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

September 28, 2016

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!).

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.

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.

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.

Warmly,

Your fan

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12 Comments

SoupLady October 1, 2016
Thank you, Ali! I always look forward to your articles on cookbooks. So. Excited. This is a cookbook addict's dream! I can't wait! There are so many wonderful new cookbooks and it can be so hard to choose (even with my ever-fluctuating buying parameters). Yay!<br /><br />
 
cookinalong September 30, 2016
Thank you for a sensible, much needed dose of kitchen reality. Every year I swear I'm not buying any more! Who needs another one? Not me, she says. Then I'm seduced by some reviewer's rhapsodic ode to the very best deep dish apple pie EVER, and another one hits the shelf. I did a clean out a few months ago, ridding myself of any cookbook I hadn't cooked from for a year. The pile was embarrassingly high. And I've been fighting the urge recently to fall back into my old ways, but you've talked me down. I know I'll find another one that belongs on my shelf, but no more blind cookbook purchases from those "best of" compilations, or the ones promising to be the "last cookbook you'll ever need" or, even worse "life changing paleo-vegan-sustainable-kale based-sugar free-fool-proof-gluten free-wrinkle removing" recipes ready in 10 minutes. Thanks again.
 
Sammy September 30, 2016
I'm only a sometime cook, but I want it delicious and made from ingredients I've heard of and can get locally. I'm always looking for the most delicious mushroom lasagna, for instance. Im so picky that I'd love just the basics.
 
SLittlejohn September 30, 2016
As one of those people who buys the cookbooks and spends a lot of time cooking from them, I can appreciate this! I have always been thankful that Food52 includes vegan recipes and cookbooks in the discussion because I am continually broadening my horizons! I look forward to these posts.
 
Ann September 30, 2016
This will be the most sensible approach available to evaluating cookbooks. So many times I've bought cookbooks from those Best Of lists only to find that they really don't work for me. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you. Love you guys!
 
ichabod September 30, 2016
I like your approach. In addition, I would be interested in knowing which cookbooks, published in the past, you find most useful. Which cookbooks are you most likely to grab off of your bookshelf?
 
Author Comment
Ali S. September 30, 2016
That's a good question! My library rotates often, but I always have Jerusalem, Super Natural Every Day, How to Cook Everything Vegetarian, and Genius Recipes.
 
Tanya September 29, 2016
Love this!
 
Jade G. September 28, 2016
Wonderful that you'll include the lesser known, and omit the TV stars Ina and Anthony. I look forward to it.
 
CordeliaM September 28, 2016
This is laughably self-important
 
mcs3000 September 28, 2016
So looking forward to this daily feature series (and the Piglet, natch).
 
Samantha W. September 28, 2016
Love this and miss being your cookbook partner in crime on camera (there in spirit, of course)! I think this is an awesome approach to book coverage and a great way to let readers know that we don't just look at a cover when we write about a book.