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Why I Won’t Pick the Season's Best Cookbooks

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Dear cookbook author,

I wanted to let you know that your book won't be on Food52’s “best cookbooks of 2016” list. Because there won’t be one. There can’t be one.

Edelweiss, the catalog publishers and booksellers use, lists 700 books in the cooking category launching between September and December alone. People are buying cookbooks. There are so many exciting, forward-thinking, inspiring books this season, and I haven’t been this continually amazed and in love with cookbooks in a long time. This is great! Cookbooks are thriving. You might’ve written one of the winners.

Even our "styled" library is hectic. Not pictured: the books under the editors' desk and in cabinets (don't tell our office manager!).
Even our "styled" library is hectic. Not pictured: the books under the editors' desk and in cabinets (don't tell our office manager!).

And there's a struggle when it comes time to get your book out there. Some of your publicists tell me they're feeling the competition to get books featured. Book sellers are having literal space constraints; there’s only so much room on their front table. "Influencers" can only attend so many launch parties in one night, or only call out so many books on Instagram as their favorite. We feel it, too: Our founders have a book coming out next month. With such a deluge, the media's job of reading thoroughly, reviewing thoughtfully, featuring properly, and suggesting wisely has become harder.

The list of new cookbooks that our cookbook review team (a.k.a, me!) wants to cover this season simmers around 70.

The spectacle that is a books editor returning after two weeks away during fall cookbook season.

A photo posted by Ali (@itsalislagle) on

We could just read your press release, and say yes to your pushy (but sometimes effective) publicist. But that wouldn’t feel right, because I know how much time, energy, and grief it took to get your book out into the world. Our founders' book—which made it to a mighty "best of" list yesterday—was rewritten three times, delayed months, and is still coming out on the original publication date. Don’t ask how that happened. It wasn’t magic.

Some parents have said that producing a cookbook is like giving birth—once it’s over, you don’t really want to relive or think about the experience, until years later, when you’re at it again. Jessamyn Waldman Rodriguez, who wrote the winning book in last year’s Piglet tournament of cookbooks, said in her acceptance speech that making a cookbook can damn near kill you. As the person who manages and edits Food52’s cookbooks, I’d agree with Jessamyn’s assessment.

So no: I can’t just read your press release, or slap up a recipe from your book on our site. It’s important to me to read the entire introductory part of your book, read at least 15 headnotes and recipes, cook at least three recipes, and feel propelled to know more or say something about something. Do I get to do that for every book I want to? Does anyone, at this volume?

Concise lists like the New York Times’s and Eater’s and Epicurious’s don't release their criteria and how on how they whittle down lists, but they're great book-selling mechanisms and starting points for cookbook awareness. The goal here is to get your work in front of excited readers, and they achieve that. But folks don’t need to know the best book, they want to know the one that’s right for them—and the one to give to Auntie Sue for Christmas.

Which is why we're doing this, instead. This is what we think could be helpful—albeit more holistic and less bite-sized than a listicle. (And we’ll have more fun creating it, too):

1. Next week, we’re launching a flashy daily feature for new cookbook releases. There will be so much cake. Cliffhanger!

2. As we’ve done for 8 years, we’ll have the Piglet Tournament of Cookbooks, where we pit 16 cookbooks against each other in a bracket competition. There, we'll honor the books from this year that we find the most surprising, inspiring—and the ones we really want to get in front of people. The ones you may have missed. In other words: Spoiler—Ina Garten's and Anthony Bourdain’s books will not be included in this year’s tournament. They do not need our help.

Adam Sachs' Version of the Piglet Origin Story (& More from his Piglet Party Speech)

Adam Sachs' Version of the Piglet Origin Story (& More fr... by Kenzi Wilbur

The 2016 Piglet Final: Andrew Zimmern Crowns a Winner

The 2016 Piglet Final: Andrew Zimmern Crowns a Winner by Kenzi Wilbur


3. I go on Facebook Live every week so viewers can see what cookbooks are in the—45 or so—packages we get each week. Every Thursday (sometimes Friday), viewers can tune in to see for themselves what’s coming down the pike. Listening to my overly caffeinated banter is not required.

4. We will let authors who we admire and who are creating great, exciting, and/or useful work speak for themselves—on Facebook Live and on the site. Folks like Jacques Pépin, Naomi Duguid, Jenny Rosenstrach, Carolyn Phillips, Charlotte Druckman, and Lisa Hanawalt, for starters. There are lots more to come.

5. We will properly review books that might be sleepers, that you might miss in the deluge, or that you should pay attention for one reason or another. You will know that the reviewer has cooked from them.

Homemade Curly Fries: The Best Use For a Spiralizer

Homemade Curly Fries: The Best Use For a Spiralizer by Ali Slagle

This Artist Cookbook Has a Recipe for "Rain After Cloud"

This Artist Cookbook Has a Recipe for "Rain After Cloud" by Sarah Jampel


6. And we'll be here as personal cookbook concierge. Readers—and you!—can email me with what sort of cookbook they want to buy this year, and I'll get right back to you. I'm at [email protected] I can't tell you what the best book is, but I can help you find yours. And I can tell you that I haven’t been so strongly and simultaneously pulled into the kitchen and to keep reading as with Victuals, that Alton Brown’s new book is wacky and all over the place and awesome, and that Lucky Peach Power Vegetables is so fun to read but the food sacrifices flavor for ease. We all want to sell lots of cookbooks at holiday season—it might just take a little more personalization this time around.

I hope you understand.


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