Cookbooks are particular things -- they’re not unlike catalogs of an artist’s work, a description of place and a marker of the time in which they are written. In that way, their permanence is not inherent, and many have the potential to become obsolete bookshelf fodder.
The world is drowning under a culinary tsunami wave of cookbooks, and as such, the gems -- those that act as flotation devices amidst the storm -- are becoming harder to distinguish. They’re becoming fewer and farther in between.
The role of a cookbook is important: it needs to teach you how to cook. And the books that succeed in this become battered and stained from much use -- they become timeless, much like old friends. There are books that take you by the hand, making sure everything works. They detail times, temperatures, weights, and measures. Others prescribe a looser relationship, sort of like Yoda teaching Luke the Force.
In both cases, the book you forever want on your shelf should reassure you. It should never preach, but rather, it should inform and excite. Take my mum, who, after cooking a recipe 100 times, will still read the method before cooking it for a 101st. This shows the immense responsibility of a cook who has endeavored to write.
Photos factor into the greatness of a cookbook, too, if slightly less. Still, they need to be beautiful, to get your juices going. Like a buxom farmer's wife from Normandy with an apple tart, say, or a plate of splendid cheese alongside a bottle of Burgundy. Or a pork chop and prunes.
In this competition’s final, we have two books: one that represents timelessness, and one that lacks a sense of permanence. And we have two authors, both of whom are putting themselves on a pedestal to write a cookbook. April Bloomfield has addressed food with the perfect split of time and place, and a true sense of genus loci. On the other, very different hand, we have Deb Perelman’s The Smitten Kitchen Cookbook, the current, immediate nature of which lacks permanence and rigor. (Both of which are needed even in the domestic kitchen.)
A great cookbook, a lasting one, behaves more like an artist’s portfolio. The work should be now, but should also be ten years from now -- and it should capture in full the spirit of foods’ permanence and joy. The Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking by Marcella Hazan is a great example of a cookbook, brilliant in its recipes, that will never go out of style. And I still cook from Paula Wolfert’s The Cooking of Southwest France, for its authority on all things French. (I also happen to love that she uses goose fat, but that is beside the point.)
Here, between these two finalist cookbooks, it’s the domestic kitchen versus the professional. Both can be great, but it’s about adapting to your reader, becoming that old friend -- being the source that can be relied on time and time again.
An 18th century Man-of-War captain had to befriend his crew and maintain discipline. There may be less broadsides today, but as it happens, there are many similarities between kitchens and such warships. So, in our modern day act of war between cookbooks -- each plentiful publication for itself -- the stand-alone book has to act as captain, to befriend its crew and to maintain discipline. And it has to do this in a way that lasts.