You may have heard that the print cookbook is indomitable. Last summer, the San Francisco Chronicle reported an 8 percent increase in cookbook sales, even as overall book sales slid downward. A few months later, Amateur Gourmet’s Adam Roberts hailed print cookbooks as “indelible objects, beacons of inspiration,” in a post titled, rather straightforwardly “Why Cookbooks Are Here To Stay.” Not long after, Grub Street’s Hugh Merwin posited that cookbooks “are evolving in ever more interesting ways” and quoted chipper literary agents and booksellers affirming their absolute faith in the staying power of cookbooks in a food-media landscape increasingly cluttered by websites and mobile-device applications.
Don’t believe it. Cookbooks may indeed outlast other print books, but they will eventually go extinct. And that’s OK.
I’m not exactly objective about this. When I was a teenager, my idea of a relaxing after-school activity was to read cookbooks in my family’s La-Z-Boy, salivating over the photography, relishing droll turns of phrase and dog-earing recipes I wanted to try. My first job out of college was as an assistant for a successful cookbook author, a position for which I spent thousands of hours writing, testing and editing recipes. Cookbooks dominate my bookshelves. A good friend ghostwrites cookbooks for famous chefs. You’d be hard-pressed to imagine someone more predisposed to be sentimental about cookbooks than me.
And yet I’m not only certain of the imminent demise of the print cookbook — I’m fine with it. That’s because print cookbooks offer nothing that apps, e-books and websites can’t, despite print enthusiasts’ efforts to recast them as objets d’art.
To understand why we shouldn’t mourn the impending extinction of cookbooks, it’s worth asking why people buy them in the first place. The primary reason — and the reason they’ve been relatively resistant to the book-publishing industry’s deterioration in recent years — is that they make remarkably convenient gifts. You don’t need to know a person well to give him a cookbook as a gift; everyone likes to eat, and most people prepare food for themselves at one point or another. And while you really must read a novel before giving it as a gift to a relative or acquaintance — it might contain laughably bad prose or weird sex scenes — you can get a pretty good sense of a cookbook’s content by flipping through it briefly. They are often visually appealing, and the price is right: The $20-$40 price sticker on most cookbooks neither yells “cheapskate” nor breaks the bank.
The appeal of a tangible gift — one that can be wrapped and physically handed to another person — is deeply ingrained in some people. But over time, our present-exchanging customs will adapt to our increasingly online world. Cooking applications for tablets and smartphones will likely join Netflix subscriptions, Amazon gift cards and iTunes playlists as popular digital presents, effectively wiping out the gift-cookbook phenomenon.
Of course, not all cookbooks are given as gifts: Some people — a minority of people — buy them for themselves, too. The value of a cookbook qua cookbook is threefold. First, there’s the quality of its recipes: how easy and reliable they are and especially how good they taste. Second, there’s the readability of its recipes: clarity, style, consistency of language. Finally, there’s its aesthetic value. By this, I refer both to visuals and prose (witty or thoughtful chapter introductions and recipe headnotes) — the qualities that make people enjoy cookbooks not just as how-to manuals but for their entertainment value.
The Internet is far superior to cookbooks for helping readers suss out recipe quality (and, to a lesser extent, so are apps that allow users to rate recipes). Before the Internet, if you wanted to find out how good a recipe was, you had to make it yourself or trust a friend.
Now, you can Google the type of recipe you’re looking for, browse several versions (and readers’ comments on them), and choose the one with the highest user rating. Reader reviews can even help you make a recipe better (by suggesting that you add more salt or a pinch of cayenne to your stuffed peppers) or tailor it to your dietary restrictions (by substituting crumbled tofu for that ground pork if you’re vegan or kosher). For people who are interested primarily in cooking recipes that taste good, the Internet is a better resource than any cookbook ever was.
When it comes to readability, though, the Internet on the whole is not so good. Food blogs and recipe-sharing sites are rife with maddeningly poorly written recipes that use “tablespoon” for one ingredient but abbreviate it to “tbsp.” (or, the worst, “T”) for another; that fail to give either temporal or visual cues for knowing when something is done; that misspell ingredient names and cooking techniques. Many can overlook such linguistic inconsistencies, but they practically ruin the pleasure of cooking for me.
The hardest thing for cookbook-lovers to let go of — as indicated by Roberts’ description of them as “indelible objects, beacons of inspiration” — is their aesthetic value. And yet smart writing and beautiful photography are in no way specific to the print medium. As both technology and design continue to improve, looking at gorgeous food photography on Internet browsers, e-readers and tablets will soon be as satisfying and comforting as seeing the same images on the page.