Me and my cookbooks - November 2013

Susie ChangWe're hearing from a lot of you that you're enjoying meeting some of our EYB members through our Me and my Cookbooks Monthly feature. We'd love to introduce as many as we can -  If you'd like to be featured, just email us at info@eatyourbooks.com.

Our featured EYB member this month is one of EYB's own - Susie Chang. Susie is a former book editor turned freelance food writer and cookbook reviewer. In addition to her EYB weekly blog; cookbook reviews on NPR, the Boston Globe, and elsewhere; and her  book, A Spoonful of Promises,  Susie recently designed and launched a new cookbook rating app, CookShelf. For the holidays, she's offering 20 copies to EYB members - to win one, just add a comment at the giveaway blog.

Below she talks about how she became a cookbook reviewer along with the challenges, including: What do you do with all the cookbooks you receive?

 

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At the time when I first fell in love with cooking, I tried to learn practically everything from books rather than people - especially when it came to something like cooking, where disasters were inevitable, smelly, and embarrassing if anyone else was around. I started with 365 Ways to Cook Chicken and 365 Ways to Cook Pasta, which I permanently borrowed from my roommate Conrad (who never cooked anyway). The next, I think, was The Silver Palate Cookbook.  My true cooking education began with a gift: Marcella Hazan's timeless Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking

Although I picked up cookbooks here and there - Kelly McCune's Salad and Madhur Jaffrey's Indian Cooking were early favorites - it wasn't really a collection till I started reviewing, around the year 2000.  My first reviews, which ran in Publisher's Weekly, were little more than single paragraphs, but I was just happy to get the cookbooks in exchange.  In 2001, I started writing for the Boston Globe, and whenever a cookbook came up I jumped at the chance to review it.  The reviews proved popular, and by 2007, they had become my most regular features for the Globe.  I began writing occasional cookbook roundups for NPR around the same time.

There's a lot of things to love about being a cookbook reviewer (although I caution young food writers that fame and riches are not among them! Like many freelancers, I've got a spouse with a steady job, which makes up for my unpredictable workflow). There's the pleasure of working at home, in the kitchen, most of the time; the endless variety of our diet; the fact that neither kid ever had a chance to become a picky eater...but of course, the best part is the books.

Most of the cookbook publishers know to send me review copies, so I probably receive on the order of maybe 300, 400 a year?  I'm not sure.  It's kind of hard to keep track. I look at everything and try to give every book a fair shake, and I always keep an eye out for ringers - great books that aren't getting any attention, little publishers, first-time authors, untraditional narratives.  I try not to keep more than 1000 in the house, and every day I thank my stars for Eat Your Books! As for the extra books, I deal with them in a variety of ways.  If you ever visit the small town of Leverett, Massachusetts, you will find that although it has no traffic signal or cell phone service, its library is spectacularly well-endowed with cookbooks.

Seeing so many books, and reading and testing them for years, has very gradually taught me how to judge them.  If I spend 5-10 minutes with a cookbook, I can usually make a pretty good guess as to how well it will turn out over time, but I'm constantly refining my hunches.  I can see through a well-designed but unoriginal book, and I can see through promising, beautifully shot recipes that are going to break your heart in the kitchen. (Still, once in a very long while I will fall for a book that is totally Mr. Wrong.)  

Realizing just how hard it is to judge a cookbook, when you're standing there in the store or online, away from your kitchen and pots and pans, is what made me decide last year to launch my cookbook-rating app, CookShelf (downloadable for iPhone/iPad and Android devices).  Every cookbook I think is really good goes into the app, and I also review the ones that are seriously hyped but not necessarily all that great. 

People especially need help choosing cookbooks at this time of year, (1) because it's the gift-giving season, and (2) because publishers release the most cookbooks in October and November.  So my hope is that CookShelf - like Eat Your Books - helps people make sense of the chaos, and love and use their cookbooks even more than they do already. 

5 Comments

  • Margaretsmall  on  11/21/2013 at 3:06 PM

    Hi Susie, When you decide to review a book, I presume you try some of the recipes ? It must be interesting living in your house with a constant stream of new dishes appearing as a result. Margaret

  • boardingace  on  11/22/2013 at 12:07 AM

    Very cool peek into the life of a cookbook reviewer!

  • tsusan  on  11/22/2013 at 9:19 AM

    Thank you! Margaret, I test constantly - basically every night. When I'm doing a full review for the Globe, I test 7 - 15 recipes - that's dinner all week! The rest of the time, I cherrypick from whatever new books that look interesting. It takes me at least 2 hours every week to make up my weekly grocery list, working at top speed with Post-its, spreadsheets, grocery list templates, and an ordinary legal pad with a Sharpie!

  • imaluckyducky  on  11/26/2013 at 8:00 PM

    This was a great read, and I'm trying very hard not to think I could be a freelance cookbook reviewer! :)

  • boardingace  on  1/4/2014 at 8:35 AM

    Thank you so much for the app giveaway... I am really enjoying reading your cookbook reviews (I was one of the winners). So fun!!

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