Most pre-teen girls are into doe-eyed heartthrobs and pop band dreamboats. My crush was a little different.
Dr. Niles Crane—the persnickety, germaphobe brother of Dr. Frasier Crane on the long-running sitcom, Frasier—was the only guy who made me wistfully sigh. He was tightly-wound, brutally funny, and I was nothing short of obsessed. When I learned from a friend’s mother (naturally) that a Frasier-themed cookbook existed, I couldn’t wait to get my paws on it. If I was too young for Niles—or, you know, too real—at least I could cook like him.
The Frasier recipe guide wasn’t one-of-a-kind, though. TV show-themed cookbooks were a primary way network marketers stoked interest in sitcoms throughout the 90s, answering the all-important question: How do you make a TV family feel more like a real family for viewers?
You give them a way to play along at home, of course.
This cookbook trend placed the “recipes” of fictional characters into the rotation of kitchens across America and gave super fans a way to Live Action Role Play (LARP) their favorite television show. Sure, it’s fun to watch Phoebe Buffay make her fabulous oatmeal raisin cookies (“I don't make them a lot because I don't think it's fair to the other cookies,” she notes), but it’s even more fun to have the official recipe from Cooking with Friends so you can enjoy them along with her. It’s almost like sitting on the couch at Central Perk. Almost.
In order to really drive the point home, the cookbooks were almost exclusively written in first person, particularly from the point-of-view of the show’s protagonist. The Frasier cookbook, Café Nervosa: The Connoisseurs’ Cookbook, not only has a healthy swath of cooking tips and tricks from the show’s characters, but actually lists Niles and Frasier Crane as the “authors.” The appropriately foppish recipes—like cappuccino biscotti—come equipped with episodic reference points and witty banter between Nile and Frasier, making readers feel as if the Crane brothers just passed along an ingredient list, first hand, on monogrammed stationary. A grilled vegetable salad option that boasts a “splash” of balsamic vinegar is a poster child for ‘90s cuisine, and many recipes have fanciful names—Cranberry Scones with a Skosh of Cloves, Quiche for the Fine-Boned—that hint at the Cranes’ popinjay nature. (Sadly, though, there’s not a recipe for tossed salad and scrambled eggs.)
What’s more, I’ve long been on the hunt for an exceedingly rare 1993 work which—by report—perfectly meshes quality recipes with TV quirk. Written as a community “fundraiser” cookbook for the fictional hamlet of Cicely, Alaska, The Northern Exposure Cookbook: A Community Cookbook from the Heart of the Alaskan Riviera is my personal holy grail. Northern Exposure—a quirky, nuanced sitcom that ran between 1990 and 1995—follows the antics of an eccentric Alaskan town and the culture shock of a New York-based doctor when he relocates there. The cookbook, which is “edited” (ahem) by crabby Northern Exposure shopkeeper Ruth-Anne Miller, would be golden if only for its photos of a baby-faced John Corbett, who played a radio DJ on the show long before he was a Carrie Bradshaw flame. Add on one really stellar salmon loaf recipe, though, and the book is quest-worthy.
As sitcom cookbooks grew noticeably more successful, efforts to pounce on the trend branched out in fascinating new directions. Classic television programs long off-air—but popular in syndication—tried releasing recipe collections, including The Andy Griffith Show (Aunt Bee’s Mayberry Cookbook) and Gilligan’s Island (Mary Ann's Gilligan's Island Cookbook). Later on in the decade, sci-fi shows got in on the act (The Star Trek Cookbook, 1999) and a then-fledgling HBO drama, The Sopranos, took a shot at cookbook glory. It quickly became a gem of the genre.
Released in 1999, The Sopranos Family Cookbook is a full-color, richly tongue-in-cheek collection of classic Italian-American favorites as filtered through the lens of America’s most notorious mob family. With Tony Soprano’s favorite restaurateur (and notable chucklehead) Artie Bucco serving as the book’s narrator, each chapter gives a different player the chance to share recipes—and a little bit of saucy wisdom. My favorite installment comes from longtime Soprano family associate Peter Paul “Paulie Walnuts” Gualtieri, who writes with passionate affection about his “Nucci” (a.k.a. his mom, kind of) and cooking meals for the fellas.
“I like to cook for my friends and associates at work,” Paulie writes. “On a cold day down at the shop, I’ll cook up a nice beans and ‘shcarole [escarole] soup and warm our collective cockles, so to speak. Or maybe a potatoes and eggs sandwich. It improves morale.”
Paulie’s version of uova in purgatorio (eggs in purgatory)—a simple, satisfying combination of eggs, tomato sauce, and herbs—has saved me from brunch disaster on more than one occasion.
By the time the Sopranos shared their kitchen wisdom, though, it had become increasingly clear that the television cookbook trend was about to go the way of dinnertime TV trays. As the Internet (and eventually, social media) boomed, a new vehicle was born for creating for intricate, large-scale PR stunts—no clunky hardbacks required. Plus, every giddy fan could easily share their imagined series-based recipes online: Literally dozens of different versions of Phoebe’s oatmeal raisin cookies are floating around in cyberspace today.
As a society, we also started to more readily exalt the real over the fantastical, and the celebrity over the character. Sure, you’re still going to have Game of Thrones diehards who whip out a cookbook, but most people are far more interested in what Kit Harington is Instagramming for lunch IRL than Jon Snow’s snack of choice.
Still, the fictional charm hasn’t been lost on everyone. After a particularly difficult day, it’s a double dose of comfort for me to crack open the Café Nervosa Cookbook, turn on a Frasier episode, and give in to playing pretend, one neurotic dish—and episode—at a time.
Sarah Baird is our newest writer in residence. Read her other pieces—on cooking with scraps before it was a thing to the biggest picnic in the world—here.