.

"That" was the latest book by Australian superstar chef Bill Granger, Bill Cooks For Kids, subtitled no-fuss food for the whole family.

Blond-haired and blue-eyed Bill, wearing a pristine white shirt and blue jeans, is pictured on the cover. He's smiling broadly as he mixes, by hand, a no doubt wonderful creation, which would be devoured without question or complaint by his children. His book promises, in reassuring tones and through step-by-step and easy-to-follow recipes, to solve all the problems I encounter in feeding my family. And it's going to be fuss-free - at least that's the illusion the book conjures for me.

To answer my husband's question: I most certainly did not need this book because I already have 148 cookbooks, plus every issue of Cuisine since 2000; most copies of Taste magazine since it appeared in 2006; a fair number of Australia's Delicious magazine; my mother's copies from the 1970s of the serialised Robert Carrier's Kitchen and 27 books on food, society, culture and history from my university days when I studied food sociology and history.

What I probably need more is a psychologist to help me make sense of my addiction. But I am far from alone. Last year, according to Nielsen Bookscan, we spent a staggering $11.9 million on food and wine books. Annabel "the free-range cook" Langbein's book was the top-seller by a country mile. In fact, her eponymous publishing company took a 23.1 per cent share of food and wine book sales, followed by Random House, Penguin Books, Hachette and HarperCollins.

Random House publishing director Nicola Legat is heartened by the fact that local cookbooks are among the best sellers in New Zealand, more than holding their own against competition from those by internationally famous chefs like Jamie Oliver, Nigella Lawson, Rick Stein and Gordon Ramsay.

"There's no doubt in my mind that New Zealand cookbooks are among the best in the world. They're beautifully designed and bound, handsomely photographed and it's our food, made by people who we trust. Their recipes work and fit in with our lifestyles," she says.

Hawkes Bay-raised Robert Oliver took top prize in the 2010 Gourmand World Cookbook Awards for his book Me'a Kai: The Food and Flavours of the South Pacific, which celebrates food and cooks from Pacific nations but also promotes sustainable food practices. Britain's Independent newspaper said it was the "gastronomic upset of the night".

Once it was enough for a cookbook to contain a selection of eclectic - possibly even random - recipes, with a list of ingredients and simple methods. You certainly didn't need a full-page, four-colour glossy picture of each dish, nor a story about where the recipe came from and what it meant to the food writer penning the book.

These days, cookbooks are themed with cohesive, detailed and descriptive recipes for dishes that are photographed so lavishly and lovingly they leave potential book-buyers salivating in the aisles. As we all know, we eat with our eyes and these books - equal parts art, travelogue and cookery - are a feast for them. Food pornography is the grubby and all-too-reductive term used to describe the phenomenon of contemporary cookbooks.

It's also a truism that cooking goes well beyond preparing food to fuel the body; it is creative. Characters from books don't ordinarily come to life but a dish is different. Something that existed in print - a list of ingredients followed by the method for mixing it together - can be turned into reality.

But, contemporary cookbooks - many of them works of art, really - aren't selling just food. They're feeding desire by promoting a lifestyle that is bucolic yet simultaneously urbane, relaxed, fun, comfortable and ultimately more fulfilling than that your average home cook leads. At the high and glossy end of the market there is escapism to rival any best-selling novel.

There are two ways to look at this spectacle. On the one hand, there's a strong belief that recession, not to mention rampant anxiety about where our food comes from and what's in it, has sent us scurrying back to our kitchens to recover lost domestic skills and take control of our lives. It's a twist on the Do It Yourself ethic; fashionable frugality and environmental friendliness. But if frugal is fashionable, it can equally be said that decadence is meant to kill depression - and many of these books are certainly decadent. As Cook The Books saleswoman Cheryl Byngeley, herself a keen cookbook collector, says, "There's something about a cookbook. When you open it, you see potential."

Felicity O'Driscoll is a former property valuer who loves cookbooks so much that she quit her job to buy and run the country's first specialist culinary bookshop in Auckland's Grey Lynn. O'Driscoll used to be a customer when Cook The Books opened in Mt Eden. Working from home, she would stop for lunch; walk up to the village and, more often than not, pop into her favourite bookshop.

Eventually the then-owners asked her to babysit the business for seven weeks; four years on, she's still there. It's moved and expanded to include a kitchen where cooking classes are held. For me, a visit to Cook The Books is the equivalent of a drug addict walking into an opium den: shelf after shelf of glorious and beautiful books about food and wine.

O'Driscoll's customers come from all over the country and all walks of life. She was processing an online order from a brussels sprout farmer in Ohakune when I met her. Customers range from kids who, no doubt inspired by television's Junior Masterchef, want to learn to cook; 20-somethings taking their first steps in the wider world and wanting to throw impressive dinner parties; seasoned cooks looking to add to their repertoire and retired people with more time on their hands.

They want books to show them how to cook, to teach them ways of using the dazzling range of new products and ingredients now available, get fresh ideas and explore the latest culinary styles from New Zealand and around the world. After all, with air freight, globalisation and non-stop television food programmes, including an entire Sky channel devoted to food, we are encouraged to send our tastebuds on an odyssey to search out the fresh, the exotic, the ethnic or the latest take on home-style comfort food.

O'Driscoll agrees the recession has fuelled the appetite for cookbooks. We justify their cost by saying the books will save us money; we can't afford to eat out as often as we might once have - dining out is one of the first luxuries to be jettisoned when we're belt-tightening - so, guided by a cookbook, we try to recreate something of the restaurant experience at home.

