How cookbooks Suddenly Got Cool
It's a recipe for success.
Confession: this self-labelled foodie had never so much as cracked open a cookbook until adulthood. I was working as an editorial assistant at a bridal magazine, where cookbooks were considered a wedding-shower staple (don’t eye-roll me—I know it’s old school), when Modern Classics by Donna Hay landed on my desk.
It was elegant and minimalist at a time when cookbooks, like the encyclopedic tomes collecting dust in my mother’s cupboards, weren’t. I took it home, tried a recipe and was hooked. Since then, I’ve amassed more than 65 titles, which sit, colour-coded, next to my stove. They are catnip to home chefs like me, but in today’s Insta-worthy kitchens, they’ve also become a bit of a culinary status symbol.
Despite the global domination of Kobos and Kindles—and people spending more time scrolling Twitter threads than reading anything longer than 280 characters—print, especially in the kitchen, is very much alive. Last year in Canada, nearly 2,000 cookbooks were published and two million copies sold, according to data from BookNet Canada. Keto, Paleo, Whole30, vegan—you name the meal plan and there’s a cookbook for it. Addicted to your Instant Pot? There are about a million (give or take) how-tos for that. Millennials may be the order-in generation, but they’re also really into food. Bingeing Netflix food docs (like Samin Nosrat’s Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat and Chef’s Table), “hashtag cooking” (see Alison Roman’s viral chocolate-chip-cookie recipe from Dining In) and “anxiety baking” (where your path to relaxation involves whipping up a cake or a batch of cookies) are just some of the ways they’ve embraced the culinary world.
You’d think the cookbook biz would be superfluous considering today’s all-access pass to food. There’s YouTube, BuzzFeed’s Tasty videos and countless recipe apps, not to mention beautifully curated cooking sites and social feeds from hungry bloggers. And, sure, the “rise of food blogs and their focus on easier and healthier recipes has made cooking less daunting,” Toronto-based food blogger Diala Canelo tells me. But, she argues, cookbooks go beyond the like-and-subscribe tutorial model by serving up substance with convenience. (Hence she’s publishing her first next year.)
I can relate. I’m always up for trying a new recipe I’ve found online, but, to me, engaging with an actual cookbook is a creative outlet, like when I make Miette’s buttercream and chocolate Tomboy layer cake for my daughters’ birthdays every year. It’s a fam fave—and a thing of beauty when it turns out as gorgeous as the image in the book.
That’s another thing about this new generation of cookbooks: The photography and styling are equal parts aspirational and appetizing, thanks to fashion-mag-quality lighting and perfectly styled flatlays. A weighty Gjelina or Hartwood has become the equivalent of a Taschen coffee-table book. Unlike books that are merely for show, however, the words are just as compelling—take the popular Matty Matheson: A Cookbook and Reese Witherspoon’s Whiskey in a Teacup, which double as page-turning memoirs. As the success of the latter proves, nowadays you don’t need a Michelin star to reap recipe success—you just need a lifestyle brand. And celebs from Gwyneth Paltrow to Chrissy Teigen are capitalizing on cookbooks to bolster theirs.
As someone who didn’t start cooking until she was in her 20s, I feel that being invited into someone’s kitchen, even if it’s via the page, is as personal as it gets. And when I first learned that I, too, could achieve resto-worthy dishes with ease at home for the people I love, it changed how I approach meals. The dinner table became the centre of my home and, by extension, my family. Perhaps the revered food writer and cookbook author Ruth Reichl sums it up best: “I cook for other people, and, to me, cooking is an act of giving. When I leaf through cookbooks or magazines, I am imagining all the people who will be sitting around my table and I am looking for food that will make them happy.” Bon appétit, indeed.
This article first appeared in the April 2019 issue of ELLE Canada.