Why Do We Read Cookbooks?

You might say I am obsessed.

I bought my first cookbook at the relatively young age of 14. It was the Peter Pauper Press’s Simple French Cookery, appealing in all its snobbery — “French” and “Cookery” — to my growing sense of what cooking could be. Cheap, it was, with just recipes, one marching right after the other like soldiers on parade, no explanations of the history behind the recipes, nothing about the geographical regions of France, terse, with easy enough recipes.

Why did Edna Beilenson write this tiny tome, a mere snippet of a book, with 64 pages and 61 recipes? As a typographer, Edna published a whole series of these minute cookbooks, and Simple French Cookery appeared in 1958, three years before Julia Child’s opus magnus, Mastering the Art of French Cooking. Simple French Cookery contains several classics, from Moules marinières to Turtle Soup and Strawberries à la Reine. Edna wanted readers and she wanted to sell books. To people like me. And like you.

And so the question really is, “Why do you read cookbooks?” Why, indeed, when today all you need to do is search the Internet for a recipe. I do this, all the time. And yet, I own thousands of cookbooks. My bookcases sag from their weight and I’m running out of space for them all. Maybe you’ve got the same issues.

There’s a word that many experts toss about when talking of cookbooks and their readers. “Aspirational.” Meaning, of course, that through cooking the food depicted on the page, you edge closer to the social status of those who dine daily on such fare, or least come close to it. You read cookbooks in order to experience tastes and places and times you can only dream of while lying in bed late at night, with the wind screaming like banshee on the other side of the glass or the baby crying down the hall or the looming waking hour of 5 a.m. and another day of drudgery at your dead-end job.

Like some literary genres, cookbooks offer escape from the day-to-day sameness of life. And monotonous food.

But there’s more to it than social status or escape these days. Health, economy, environmental concerns, food faddism, and curiosity, all these urges percolate in you when you buy — and read — cookbooks. As to whether or not you actually cook from these books is another question best left for later. One sure test, though, proves if a cookbook ever sat on your kitchen counter next to a pot bubbling with stew: stains.

Stained pages, always indicate, or nearly always, frequent usage, or at least once. So too marginalia or notes cluttering up those stained pages. I’ve marked recipes with annotations, injecting my own tastes and preferences. “Good!” or “Awful!” punctuate many pages, as does “Needs more XYZ.”

Me, I prefer the escape clause of cookbooks. And think of this: nowadays you can read vintage cookbooks, especially some of those more ancient ones easily found in facsimile thanks to Archive.org or other online sources like gutenberg.org. Not only can you escape to modern-day Italy or Catalonia through the gorgeous photographs so common in cookbooks these days, you can also travel through time to medieval England — think The Forme of Cury (1390), written by the cooks of King Richard II — or Renaissance Italy, through works like Platina’s De Honesta Voluptate (1485), the first printed cookbook ever.

If someone says to me, “Oh, I read cookbooks like I read novels,” I know what they mean. Since the day I bought Simple French Cookery, I have gone places, cooked, and dreamed impossible dreams, thanks to the cookbooks surrounding me as I write this.

Yes, some obsessions are worth it.

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