Equally, she says, we look to cookbooks to provide comfort and warmth at a time when the world feels cold and heartless. They're nostalgic and make us think the past was a different and better country - never mind that you had to have a prescription for margarine, few had ever heard of an avocado or jerusalem artichoke and the vegetables we did eat were frequently boiled to death.

If recession has contributed to cookbook sales, so have concerns about the environment in which our food is grown and/or raised and the rise of multinational agribusiness. Never before have we tasted our food so tentatively or looked so anxiously at what's on our plate. If you can grow, prepare and cook your own food, you can fight back.

On average, it takes around 12-18 months from concept to publication of a cookbook. Debra Millar, general manager of publishing at Penguin Books New Zealand, says part of her job is spotting trends so publishers keep a watchful eye on culinary developments and the wider social issues associated with them.

Based on her observations about the popularity of cafe Little and Friday, with two outlets in Auckland, Millar signed up owner Kim Evans, a self-taught baker, to adapt her recipes for home cooks. The resulting book, Treats from Little and Friday, is one of the local publishing success stories of the year. An initial print run of 4000 (around 3000-4000 is about an average print run) sold out within days and now, just a couple of months after its April publication, the book is on its third print run.

Much time is spent crafting the book; finding a design to match the personality of the writer and their food, photographing the dishes and then packaging it all in a cohesive and inviting manner. Photography and design has become increasingly important, say publishers and booksellers, because we're a more visual culture and, if we eat with our eyes, we cook with them too, especially given many of us don't know from experience what the finished dish is meant to look like. The photographs are a visual map.

There are a growing number of books which include striking images of the landscape that shapes the food and cooking. It fits with the concept of "terroir" - or the belief that the soil, the geography and the climate of a region confer special characteristics on its crops and produce. Terroir is far from a new concept, having been developed by French winemakers during several centuries, but it's certainly gained currency because of our fears about what's in our food and is reflected in cookbooks which look like travelogues.

Michael Van de Elzen, now well-known from his TV show The Food Truck, spent nearly three years working with Viva photographer Babiche Martens to create The Molten Cookbook, named after the restaurant where he made his name.

Being a working chef meant he had only Sundays - supposedly his day off - to make up to four dishes for the book and photograph them. Ask about whether varnishes and lacquers are used to enhance the colour and look of the food, Van de Elzen is quick to dispel that myth. He says if you use the freshest ingredients and make the dishes just before they're photographed on the right type of crockery, a talented photographer can make the food leap off the page.

He and Martens produced three-quarters of the book before they looked for a publisher, which is unusual because ordinarily it is the publishers who approach food writers, chefs or cafe purveyors. The length of time it eventually took to produce his first book came as a shock to Van de Elzen but he says it was worth it. Not only does writing a book help a chef raise his or her profile, he believes it helps them define their own style and ultimately makes them better cooks.

Writing The Food Truck Cookbook, based on his popular TV show, has been a completely different experience. For starters, he didn't have to agree to take a percentage of the print run to sell himself because publishers Random House knew the book would be a winner. The tone is different because it's far chattier and casual and the dishes are less complex than those in The Molten Cookbook. Still, he's equally proud of it.

"It's a fun book to have in kitchens with flour in the binding and between the pages, oil stains and food splatters across it. I want it to be well used and would hate to think of it just sitting on a shelf or coffee table."

If the photography and design are time-consuming, the editing of each book is equally so. Every recipe has to be read, re-read and then read again to ensure that all the ingredients used are listed, that there are no steps missing from the method, which is clear and precise. A chef or food writer's extensive knowledge has to be translated for the laity who aren't left feeling as if they need a food dictionary to get them started.

Peter Gordon, the Wanganui-born chef credited with introducing the world to fusion cuisine through his famed Sugar Club restaurant, made his first cookbooks when he was 4 years old. He cut out pictures from his mother's New Zealand Woman's Weekly magazines of dishes he liked and glued them on pieces of paper.

Now the author of seven cookbooks - he has another due out in October - Gordon acknowledges there's a whole lot more to their production than his childhood imaginings. Like Van de Elzen, he was initially amazed at the time involved. He says writing down the recipes, which can be a challenge for many chefs and cooks used to adding a pinch of this and a dash of that, is good discipline. He now records ingredients, quantities and method as he cooks and gets others in his restaurants to do the same.

Gordon knows cookbooks change lives. A woman from Leeds telephoned him at his then London-based Sugar Club restaurant, saying she couldn't find some of the Indian spices he used in a recipe. Gordon advised her to take a trip to some of Leeds' ethnic precincts.

She called him back a couple of months later, delighted at the culinary discoveries she made by exploring further afield than her local supermarket. In fact, it had been so much fun she and her friends started a food club to dine and shop at different ethnic restaurants and stores.

Cookbooks then, are practical but beautiful escapism. For some though, they are an addiction and like any addiction occasionally one has to go cold turkey. One friend acknowledged she used to have "loads and loads" of cookbooks.

"Then I had an epiphany that I hardly ever used them, and just had a well-trodden path of the same few recipes in the same few books," she said. "I take after my Nana, I find daily cooking a chore. I look at a recipe with more than six ingredients and feel tired."

So she gave most of them away, just keeping some for sheer interest, vintage or artistic value. Those are more about the book than the food, she says. What's more, she has banned herself from buying any new cookbooks, saying while they are pretty and tantalising, she knows she won't use them.

However, the lure of cookbooks remains strong and she's not giving her passion up entirely. "I have decided to explore more library cookbooks ..."

- NZ Herald

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