Cookbook love story

And yes, the future is electronic

July 27, 2010

If you’re a faithful reader of Culinate, your bedside area probably looks a lot like mine.

Lately, I’ve been rereading a favorite series of books, and they’re starting to pile up. It’s looking like a professor’s desk down there. A hungry professor, since the series is Jeffrey Alford and Naomi Duguid’s travelogues with recipes, beginning with the 1995 classic Flatbreads and Flavors.

In this original volume, the intrepid authors circle the globe and bring us to places where the daily bread is, well, flat. Central Asia, Mexico, Italy. Long before Anthony Bourdain set foot outside Manhattan, Alford and Duguid would go anywhere and eat anything. They are the Joe Hardy and Nancy Drew of regional cooking.

Given my family background, these bedtime reading choices aren’t unusual. I grew up in a house full of cookbooks. No, I mean, really, full of cookbooks. There were cookbooks in the den. Cookbooks in the dining room. Cookbooks in the kitchen. Several thousand, in all. They belonged to my mother, Judy Amster. My parents now live in an apartment, and the collection has shrunk, but it’s still formidable, and my mother still gets the same dreaded comment: “You must love to cook!”

cookbooks on a shelf
Some of the cookbooks on Matthew Amster-Burton’s shelves.

“I love to read,” she replies.

I didn’t abscond with my mom’s cookbooks often, but the ones I remember best were full of recipes for the kinds of things I still love to eat. There was Jane Butel’s Chili Madness, Wise and Hoffman’s The Well-Filled Tortilla Cookbook, and Norman Kolpas’s Pasta Presto. The latter I brought to college with me, and to hear my wife tell it, seeing cookbooks in my dorm room helped seal the deal. (Years later, I met Norman Kolpas and had the urge to say, “Norm, buddy! Thanks for getting me laid in college!” I didn’t say it, but Norman, if you’re reading, thanks, buddy.)

One day I pulled a Chinese cookbook off the shelf. I believe it was Chinese Cookery, by Rose Cheng and Michele Morris. For the first time, I learned that even if you were not Chinese, you could make Chinese food at home. Years went by before I ever acted on the knowledge, but now I cook Chinese at least once a week, and homemade potstickers are my daughter’s favorite food. My Asian cookbook shelf is replete with titles from Fuchsia Dunlop, Shizuo Tsuji, Kentaro Kobayashi, and Kasma Loha-Unchit.

I cherish these books. And I can’t wait to get rid of them.

The phantom menace

There are few things in life I enjoy more than food and cooking. Music is definitely one. You’ve heard of musicophilia? I’ve got it bad. When I feel down, I put Cotton Mather’s 1997 masterpiece Kontiki on the stereo and flip open a cookbook. On a monthly basis — and preferably more often — I go wild for a new record, playing it to death and collaring my friends and family to make the same dreaded comment: “You’ve got to hear this!” Once I blew off a trip to Taiwan to go to a Belle & Sebastian concert.

How to Cook Everything ad

In 1997, I bought a high-quality CD rack with room for 600 CDs. It was, like my cookbook shelves, a pleasure-delivery mechanism in furniture form. My music was lovingly alphabetized. I scoffed at five-disc changers and CD jukeboxes. If I wanted to play the Pernice Brothers’ Yours, Mine, and Ours (which is one of the most awesome records ever, and you’ve GOT to hear it), I had to pop it out of its case, insert it into the single-disc Marantz, and curl up on the couch with the liner notes. Every part of this process, I told myself, was inherent to the enjoyment of the music, the double shot of dopamine that hit along with the four-count at the beginning of Track One.

Yours, Mine, and Ours came out in summer 2003. A few months later, Apple released iTunes for Windows. I downloaded it and ripped a CD. Interesting.

Within a year, I’d gotten rid of every CD. My favorite neighborhood record store closed. And I enjoy music now more than ever.

If I took a time machine to 1997 and told my younger self, “Your favorite record store is going to close and all of your CDs will be replaced by lower-quality computer files with no liner notes,” my younger self would have replied, “What can I do to fend off this dystopian future in which music sucks and I have no hair?” Well, here we are. Being a music fan in 2010 is beyond awesome. (And my daughter, the potsticker fan, is showing unmistakable signs of musicophilia.)

The parallel between music and books is inexact, as I’m sure you’re already prepared to argue. Compact discs were a mediocre transitional technology. Printed books have been with us for centuries and are a superb technology. In fact, books have been around so long that we no longer think of them as technology at all. But printed books supplanted previous technologies (scrolls and handwritten codices) by offering features that people liked: portability, random access, and, especially, lower prices.

Some people — and not just unemployed scribes — thought the printed book was bad news. Italian humanist Niccolò Perotti wrote in 1471:

Now that anyone is free to print whatever they wish, they often disregard that which is best and instead write, merely for the sake of entertainment, what would best be forgotten, or, better still, be erased from all books.

Yes, people were complaining about bloggers 500 years ago.

