Kathleen Purvis

Our love of cookbooks survives the digital age

A sample of contemporary cookbooks includes a comic book. The bedrock of how we cook and share food has changed, as instructions have shifted away from formulas toward deeper dives into technique.
A sample of contemporary cookbooks includes a comic book. The bedrock of how we cook and share food has changed, as instructions have shifted away from formulas toward deeper dives into technique. NYT

You think the cookbook is dead?

Drop by my desk sometime. Novels may have moved onto Kindles and Nooks, magazine stories have transformed into websites, and encyclopedias have disappeared into Google searches. But the cookbook, my friends, is alive, well and kicking over my bookshelves.

They arrive almost daily, two or three at a time in the slower book-sale seasons, building to a tsunami from October to December.

It’s a shock to realize how many cookbooks get printed every year. And the digital revolution hasn’t slowed it down one bit. I’m usually too busy trying to keep up to count them, but my best guess is that 700 to 800 cookbooks arrive every year.

I deal with the flood a bucket at a time. I flip through each one quickly, trying to decide which ones are likely to yield something useful, which ones are on a topic that might make a good food story and which ones are just a vanity project for someone who doesn’t have anything new to say.

I corral the rejects and make space in a small storage room for the ones with long-term usefulness. Once or twice a year, I call one of the local culinary schools to come and get the rest. The deal is that they can have the books for free, but they have to use them for reference or give them away to students. Culinary educations are expensive, and students don’t have much money. I like to think we can help, at least a little.

Last week, though, I had to deal with a real cookbook crisis. The Observer is moving out of the big building we’ve occupied since the 1970s. We’re headed to a modern space in a sleek office tower. It comes with lots of amenities, but space won’t be one of them.

What to do with all those books? This time, I put out a call to Johnson & Wales University, Central Piedmont Community College and the Art Institute, all at the same time. I huffed and puffed to spread all the books out in one spot, along with plenty of boxes and strap tape. Then I sat back and watched.

It was like Christmas morning in reverse: People squealing and putting things into boxes instead of taking them out. A couple of librarians lingered with longing over the older books. A couple of young baking instructors snapped up the cake and cookie books.

When they were finished, I threw it open to my co-workers. By the end of the day, only a couple of dozen books hadn’t found a home. What wasn’t appealing to anyone? Cooking memoirs, apparently. An old guide to claypot cooking. Guides to cooking meat and cooking meatless both were left behind.

Before the last box was taped shut, I stopped by my mail slot. There were already two new books, ready to be unwrapped.

It’s time to admit it: I may be powerless over our national addiction.

Kathleen Purvis: 704-358-5236, @kathleenpurvis

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