Life's too short to eat bad food - Me

Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic - Arthur C. Clarke

Thursday, May 28, 2009

To Michael Ruhlman - Cookbooks of the Future

This is a response to Michael Ruhlman, author and Food Blogger. It begins with my theory on web etiquette.

When commenting on someone else's blog, keep it brief and to the point. It's their show and their space. If you need to say more, send an e-mail. They might respond. They might even invite you to go ahead and post your comments regardless of length. I have even tighter rules for Facebook comments.

If you need even more space - use you own blog, and tip the original author to your own post as a courtesy.

A little more that a week ago, Michael (may I call you Michael?), posted this simple query:
Question from 60 y.o.: what's best learn to cook book. Not recipe book but teach yrslf book?
I responded with two suggestions. As I read through the of the posts though, I had the feeling that the respondents were missing the distinction between a cookbook and a book that that teaches one to cook. But as I did not want to sow the seeds of discord, I decided to send my thoughts in an e-mail to Michael:
Joy is a recipe book. As much as I admire its place in history, and I own three different editions, it's the kind of book that got me into trouble the first time I "really" cooked.

I didn't want to get into it on Facebook, but I really get the question. I taught myself how to cook this way. After a disastrous attempt while in law school to impress a redheaded nursing student from Bowling Green with my non-existent cooking skills, I went to a used bookstore in Toledo. I told the lady I did not want a cookbook, but a book that would teach me how to cook. She sold me Mastering 1 and 2, and Pepin's La Technique.

I may not have done a Julie Powell, but I spent years using the basics studied. You don't have to turn pro like me to put those lessons to good use. If someone asked me the question you were asked, the recommendations would be what I put on Facebook: Julia's "The Way to Cook" or Jacques and Julia's "Cooking at Home" Plusses and minuses to each. YMMV.
I got a response from Michael and he said that I inspired him to do a blog post on the subject. I am sure I wasn't alone. He did. Please read it here.

But, he didn't stop there. He asked about the future of cookbooks, a topic that deserves more than just a blog comment. That's the reason for this post.

Thought 1: All cookbook authors, from the 4 star Chef to the home cook, must be required to read Jacques Pepin's essay The Anatomy of a Recipe from his marvelous Chez Jacques. Others have written of this, but no one else has spoken more eloquently on the difficulty of translating ones own skills and tastebuds in to the printed word. Not to mention the variations in ingredients.

Thought 2: Because of No. 1, the cookbook of the future should have a greater ratio of prose to recipes. You cannot keep reinventing the wheel. Tell me the whys and wherefores of how you chose this particular approach. Talk about variations, and what might cause things to go wrong. Tell how to fix the latter.

Thought 3: Focus on a more narrow topic. The General Purpose cookbooks never die, they just get updated and reprinted. And while you are at it, tell me why I need another book on whatever that topic is.

Thought 4: More Voices. One of things I love about the Jacques/Julia book is their interplay. Their distinct voices can be "heard" (in my head, at least) in the simple colloquy over black vs. white pepper. Now I mean a real collaboration, not just a collection of different cooks' recipes. Think of a joint effort between Michael and Alton. While that is intriguing, I don't think it's sustainable.

Which brings me to my Ultimate Answer to Life, the Universe, and the Future of Cookbooks:

Thought 5: 42

No, it's interactivity, with the collaboration coming from the people who buy the book and are using the recipes. Here is how I see it working, using Michael's Charcuterie as the template.

Sherman, set the wayback machine to 2005. On the day Charcuterie is released a website goes up hosted by the publisher. It is monetized by advertising paid for by the companies listed in the sources section of the book, as well as other retail sources of the equipment needed. KitchenAid any one? This will pay for site administration and initial moderation of the site. Ultimately the authors might find volunteer moderators from friends, food bloggers, or regular posters who exhibit restrained reasoning.

There would be active links to the authors' blogs that show recent entries. While Michael and Brian wouldn't need to participate regularly, a drop by on occasion would be a good thing.

Most important would be the comment threads. There would be a general thread for people to talk about Michael's hair or how cute Brian looks in his Chef whites. The bulk of the threads will be based upon the specific techniqes and the specific recipies contained in the book.

