By the Book

By Shannon Oelrich

Imagine cooking a complex recipe—one you’ve never made before. Everything’s prepped and ready, but you decide to check the recipe one more time. In your mind’s eye, are you checking it on a laptop, on a smartphone or in a cookbook? If you thought “cookbook,” you’re not alone. The Internet has a preponderance of electronic content related to food—seemingly all a person could need.

From behemoths like foodnetwork.com and allrecipes.com to apps for recipes, menus, restaurants and grocery lists, the online consumer has access to more information about food at any given moment than his or her predecessor a generation ago might have had in a lifetime! And powerhouse food blogs—like the Pioneer Woman, Orangette and Gluten-Free Girl and the Chef—have developed enormous and devout followings and even spawned best-selling printed cookbooks in the process (or in the case of the Julie and Julia blog, a blockbuster movie).

Yet while overall sales of printed books have fallen in recent years due to the recession, online content and e-readers like the Kindle, cookbook sales have remained strong and even grown—posting a 9 percent gain in 2010, according to ratings giant Nielsen. Aside from affection for those sticky and stained pages, what keeps us coming back to something that seems a little old school?

One answer may be that food, by its nature, is anti-technology (barring culinary flights of fancy à la elBulli and the high-volume automation of a fast-food chain). Food is about process and craft; it’s an art, best explored at the pace of a book, with slow development of taste memories tumbling around ingredients lists and unhurried absorption of the stories behind the recipes.

“In the slim paperback Indian Cooking, Madhur Jaffrey manages to demystify the magnificent cuisine of an entire culture while encapsulating it through its most classic recipes,” says Paula Angerstein, local liqueur producer and founder of Paula’s Texas Spirits. “My copy is well-worn and sticky-noted after twenty-five years of guiding me through many satisfying and authentic feasts.”

Food is about discovery. If everyone’s making the same boeuf bourguignon recipe because it has five stars and 300 glowing reviews online, diversity is lost—even if the recipe is wonderful. It takes work and a compelling story to write a cookbook and effort—albeit pleasurable effort—to look through one.

Chef Josh Raymer of Navajo Grill says, “The Internet is wonderful, and it opens you up to a world of possibility. When you Google a scallop recipe, for example, many wonderful opportunities arise. But pick up the cookbook The Table Beckons [by Alain Senderens] and you receive and join in the passion of a man who has cooked them perfectly, and with love, for over forty years.”

Raymer, who has a cookbook collection more on the scale of a small-town library than a kitchen, believes a good cookbook tells a story: “It gives you the mindset of the chef and the why and what for of the recipe. If you take that journey with the chef and his methods, you will cook better than if you had Googled a recipe.”

There’s also an emotional attachment to our favorite cookbooks. We can curl up with them as we plan special occasions, jot notes in them, splatter food on them. When we cook with a well-loved cookbook, it’s like having a friend in the kitchen—one who’s more knowledgeable and confident about the dish at hand. Noted cookbook editor Judith Jones writes, “What most of us really want…is a collaboration with the cookbook writer, who becomes a comforting presence as we prepare his dishes.”

Lucinda Hutson, author of two cookbooks herself, agrees. “I like the feel of a cookbook in my hand,” she says. “It often opens to a favorite recipe, the pages sometimes stained from the makings of a meal or scribbled with notes. In the pages of a cookbook, I travel with the author on her or his culinary adventure. It’s more than just finding a recipe; the soul of the writer unfolds as I turn the pages.”

Our printed friends guide and influence us in other, more philosophical ways, as well. Barley Swine Chef Bryce Gilmore says he found a kindred spirit in Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, author of The River Cottage Meat Book, whose views on raising animals struck a resonant personal chord with him. “I don’t eat or cook meats unless I know that the animals lived a happy life. That’s important for me.” The book remains a go-to one for Gilmore.

Celebrated Austin chef Will Packwood sees his favorite cookbooks as reliable sources. “Books I continue to refer back to [are] On Food and Cooking, The Flavor Bible, Culinary Artistry, The Professional Chef,” he says. “These books have a ton of content, information and answers to basic cooking questions and flavor combinations. They’ve given me a sort of freedom—a better understanding of what goes on when you’re cooking and what goes on when you’re eating.”

Of course a cookbook offers a tangible piece of history, as well. Whether it’s a family tome that’s been passed down for generations or a brand-new historical work that puts food, culture and home life into the context of a certain age, cookbooks help us make deeper connections.

“My favorite Mexican cookbook author is Josefina Velázquez de León,” says Iliana de la Vega, chef instructor at the Culinary Institute of America in San Antonio and co-owner of the Austin restaurant El Naranjo. “She wrote about a hundred cookbooks from 1925 to 1960. I am fortunate to have some of her great work; she traveled all over Mexico researching and collecting recipes. Books, and especially cookbooks, are close to my heart. We have moved six times—to three countries—and we just pack books, cookbooks and art…the rest is disposable.”

While the Internet tends to connect us latitudinally with other recipe users, seemingly endless information and the promise of things new and exciting, a cookbook connects us longitudinally with another person’s story, time or place, and leaves us with a more profound and sophisticated understanding of the process of food and how we’re connected to it—just as an old friend should.