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.