“When so many recipes are available on the internet, recipes alone don’t make a cookbook,” wrote Holly Hughes, editor of the Best American Food Writing series, explaining that she’s looking for other material that sets a cookbook apart. “I’m focused on the words, not the photos, beautiful as they may be, and the quality of the prose, not the authenticity or originality of the recipes.”
Hughes’ quote comes from a handout provided by the American Society of Journalists and Authors (ASJA) at their annual conference last week. (As an aside, I highly recommend this conference to both build skills and network with other writers.)
I didn’t attend “A Dash of Cookbook Writing,” the panel in which Hughes spoke, but this handout got me thinking about the role of voice in cookbooks, and – to take it one step further – what actually makes us buy cookbooks today.
The last cookbook I purchased was Dishing Up Maryland by Lucy Snodgrass. The book includes one-page stories about Maryland farmers, and I have tremendous Maryland pride. When I saw that Rumbleway Farm, the farm where my Dad gets Thanksgiving turkeys, was included, I had found a personal connection to the book – and a reason to buy it.
But my decision had nothing to do with the author’s voice.
So, when faced with shelves of cookbooks, what would make me want to buy one over all the others?
I went to Barnes & Noble to find out. Standing in the small baking section, which consisted of just more than one bookshelf, I flipped through a few cookbooks, paying close attention to the writer’s voice in the introduction to each recipe.
Some, like Sandra Lee’s Bake Sale Cookbook, are solely collections of recipes. Sandra didn’t write introductions, and each dish’s instructions are straightforward and standard (“preheat this,” “stir that,” “add this,” etc.). I couldn’t get a sense of her voice.
Most of the other books that drew me in (BabyCakes, One Girl Cookies, Sticky Fingers’ Sweets) did so because I recognized the names of the bakeries. Short descriptions of the finished baked goods introduced each recipe, with a few tips for how to make the best cupcake or cookie or brownie with lots of adjectives (“creamy,” “silky”) about the final product thrown in.
The adjectives made my mouth water, as did the beautiful pictures, but they weren’t enough to convince me to buy a full cookbook of recipes I would probably never make.
Then, on a wooden table showcasing the latest in cookbook offerings, I found what I was looking for in At Home on the Range, a cookbook written by Elizabeth Gilbert’s grandmother, Margaret Yardley Potter.
I picked up the book because of name recognition. I unashamedly love Eat Pray Love, so much so that I’ve read the book five times and have been unable to watch the movie because I don’t agree with the Julia Roberts casting.
But what I liked while skimming through this book is that the Margaret’s voice is very clear, sort of Julia Child (although Margaret wrote her book in the 1940s and 50s, long before Child went to culinary school) in that she approaches food from a no-nonsense, have-fun-with-it kind of way.
In Gilbert’s introductory essay, she quotes Margaret’s thoughts on a warm loaf of bread, freshly baked and removed from the oven: “…if you can resist cutting off a big warm piece and spreading it thickly with butter, you’re not the girl I think.”
There are recipes of course, but they are proceeded by long essays about the food and the time period. Though I’ve only briefly flipped through the book, the essays seem to be about the food first, much like Laurie Colwin’s Home Cooking and some of the essays in Jeffrey Steingarten’s The Man Who Ate Everything. (As opposed to a food memoir, a genre I also love, that may tell a story about the first time a woman meets her boyfriend’s parents for lunch, then include a recipe about the fish they ate at the end.)
Though I didn’t buy At Home on the Range, I realized that this is the kind of cookbook I would buy, something that is a cross between a memoir and a instructional guide with lots of stories and a few recipes. Voice is important to me, and the more space an author has to express hers, the more likely I am to want to buy the book.
What was the last cookbook you bought and why did you buy it (or why did you want to buy it)? What motivates you to buy a cookbook? Do you pay attention to the author’s cookbook voice or are you most drawn to the recipes?