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Why Cookbooks Matter—Even if You Don't Cook

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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.

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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.

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.