It’s The Era Of Crowdsourced Recipes—Long Live The Cookbook

With recipe blogs, websites that curate or crowd-source recipes, and social media tools like Pinterest, savvy cooks can access tons of highly-specialized recipes without ever cracking a cookbook. A search for, say, ‘sugar-free gluten-free vegan banana bread’ will turn up dozens of recipes in seconds. So is the cookbook dead?

In January, I got an email inviting me to be part of a recipe share. In the manner of a chain letter, you were supposed to email a recipe to the person whose name was in position one. After that, you move the #2 person to the top of the list, put your name in spot two, and send to 20 friends. If all goes according to plan, you end up with 36 new recipes. It’s all a little Betty Draper (or your great aunt), but the person who sent me the recipe chain letter was my friend Morgan, a 28-year-old Chicago actress who runs around with people who look like ‘Portlandia’ extras. Reading, testing and sharing recipes has never been so hip.

I suppose this isn’t the first time cookbooks have weathered a competitor: People were probably freaking about the death of the cookbook with the advent of TV cooking shows, just like everyone was afraid MTV would kill the cassette tape industry. But the Internet is a much different landscape for recipes than TV, because 1) unlike with TV programs, you can pull up virtually any recipe at any time online, 2) you probably can’t watch the Food Network at work, but you can scroll through your favorite recipe sites and 3) there are very few barriers to entry. If you want to post a recipe somewhere, you can post a recipe somewhere. If you want to start a recipe blog, the food photos you take, edit and upload from your phone can look better than anything on the web did 10 years ago.

But despite the preponderance of recipe blogs, recipe mega-sites (like Allrecipes, Cookstr, Yummly, Epicurious) and recipe sharing, cookbook seem to have remained relevant as ever. Kathy Hester, author of The Vegan Slow-Cooker (we posted a recipe from it here), said before she published her first cookbook four months ago, she thought cookbooks were on the decline. But “the amount of books that I’ve sold in the past 4 months really shows me that’s not the case,” she says. “It’s already sold what many books do in a year and it’s super specialized.” [Note to self: Write a cookbook.]

Why do people still buy cookbooks when free recipes of all sorts exist on the Internet? Cookbooks are tangible. You can hold them in your hands, page through them at bookstores, give them as gifts, pass them down through the generations. They can be romanticized (at a cookbook conference in New York earlier this month, one panel was titled ““Cookbooks as Dreams of the Ideal”). Like some records, good cookbooks transcend the sum of their parts, go beyond a collection of instructions for making dinner.

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    • Briana Rognlin

      I was asked to do one of those recipe exchange things (although mine was via email, not snail mail), and I had to turn it down… I love getting recipe recommendations from friends, but I can’t deal with chain mail!

      • Elizabeth Nolan Brown

        I didn’t end up doing it, either!

      • Elizabeth Nolan Brown

        Although that was partly because I read the instructions wrong and thought I had to mail someone in the physical mail …

    • Morgan

      So, I ended up getting like, four recipes. Which was a bit sad. I don’t think I realized how different peoples tastes are and like, a lot of people eat meat and soup based casseroles. However one was really awesome and healthy and fresh.

      In the future- I am going to stick to 101 Cookbooks and Splendid Table to find new go-to’s.

      • Briana Rognlin

        Yeah I guess these recipe shares are almost like an interesting anthropological study: Kind of surprising how differently all of us eat, despite thinking that we’re all similar and would want to make/eat the same kinds of things.

        Morgan, if you like 101 Cookbooks you should totally check out Coconut and Quinoa, and also My New Roots. I LOVE those blogs! They’re my new favorites.

    • fig

      Ugh – I think I got the same chain request. I had no interest in think ing up 20 (20!?!) people who I would want to participate with. I have 3 friends who are great cooks with similar cooking philosophies to (A Michael Pollan – high veg low meat limited processed foods) and who are good at cooking like that. Even the person who sent the chain to me – Nice person, terrible cook. She uses all light/nonfat ingredients… she thinks the results tastes good… I think they taste like chemicals.
      I sent a recipe along to the two participants, but said I had no time to participate fully.
      I’m much happier scouring the food blogs I love than getting recipes from a bunch of strangers with odd taste in food.

    • Crescent Dragonwagon

      I’m a writer, and cookbooks are one of the genres I write in.Along with recipes, a creative craft in themselves, I bring what I always bring to writing, any writing: curiosity, experience, exploration, love of narrative and storytelling, sensuality, context, truthful voice.

      I am lucky enough to hear, often, these kinds of generous comments from readers: “I love your stories.” “I read cookbooks like novels; I always keep one of yours by my bed, ” “I read the headnotes out loud to my husband,” “I felt like you were keeping me company in the kitchen.”

      I do internet recipe searches sometimes myself, and bless the convenience. But they don’t, cannot, tell the story; it’s not their role. There is more story and voice in blogs, but not the whole contextual experience that a well-written cookbook gives. (It’s the diff between a short story and a novel. Loosely.)

      My latest cookbook, Bean by Bean, was at #7, overall, on amazon last week, though it’s now in the 180 range; this, and what readers tell me, inform my beliefs. Sure, cookbooks are tangible and looks and feel have something to do with it. But I say the appeal, finally, is at least 50-50 percent voice/ story and recipes/food ideas.

    • Amela Sandra

      I’ve met a bookstore owner from a states above mine.
      She approached me with teary eyes and a huge smile and asked me “Is that a tablet?”
      I explained to her it was Nookbook & what it does.
      She said “I own a bookstore & ever since these gadgets came out business has disappeared. I’m scared for my business, I’ve opened the bookstore after college.” She was telling me how she was an English major, couldn’t find a job so she opened up a bookstore with some money she made & some money her parents gave her… She met her husband there, her bookstore changed the neighborhood, etc etc…. The American Dream.

      Then I told her that she shouldn’t worry it. Despite having a nookbook I still go to the bookstore to find books for me to read. I told her: I still go to bookstores to find the best books. Nothing can compare to going to the bookstore or library & letting books find you, skimming through it with your fingers is so exciting, you never know what page you will land on, it’s gentle on the eyes & it feels cozy to be in a bookstore. Like bookstores, cookbooks will never die. They’re a tradition. They’re part of cultures & families. . . .

      Thank you for writing this, it was a great piece <3

      Amela Sandra