The first symptoms of Jerusalem fever appeared on New Years Eve: A friend rushed over at a party, breathless, her eyes bright.
We have to do an all-Jerusalem dinner! she panted, then immediately called dibs on making the chicken with clementines and arak.
Jerusalem: A Cookbook was written by Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi, chefs who grew up on opposite sides of the divided city, Tamimi in the Arab East, Ottolenghi in the Jewish West. Both left Israel decades ago, live in London and are hardly celebrity chefs.
The books recipes are traditional in Jerusalem, or loosely inspired by the city, gathering influences from the Christian, Muslim and Jewish cooks who live there, with flavors from almost everywhere else: Iran, Poland, Syria, Italy. Many have long lists of ingredients, including spices like sumac and zaatar. Chickpeas, lamb, eggplant and eggs turn up over and over again.
None of this would suggest a formula for instant cookbook success.
But soon there were other symptoms of Jerusalem fever. A sudden influx of emails regarding cardamom pods. Conversations over cubicle walls about where to find freekeh.
Potlucks and clubs
Jerusalem, published in the United States last October by Ten Speed Press, already has 200,000 copies in print, with an additional 210,000 copies in print in Britain.
More than 3,000 cookbooks are published each year, according to Bowker, the publishing industrys tracking authority. Very few of them sell more than 35,000 copies, and those that do are usually driven by authors who are chefs, celebrities or both.
Most cookbooks disappear without a trace. And, as many home cooks can attest, even the copies that are sold tend to languish on the shelf without being used.
Not this one.
I took it out from the library as many times as I was allowed to, said the Rev. Raewynne Whiteley, rector of an Episcopal church in St. James, N.Y. And there were still so many things I wanted to make that I was forced to buy it.
Cooks have been throwing Jerusalem potlucks, passing around tips on where to buy fresh tahini in Minneapolis or in Manchester, England, and using the book as a spark to ignite new cookbook clubs, monthly gatherings of cooks who may know each other only online.
American food lovers are not only cooking from Jerusalem. Many of them are cooking their way through it, as cooks did with Mastering the Art of French Cooking in the 1960s and The Silver Palate Cookbook in the 1980s.
Social media sharing
So what makes one cookbook essential and another dispensable?
First, of course, there is the food. Like those earlier books, Jerusalem seems like an open door to a new realm of flavor. The recipes are full of sun, accented with salt, and rife with crunchy and creamy contrasts. There are new grains, greens and spices to explore, and fistfuls of garlic, capers, feta cheese and other familiar ingredients from around the Mediterranean.
But food alone cant explain the success of a cookbook like Jerusalem.
Some books just manage to fit into their time, said Marvin Taylor, the director of the Fales Library at New York University. Is it a coincidence that The Joy of Cooking was a best-seller in 1931, two years after the stock market crash, when suddenly thousands of American women had to cook for their families?
Changes in how people cook can be driven by changes in technology (producing a hot title like Microwave Gourmet by Barbara Kafka in 1987) and by social shifts, too. Entertaining, the glossy book that made Martha Stewart a household name, appeared in 1982, just as the womens movement was learning to embrace its domestic side.
For Jerusalem fever, social media sites have been a hot zone. Sarene Wallace and Beth Lee, friends and food writers in California, spent so much time talking about the book that they started a Facebook page devoted to it. In a modern version of home cooks swapping tips over the fence, the two established #tastingjrslm as a hashtag across Twitter, Instagram and Pinterest so that lovers of chicken with caramelized onion and cardamom rice all over the world could compare photos.
The Web was once expected to spell death for cookbooks. Recipe-aggregator sites like AllRecipes and Epicurious seemed to ensure that books would soon go the way of iceberg lettuce and instant coffee. But new technology gave cooks the ability to form communities online, sharing photos and tips, which in turn has breathed new life into the cookbook industry.
Virtual cookbook clubs have sprung up on websites like Chow. A group blog called Tuesdays With Dorie took off in 2006, when Dorie Greenspans book Baking: From My Home to Yours gave home cooks the I-want-to-make-everything itch.
In the Triangle, a Facebook group called Wok Wednesdays took off after a visit from Grace Young, author of the book Stir-Frying to the Skys Edge.
Middle Eastern appeal
Trying to contain both Arab and Jewish traditions in one book is inherently controversial. But the religious and geopolitical complications seem to have been trounced by the pull of the book.
Lots of people who think of Middle Eastern food go immediately to hummus, but this food just looks so alive, Wallace said, referring to the bright, messy photos that illustrate nearly every recipe.
Jerusalem fever has apparently not spread to Israel, where pride in the local foods and restaurants is booming. The book has not been published in Hebrew, one of the reasons it is more popular in Belfast than in Beersheba.
Israelis are very patriotic and proud, said Naama Shefi, an Israeli food writer in New York. I think that Israelis dont like it when someone who left years ago is in a position to define what is Israel.
U.S. expatriates, however, have fallen on it with delight.
Its such a relief to be able to go to the shuk and not feel like an idiot, Aaron Goodman, who moved from Philadelphia to Jerusalem in 2010, said of the open-air market. And to finally have recipes for all the delicious food Ive seen around me. Especially the meatballs.
The Charlotte Observer welcomes your comments on news of the day. The more voices engaged in conversation, the better for us all, but do keep it civil. Please refrain from profanity, obscenity, spam, name-calling or attacking others for their views.
Have a news tip? You can send it to a local news editor; email email@example.com to send us your tip - or - consider joining the Public Insight Network and become a source for The Charlotte Observer.Read moreRead less