The cookbook recaps are flooding in. They’ll ease Christmas shopping block and give you a gastronomic assessment of 2014. Or so they say. Because, with so little hindsight, it’s difficult to say decisively which ten or twelve or twenty-four cookbooks were the year’s best. Our current favourites might be covered in dust by February or June. Who would have predicted that in 2014 we’d want to make all our pantry staples from scratch? Or that innovative interpretations of French cuisine would capture our minds and stomachs? The popularity of these books reveals little about 2014’s culinary impact. Although yearly cookbook roundups may be fun — and handy when shopping for an avid cook — they conveniently forget that calendars don’t dictate a cuisine’s evolution. Thus, we’re left to wait and wonder which recipe collection will actually impact our kitchens and society.
That a cookbook doesn’t always have the practical use we wish it would won’t surprise anyone who has bought a heavy, glossy tome, only to let it languish on their shelf while they reach for smaller, easier to handle books. But it’s what the book contains, not just its dimensions, that separates a life-changing recipe collection from a one-off dinner. As Jamie Oliver learnt when teaching cooking to town in a South Yorkshire, knowing recipes and knowing how to cook aren’t the same. While recipes provide formulas for a predictable result, cooking is an alchemy that relies on intuition and interpretation. Executing a recipe as printed doesn’t mean you’ve improved your kitchen skills.
This is especially true for the new coffee-table cookbook that’s become increasingly popular. These cookbooks typically follow either a famous chef or a niche cuisine. Their recipes usually require exceedingly exotic ingredients or hard-to-replicate techniques. North: The New Nordic Cuisine of Iceland, written by Gunnar Karl Gíslason and released in September, exhibits this tension from the table of contents. Each chapter highlights a different small-scale producer of a regional Icelandic foodstuff. While smoked arctic char might seem familiar — especially after the interview with the maker from Lake Mývatn — it won’t be easy to find at Whole Foods. To recreate recipes like ‘Parsnips Three Ways with Arctic Char Roe’ in the home kitchen, the cook must use the recipe as an outline which they embellish with their kitchen skills. They need to know that more common salmon roe could be used instead of arctic char roe, the parsnips could be dried in the oven instead of in a dehydrator, and the plating can be improvised. Coffee-table cookbooks don’t teach practical cooking skills and, consequently, don’t integrate into home-cooking vernacular. Instead, they help the individual comfortable in the kitchen get creative with a guidance and inspiration from an expert. Beyond the trend they illuminate, coffee table cookbooks have a short shelf life as a ‘must-have’ title.
While roundups frequently include these big-budget books, it’s the other cookbooks the roundups include which point to the year’s most pervasive trends. Most lists agree that David Lebovitz’s My Paris Kitchen, Gabrielle Hamilton’s Prune and Nicolaus Balla’s and Cortney Burns’ Bar Tartine are 2014’s essential cookbooks for the serious home chef. Although each presents a unique attitude toward cooking, they all argue for the creation of a new food culture. Lebovitz shares essays on living in Paris to help the cook understand the recipe beyond its ingredients and process. Hamilton’s succinct approach and relatively minimalist style reflects the no-fuss food she presents. Balla and Burns equip the cook with tools to build a homemade pantry and their own culinary world. Whether narrative, bare, or self-made, 2014 celebrates the comprehensive lifestyle cookbook.
With their all-encompassing approach, it’s tempting to claim that 2014’s cookbooks will earn a prized place on our shelves for years to come. That’s what these roundups would have us believe. After all, ‘stories are big’ and ‘big books are big’ — to say nothing of the books that ‘[are] sticking closer to home’ or ‘helmed by a strong, opinionated personality’. These statements depend on when they were made. While Lebovitz’s mini-essays on Paris are 2014’s perfect cookbook story, they may become lengthy, drawn-out head notes in 2015. Prune, weighing in at nearly four pounds, may seem tiny should next year produce larger, dense books on fancier, heavier paper. Should the dehydrator become a commonplace appliance, Balla and Burns’ obsessive pantry may seem easily replicable. And, as reality television has sadly taught us, there is always a stronger personality waiting in the sidelines ready to wow us. Just because this year’s cookbooks sold well doesn’t mean they’ll become time-honoured favourites.