While walking the trade floor of the Paris Cookbook Festival I caught a glimpse of the quote above by super chef Paul Bocuse, “Without books there are no recipes, without skills there can be no fine cooking.” It made me stop and read it again.
It’s even more sexy and profound, of course, in French.
The diversity of cookbooks at the fair was eye-opening. There were a great many small single subject booklets, almost pamphlets, that contained 30 or so recipes. No photos. No art. They would be unusual in the United States, but the attention to the concept of a single subject was admirable and noteworthy. I was stopped in my tracks more than once as I considered the array of beautiful, well-designed books. Works of art – the paper, the photographs, the subject matter – table after table was astonishing. Writer, colleague, and friend Kat Flinn and I had a sort of heady, breathless moment over Alain Ducasse’s J’Aime Paris coffee table book. It’s just incredible. By the way, by “coffee table” I don’t mean it’s a book for a coffee table. I mean it’s the size of one.
With that level of amazement regarding cookbooks, why it is then, that at the opposite end of the spectrum someone asks, seemingly, on a daily occurrence, “Is the cookbook dead?”
One of those such occurrences recently filtered into my news feed titled “Recipes Begin a New Chapter, about the move from paper pages to Ipads. It was another piece about folks not buying books anymore. Every few months there’s a story debating if cookbooks are obsolete and being replaced by apps. For good measure, tossed in the mix will be the fuzzy slipper comfort story about the timelessness of sauce-splattered pages and the enduring cookbook.
Oddly enough, in this time of cookbook publishing uncertainty, even the most successful bloggers want cookbooks. And, sites like Food52 exist because they are curated web content — and yet have very, very successful traditional paper cookbooks. It’s both confusing and predictable.
In my opinion, the state of cookbook publishing is like most things. It’s not all or nothing. It’s not black or white. It’s not good or bad. It’s grey. It’s uncertain.
There are approximately 10K cookbooks published in the United States per year. Truthfully, the vast majority of them aren’t beautiful or well-designed. They don’t give pause. Hopefully without sounding overly pompous, I think both of my cookbooks are beautiful. Ten Speed Press makes beautiful books.
Yet sadly, we all know the concept of “beautiful” and “good” don’t always go together. The majority of these European books were no different. On both sides of the Atlantic some writers are callous and quick in the test kitchen – if they are in there at all. I work hard on making sure my recipes work. It’s a point of pride with me.
It’s not just the author, the editing may not have been well-executed by the publishing company. Editors are pinched tighter and tighter and designers are given more and more projects at a time with less time to execute them. The basic truth is that when you are doing things too quickly mistakes happen, I don’t care if you are tying your shoe or creating a cookbook or doing brain surgery. I’ve personally experienced this pinch.
What’s a cookbook author to do? Two more major publishing companies are up for sale. There’s a bit of a sinking ship feeling as publishers are trying to figure out what is next and how to stay in business.
It’s not all gloom and doom. I was working on a proposal for a new book last weekend. Granted, it’s a food narrative, not a cookbook, but I wrote one really solid sentence that made me feel like I was absolutely soaring, not sinking. Is that folly? No. Well, I hope not. I’ve held that soaring feeling in my mind.
I want that sentiment in my head and heart.
I believe words mean something. I believe cookbooks mean something. I see the faces of the people who read my stories and I know my words mean something to them. No, I don’t know what next form cookbooks will take.
I do know I believe that without books there are no recipes. I do know I believe that without the skills taught from recipes there is no fine cooking.
Bon Appétit, Y’all!
Check out the recipe below for the Shrimp and Grits I prepared for my demo at the Paris Cookbook Fair. You have no idea how much pleasure it gave me to preach the gospel of Southern Cooking in Paris, France.
SHRIMP WITH PARMIGIANO REGGIANO GRITS & TOMATOES
By using low fat milk instead of cream, olive oil instead of butter, and full-flavored Parmesan, I’ve lightened this Low Country classic so the flavor of the grits and shrimp are front and center.
3 cups water
3 cups low fat milk
1 1/2 cups stoneground grits
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 medium onion, coarsely chopped
3 cloves garlic, finely chopped
1/4 cup dry white wine
2 bay leaves, preferably fresh
1 28 ounce can whole tomatoes, coarsely chopped, juices reserved
1 Pinch cayenne pepper
24 large shrimp, peeled, deveined, and diced
1/4 cup loosely packed fresh herbs such as parsley, oregano, and thyme, coarsely chopped
2 tablespoons freshly grated Parmigiano Reggiano cheese, more for garnish
Coarse salt and freshly ground black pepper
For the grits: Heat water, milk, and salt to a gentle boil in a medium saucepan. Whisk in the grits. Reduce the heat to simmer, and cook, stirring often with a wooden spoon, until the mixture is smooth, thick, and falls easily from a spoon, about 45 minutes.
Meanwhile, prepare tomatoes: Heat the olive oil in a large skillet. Add onion and sauté and garlic until soft and translucent, 2 to 3 minutes. Add the garlic and cook until fragrant. Pour in white wine, and cook until dry, 2 to 3 minutes. Add bay leaves, and stir in tomatoes and reserved juice. Season with cayenne pepper. Reduce the heat, and simmer until the mixture is slightly thickened, about 10 minutes. Add the shrimp and cook until pink and cooked through, 3 to 5 minutes. Remove the skillet from the heat and stir in the chopped herbs.
When grits are thickened, stir in the Parmigiano-Reggiano. To serve, put a heaping spoonful of grits onto a plate. Top with the tomatoes and shrimp. Garnish with freshly shaved Parmigiano-Reggiano.
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