So, if a person (let's call him "Snotty") tried out the recipe for sopressata and the result was perfect but so sour that it was almost inedible (worked well in baked beans though), he could go to the website. Someone else may have had the same problem. Someone may have a solution. You see "Snotty" was comfortable enough to e-mail Bob del Grosso to confirm his suspicions of what went wrong. Most people don't have that option.

The bottom line is that the cookbook of the future won't be just about selling books - it will be about creating a community.

Here endeth the lesson.


Leah said...

As someone who loves cookbooks and really appreciates the interaction the web provides with the authors of those boosk, I really loved your post. Who wouldn't want the option to get real-life lessons in cooking from the same people whose ideas we've sought out in the first place. It's a great way to build community and keep the cookbook alive.

tyronebcookin said...

A most excellent post, Scotty! I must say that I have veered more toward the 'friends & family' side with my postings on my blog -- keepin it simple for the 'homies'...its more like trying to help people that know almost nothing (inspiring people who get overwhelmed to quick sometimes).

Ok, back to your post. Even though Michael doesn't have a forum I think he is getting close to the 'format' you have set up...nowadays Michael comments, posts, and writes back (I emailed him a few times too and was pleaseantly surprised at a response)and it CAN BE in relation to any of his books he's produced. Granted, some of his books are not recipe books, but more technique books with recipes in them. But thats what were looking for isn't it?

I too was thinking of illiciting a response on my own blog...but we'll see. I think yours is spot on though.

Harlan said...

Indeed. A recipe book is not the same as a book about cooking is not the same as a textbook on how to learn to cook. They're valuable in different ways.

Regarding your web idea, I had a similar idea a while back for a venture. It would be a social-networking site, where you could interact with other people who had the same cookbook, compare notes on the recipes (which might only have the ingredient list publicly available, for copyright reasons) and techniques, etc. You could rate cookbooks and get recommendations based on your ratings and those of other users. Etc.

(Anyone, please contact me if you're interested in getting a copy of my proposal!)

Bunnee said...

The Daring Bakers forum operates much the way you have described. Participants ask questions, describe successes and failures, make suggestions. The trigger is often the challenge for the month, but there are also forums for general baking questions. And, since those reading and contributing are international, there are many perspectives on what works, tastes good and can be done within the constraints of availability.

blondee47 said...

Scotty, the cookbook of the future should not even have prose but rather be totally press a button and watch the video for each chapter...books need to evolve like the computer from the days of Radio Shack

If you take the kids books that were once interactive ie...the bunny book...those are the ones that maintain their longevity...

I would rather open a cover and press a button than have a kindle

blondee47 said...

the only problem beng that writers will no longer be able to be JUST writers...they, too, must evolve from simple penmanship and therefore media takes on a whole new perspective

Celia Sack said...

Well put! I own a cookbook store in San Francisco, and always recommend the cookbooks that teach you WHY you're doing what you're doing (Zuni Cafe & Sunday Suppers at Lucques, for example). There's also nothing better than watching a few customers exchanging their experiences with certain recipes & cookbooks, creating community right here in the store.
Celia Sack, owner
Omnivore Books on Food

Scotty said...

Leah, that's my point - the ability to talk to others and share experiences.

Tyrone, you are an example of why food blogging is a community, if a different one than I was talking about. I wouldn't be at your blog, or you at mine otherwise. But we cannot expect author response regularly, hence my thoughts for forums.

Harlan, nothing is new, friend.

Bunnee, there are places like that, but I was thinking of something specific to a particular cookbook.

Natalie (did I spell that right)? You are another friend I wouldn't have without food blogging. I SINCERELY hope you are wrong. It sounds like you are talking about an instructional video. I want the prose - it is what makes a cookbook sing to me.

Celia - I want to go to SF more now. Can I get favorable shipping rates!

All of you (and Michael) thanx for stopping by. Please do so again!!!!

ntsc said...

I don't agree with you about Joy, while it has a major number of recipes there is also an amazing amount of information there. Information about food and process.

I did have the chance last year to be with Ruhlman for a couple of hours along with several other Internet friends. The man not only talked to us but ate our food, including my charcuterie and lived to tell the tail.

Garret said...

I love that this site has created a community of cookers! Just bookmarked the site and am already excited to start learning and joining the conversations!

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Steve said...

those who love cooking i think they will definitely appreciates the interaction the web provides with the authors books..i really like your post.

Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.
- Arthur C. Clarke

Life's too short to eat bad food -