Long Reads

Why Cookbooks Matter—Even if You Don't Cook

February  3, 2017

We are obsessed with ourselves. We spend time and money and energy attempting to better understand ourselves: We go to therapy, we read self-help books, we get our astrological charts read, we take online quizzes. But the truth is that there is no answer, there is no singular self we can wholly know; there is only change and process.

So here we are: obsessed with an unsolvable puzzle, and hungry. Like, really really hungry. We are hungry for everything, sometimes (much of the time?) even ravenous. We crave deep connections and meaningful relationships, a sense of comfort, ideas that inspire us and make our brains hurt with growth, enjoyable engagement with our bodies without judgment, laughter that is so honest the sounds from our mouths surprise us, a feeling of security in the world. Online quizzes will not bring you these things. But cookbooks can, if in small doses. They are comestible self-help.

First we must acknowledge that cookbooks are books. This is not a dumb statement, though it may read like one. A wall full of cookbooks gets a different treatment than one of novels or a poetry collection, because cookbooks, to many, are practical books. And they really are: They teach us techniques, introduce us to new ingredients, encourage us to expand our palates, riff on old ways of doing things, and promise us new ways of doing things that with time will become old ways. This is very much practical.

Cookbooks contain everything.

But cookbooks are not simply manuals. Cookbooks contain everything: time and space and history and culture and politics and weather and human relationships and the way families are structured and the way societies are structured and economics and humor and art and an endless supply of human personalities and voices. Cookbooks contain all realities because cooking contains all realities. We read and then we cook and then we eat, at which point we have truly consumed our books and their voices and lessons.

This is as true of cookbooks that we agree to consider “timeless classics” as it is of cookbooks written by country music stars or television personalities or firefighters in a small Texas town. It is as true of cookbooks that are meticulously researched and recipe tested and proofread as it is of comb-bound community cookbooks that offer vague measurements and half-clear instructions. The books that speak to us do so because of who we are and what they contain, just like self-help books.

There are cookbooks for everything.

We are moved by books that connect us to times and places and people that are gone or far away. We are moved by books that remind us of a small, quiet part of ourselves that doesn’t often get light. We read old cookbooks to learn about the way things used to be, how people in the past lived and related to each other and made bread from scratch every day. We read cookbooks from cultures other than our own to learn about them and to be transported to another world, whether that's Yucatan or Taiwan or Minnesota.

We read cookbooks written by oddballs and obsessives to hear another voice in our heads, to laugh at jokes and engage earnestly in one-sided conversations and feel less lonely. We read restaurant cookbooks because we have eaten at the restaurant and wish we could go back or we know we’re never going to get there and want to be there anyway. Books on soup will make you feel warmer, entertaining books will give you energy, baking books will make you feel calm and composed (or anxious and fidgety, depending on your disposition). There are cookbooks for everything.

Sometimes we are searching for something to cook, and directions for how to do so. But sometimes we are simply looking to feel connected: to ourselves, to others, to history, to culture, to our bodies by way of the rumbling in our bellies that inevitably comes after reading a recipe for cinnamon rolls or lamb curry or mapo tofu. This is why cookbooks matter: They offer us a view of the world that we couldn't otherwise have and in doing so, they help us better understand, figure out how to become the best version of ourselves or how to pretend to be someone else for a moment, and, lastly, feed ourselves and others.

Sarah Whitman-Salkin is an editor and writer, and the founder of the online bookshop Classics Cookbooks.

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18 Comments

JulieQC March 21, 2017
A lot of friends don't feel the need for cookbooks and go online-or consider them an unecessary expense. I've always loved books in general-cookbooks are special. The are like a journey with someone. And reading it at different times, I'll be drawn or see some things differently than I did the last time-just like with a good novel. A recipe off the internet is much less connected.
 
Author Comment
Sarah W. March 22, 2017
Totally agree! Revisiting cookbooks is such a pleasure—there's so much to learn.
 
Julia F. March 15, 2017
Well said! I agree!
 
Author Comment
Sarah W. March 16, 2017
Thanks, Julia!
 
Steve C. February 20, 2017
Thoroughly enjoyed this. I scour garage sales and thrift stores regularly looking for old and/or unique ones. Sometimes I am even questioned as to why I would want them when you can find "everything" online.
 
Author Comment
Sarah W. February 21, 2017
Thank you! I also compulsively hunt for cookbooks in the world—the delight of finding something special or unexpected is second to none.
 
jenny February 19, 2017
Yes! Cooking and cook books are recipes for living :-)
 
Nataly H. February 19, 2017
Just to mention that I read cookbooks in bed, before going to sleep, I am as this point serious ! ;-)
 
Nataly H. February 19, 2017
Absolutely true and delicious! Like your writing and totally agree with you since it's my therapy too(my too big collections could prove eat easily). Thanks !
 
Author Comment
Sarah W. February 21, 2017
No collection is too big!
 
Tiffany February 7, 2017
Lovely writing. Thank you.
 
Author Comment
Sarah W. February 8, 2017
Thank you!
 
MarieGlobetrotter February 5, 2017
Fully agree with you here. I think it's particularly true for cookbooks on foreign cooking. I always try to go for those just to discover new cultures, traditions and tastes. I'm particularly food of North African, Middle Eastern, Persian cooking. Warm and fuzzy, so fragrant
 
cee February 5, 2017
I love reading a cookbook while I am eating. I am a senior with no family, I live alone and cook very simply. Cookbooks spice up my life.
 
Author Comment
Sarah W. February 8, 2017
I do that, too—and a cookbook over dinner is far better company than the TV.
 
suzybel63 February 4, 2017
I love cookbooks. Just bought 5 more, can't wait to read them.
 
Kathy H. February 3, 2017
Yes, I feel the same way...cookbooks teach me so much beyond recipes and techniques. The best are filled with history, culture, stories and, when I am lucky, language that is lush and lyrical...Nigel Slater comes quickly to mind.
 
Author Comment
Sarah W. February 8, 2017
Nigel Slater's books are fantastic!