Cooking: By net or by book?
Who's a better teacher?
If conventional wisdom dictates that food is the new sexy, then it stands to reason that cookbooks must be the new porn. Certainly, that they are some of the best-selling items in bookstores—and have been for quite some time—attests to that supposition in spades. Everyone, from the ubiquitous celebrity chef (Jamie Oliver, author of more than a dozen books, has made in excess of £130 million from said publications, and is inconceivably ranked second after J. K. Rowling in a list of the all-time top 50 most valuable authors) to the blogger-turned-cookbook writer has been cashing in on society's apparently insatiable appetite for these gastronomic tomes. The irony is that these hefty compendiums don't necessarily ever wind up in the kitchen, well thumbed, stained, and with handwritten notes in the margin, but rather remain in impeccable condition, ostentatiously displayed as status symbols attesting to the owner's discerning tastes. Sure, they might be opened once in a while to be admired, like a beautiful coffee-table book of exotic lands that will never be visited but which serves as efficacious escapism, but the likelihood of recreating the French Laundry's signature dishes, say, are remote at best.
The greater irony is that despite the sweeping sales of print cookbooks, it is in fact to the Internet that most people now arguably turn when they require recipes, instructions on how to poach eggs, or simply to find out what the sous-vide technique entails. I happen to know this because 1) I have been commissioned to host numerous instructional cooking videos for the Internet, and 2) I myself scour the Net for ideas when I want to create an as yet unspecified dish, because it's a darn sight quicker than leafing through every cookbook I own. Apps like epicurious.com offer a plethora of recipes for everything from meals for single diners to lavish French affairs, while YouTube has become a dumping ground for instructional videos by everyone from cookingwithdog, a bizarre Japanese site that teaches viewers how to cook inedible Japanese dishes using a tetchy French poodle and an apparently mute Japanese lady, to hotforcooking, where a barely articulate Asian woman with ludicrously inflated bosoms endeavours to teach viewers how to cook such useful dishes as elk steak. It sounds like rubbish because it is, but that cookingwithdog regularly garners no fewer than 1.8 million views is testament to the irrefutable fact that, whether for entertainment or instruction, people now depend on apps, Internet videos and online cookbooks as their indispensable guides in the kitchen.
Perhaps it's because tablets are now so widespread. More likely, it's due to the surfeit—and accessibility—of information on the Net, but it's true that print cookbooks are as much culprit as they are victim to this growing phenomenon. Glossy photos, self-promotional editorial masquerading as anecdotes, and travel notes, are just some of the affectations—and afflictions—of the modern cookbook. Each page is a validation of the author's genius and rarely do cookbooks now just proffer practical useable recipes, because they have morphed into sensorial capsules, providing snapshots into the world of such institutions as The Fat Duck, so that the reader can vicariously immerse herself in a dining experience she will otherwise probably never enjoy.
Does this spell the end of the traditional cookbook as we know it? Or will we, exhausted finally by our constant trawling through the Internet for basic information and being inundated instead with superfluous trash, clamour once again to cook as our foremothers did, thumbing through well-worn books to find the recipe that so pleases our families that we return to it time and time again? To do that, recipe books such as The Joy of Cooking will have to enjoy a renaissance, to remind us ultimately that cookbooks are for cooking, and not merely for looking at, and admiring.