Heavy reading

Let’s return to Alford and Duguid, the hungry globetrotters. My favorite of their books is Hot Sour Salty Sweet: A Culinary Journey Through Southeast Asia. I’ve never eaten better than I did in Thailand, and this book reminds me of my trip and makes me want to visit all the other tasty places in Southeast Asia.

But I never read Hot Sour Salty Sweet in bed, because it’s unwieldy. Flipped open, it’s two feet wide, and it weighs five pounds. It’s a coffee-table book that happens to be worth reading for more than just the photos.

This summer we’re putting down new carpet in several rooms of our apartment. This means we have to move everything off the carpet, which is like moving out for a day and then moving back in. The biggest challenge, by far, is the books — hundreds of them, on four large bookcases, each of which is screwed into the wall for earthquake safety. So I’ve been thinking more than usual about what it would take to get me to replace my books with ebooks.

I’m ready for ebooks, but ebooks aren’t quite ready for me. I’ve played with the Kindle, the iPad, and my wife’s Sony Reader. I’ve read several novels on my cell phone. I could gripe about everything wrong with the current state of ebooks — the bad typography, the many incompatible formats, the difficulty of sharing books with friends. But the landscape is anything but static.

“It’s a little like the beginning of film, when they used to film plays and call them movies,” says Eric Gower, the author of The Breakaway Japanese Kitchen, which is available in a multimedia iPhone/iPad version for $5. He’s writing his next book, The Breakaway Vegetarian, as a dedicated ebook — with a print-on-demand version available, if you must.

In the mid-1990s, I read a piece in the Utne Reader titled something like, “The Internet: Should you check it out?” The article was all about Usenet, a long-forgotten, spam-infested corner of the Net. Critiques of 2010 ebook technology will sound much the same, and soon.

So, hello everyone. I’m a guy from the future. Someday you will be reading most of your cookbooks on screens. You’ll do it by choice, because you’ll fall in love with some aspect of the new technology. You’ll keep some favorites around in printed form. You’ll enjoy electronic cookbooks every bit as much as my mom enjoys her printed cookbooks.

You’ll be happy. And possibly bald.

Matthew Amster-Burton writes about cooking and culture from his home in Seattle.

There are 15 comments on this item
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1. by Jeffrey Buxbaum on Jul 27, 2010 at 6:32 PM PDT

The future is here. While I haven’t ditched all my cookbooks, I did cull the herd when I moved a couple of years ago. If I hadn’t cooked out of a book for a few years, it went to the giveaway pile.

INSTEAD, though, there’s the fertile ground of Internet cooking collaboration. If I have an inkling of what I want to cook with, I go to one of my favorite bloggers and see what they have to see. Or just start with a raw search, and see what turns up. What usually turns up is not only the original author’s post (sometimes, a recipe recycled from a real book), but also the experience of what others have tried and liked (or not). That interaction is fascinating, and satisfies not just my need for what to cook tonight, but for how I might vary the concept over the next week, month, year, decade. Then, I give back by posting what I’ve tried, on my own blog, and in comments to others.

Books have their place, and are arguably better at telling a longer story of food discovery, but the Internet has found it’s place. As evidenced by those that read your post!


2. by jillblevins on Jul 28, 2010 at 12:05 PM PDT

Everybody’s heard the parallel to music, but the film parallel - play filming - creates a clear pathway as to how, exactly, the eBook revolution will take place. So thanks.

It’s a treeless future, even in the kitchen. Whether we book-obsessed get on the path or not doesn’t matter. Ten years ago we couldn’t imagine life without newspapers, too, remember?

Now to google a good vegan cupcake recipe . . . oh wait, there’s one here on your site. The future ain’t so bad!

3. by Colleen on Jul 28, 2010 at 1:07 PM PDT

The other problem with cookbooks is when you don’t want to read but browse for a recipe based on an ingredient. Eat Your Books is a relatively new service that is indexing recipes and their ingredients. I am in no way connected to the company financially or personally, but I am a lifetime member and find it very useful.

I also have purchased the How to Cook Everything Bittman/Culinate iPhone app, and it truly is at the forefront of the technology. It is a beautiful and functional app. I could see myself, one day, using an iPad or similar device for all of my cookbooks (the iPhone screen gets a little small).

4. by Caroline Cummins on Jul 28, 2010 at 3:01 PM PDT

jillblevins: That cupcake recipe comes from a traditional paper cookbook, Vegan Cupcakes Take Over the World. But I expect to see paper cookbooks — beautiful and useful and, if thread-bound in hardback, durable as they are — follow the lead of travel guidebooks and transition over into beautiful, useful, and durable electronic versions.

Colleen: Eat Your Books is a great service. I already do something similar with the Web, using it to search magazine archives for a recipe; I tend to cook from, say, the online Saveur recipe for caponata, but then I might go back and look through the paper original to see what else I missed. Once everything is available online, though, I doubt I’d keep the paper versions around.

And yes, the iPad is a much better format for cooking than the iPhone. Glad you like the Bittman app!

