“New” vs. “All in One Place” cookbooks

Fall cookbooks have been streaming in over the threshold, and over the weekend I got the call for cookbook roundup.  So, this morning I sat on the kitchen floor, where stacks of books have been piling up, and started sorting.

There are three big piles: (1) “Give away,” (2) “Keep but not under consideration for roundup,” and (3) “Roundup candidates”.  At first, it’s easy, because the “Give Away”‘s are obvious – Books that have no U.S. measurements whatsoever, or call for lots of unsubstituteable ingredients you can’t get here.  Books that are clearly only a marketing vehicle for the author’s show or restaurant.  Extra copies of books (this actually happens sometimes).

But then things get trickier.  I haven’t yet started taping my 7 questions to the books–that comes later–but one of them is always on my mind: is it really new?

This is a tougher question than you might think, because all cooking is derivative.  Every recipe–whether it’s the ingredients, or the technique–comes from somewhere else either consciously or not, which is why copyright is such a morass in this industry.  

“New,” for me, is some ineffable combination of improved technique, an ingredient shown off in a new context, and/or an unpredictable yet intuitively delicious-sounding new combination of ingredients or flavor palettes.  And I don’t just mean “classics with a twist”–a popular subtitle in many cookbooks.  Adding kaffir lime leaf to a roast chicken recipe isn’t quite enough.  I guess you could generally say that one good idea won’t catch my attention.  But three might.

Year ago, it used to be that as I sat, paralyzed, on the floor with a cookbook in my hand, saying, “New….new…is it really new?” I would reply to myself:  “Maybe not exactly, but it’s all in one place.”   By “all in one place” I meant something like “These aren’t very good recipes for using blueberries, but when blueberries are in season, won’t I be glad there’s a cookbook that gives me lots of ideas how to use them!”  Or “I’ve seen all of these slow-cooker recipes before, but in November when I take out the slow cooker, won’t I be glad they’re all in one place!”

Basically, I was giving cookbooks points for helping me index my library, because trying to hunt down recipes was a huge pain in my everything.

But these days, it’s different.  Thanks to the Internet, not a lot of home cooks feel they need to buy a whole book of mediocre blueberry recipes.  And thanks to Eat Your Books, I can find (eventually) most recipes I want to in my collection, so I don’t feel compelled to give out indexing points to cookbooks any more.  I can just focus on whether they’re good recipes that are really new (plus the other 6 criteria).

There is, maybe, just one kind of book where I still feel “all in one place” has some validity.  That’s the starter cookbook–the new cook’s first cookbook.  Despite, or maybe even because of the abundance of online recipes, there is something to be said for having a collection of first recipes that work reliably and are nicely presented–even if they are not the most original–and can be pulled off the shelf night after night.  I’m always on the lookout for good starter cookbooks.

But as for the rest of them, show me something new!

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