5. by Rebecca Penovich on Jul 28, 2010 at 3:51 PM PDT

I hear you Matthew. My shelves over-floweth with cookbooks and since we are moving, it just seems overwhelming. Especially since I also use websites to find and catalog recipes AND I have a collection of photo albums into which I’ve pasted recipes cut out of magazines back to the 80s. Please, release me e-books.

But, and this is a big one, we recently had a power outage for 3 days--and it happens every time there’s a storm, AND I was house-sitting for an older relative at the time. To pass the time (and forget the heat) I browsed my host’s shelves for books to read and had a delightful time discovering her eclectic collection. Can’t do that with e-books.

6. by debra daniels-zeller on Jul 29, 2010 at 8:19 AM PDT

I’m in the process of finding new homes for many of my cookbooks as I read this excellent post. I read recipes for inspiration and I’m pretty sure I can get it from an Iphone app or blog without having to dust it off year after year.

7. by vintagejenta on Aug 1, 2010 at 10:57 AM PDT

This article is incredibly timely for me because I just finished unpacking all of my cookbooks onto a shelf in the kitchen. And yes, both shelves are full and the top is about half full. That being said, like clothing, I frequently weed through my cookbooks and either give them away or sell them.

As much as I love the convenience of the internet, I relish the heft of a good book more. And I agree with the power-outage comment - you can’t use a cookbook that relies on electricity if you have no electricity!

That being said, I think the future of cookbooks are flat-panel touch screens that let you scan recipes from your favorite cookbook pages into them and are neatly organized and indexed however you want. That would be nice. Oh, and the thing would have to be waterproof, grease-proof, and heat-proof.

Also, manual entry is not great. It would be nice to be able to enter a cookbook and have the computer access all of the info for you. Of course, that might break some copyright laws. So any electronic cookbook will never be perfect, just like hard copy cookbooks are not perfect.

8. by lonbeehold on Aug 1, 2010 at 3:57 PM PDT

I am a cookbook junkie :) Like in your childhood home, I have them everywhere. Including storage, lol. I bought the Flatbreads book you mentioned when it came out (now in storage-gotta go pull it after reading this). There’s nothing like settling down with a great cookbook. Ironically, I just finished your book, The Hungry Monkey (loved it!) via my Kindle for iPhone app. I own The Bittman book (both the original yellow and the anniversary edition red) and also have the app. I find I use them them different things-I’ll find an idea/recipe thru the app, use it to shop, and then come home and use the book itself to cook. I never thought I’d be one for the e-book format, but for some things, it’s been great. It’s awesome to have your book with you wherever you are. That said, I don’t think I’ll ever be able to resist the siren call of a gorgeous new cookbook.

9. by Doris Raphael on Aug 17, 2010 at 5:05 PM PDT

All I can say is although I like the additional counter space with no cookbooks...they look great in my wine tasting room. I will never forget when I decided not to buy the next book..but have convinced myself that thrift shopping still allows me to buy a great cookbook for .25 cents to 2.00. Apps are fine but there is still nothing like sipping a glass of fine wine and paging through a fantastic cookbook. It is relaxing and stimulating at the same time. Looking at a computer screen at work and trying to enjoy a fab wine and laptop recipes is not as quaint in my favorite reading spot. I am trying to manage both but still find my self in the greatest spots buying a new book. I don’t know now if I have more bottles of wine or cookbooks in my tasting room.

10. by Katie K on Aug 18, 2010 at 6:08 PM PDT

Your trust in the endurance of technology and access to it is touching. Personally, I’m keeping my books.

11. by Matthew Amster-Burton on Aug 19, 2010 at 8:35 AM PDT

Katie, I’d love to discuss this topic with you...but it would be nice if you read the column first.

12. by Katie K on Aug 19, 2010 at 10:46 AM PDT

I read the article. What happens if the electrical system all this stuff depends on goes down, or the powers that be decide to limit access to information? You undoubtedly think it and they won’t. But don’t assume I didn’t read or understand your article because we differ.

13. by jillblevins on Aug 19, 2010 at 11:27 AM PDT

If the electrical system goes down? Really? You’ll be cooking?

As far as limiting access to information, well, you sound positively Fahrenheit 451ish.

14. by Katie K on Aug 19, 2010 at 11:28 AM PDT

Some of us use gas. And then there’s a new-fangled thing called fire.

15. by Matthew Amster-Burton on Aug 19, 2010 at 11:29 AM PDT

Katie, if you make your entertainment decisions based on how they will fare when the electrical grid fails, I’m not sure how to respond to that.

As for whether ebooks should be DRM-free so that customers control the books they bought, yes, they absolutely should, and it’s frustrating that the publishing industry seems determined to repeat the mistakes of the music industry in this regard.

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Unexplained Bacon

Matthew Amster-Burton sniffs out the unexplained in the kitchen, the store, and the food world at large. He blogs at Roots and Grubs, podcasts at Spilled Milk, and is the author of the book Hungry Monkey.

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