The coveted cookbook this holiday season is Noma, René Redzepi’s paean to Nordic cuisine. If you wanted to, you could make every dish in it, though ingredients such as wood sorrel and hay—for hay cream, of course—aren’t easy to find. But you won’t want to; that’s why God invented restaurants. And really, making the dishes isn’t the point of a title like Noma. Simply owning it is. At a time when pressure to care a great deal about food is all around us, having the right cookbooks on your shelves is as important as having the right novels. And cookbooks themselves have stopped being for cooking.
The shift from no-frills instruction manual to cool art book can actually be quantified, as culinary historian Anne Mendelson discovered. After spraining her back pulling down one monstrous tome, Mendelson decided to weigh several recently released cookbooks against their less self-important ancestors, posting the results on the Zester Daily food blog. The New York Times Cookbook, published in 1961, totaled roughly three pounds, while this year’s Essential New York Times Cookbook tipped the scales at 4.6 pounds. Diana Kennedy’s 1972 guide to Mexican cuisine: 2.4 pounds. Her most recent offering: 6.2 pounds.
If anyone is to blame for the trend, it’s Thomas Keller. Industry watchers predicted a flop when, in 1999, he unveiled The French Laundry Cookbook. It weighed in at nearly five pounds, cost $50, and had no food on the cover, just a clean white napkin and the restaurant’s signature wooden clothespin. But it sold—more than 400,000 copies—and as it did, it established a new standard.
Keller is a highfalutin chef with a freakish focus on technique, so a high-concept cookbook from him made some sense. But soon every chef with a hint of ambition wanted a cookbook as a monument to his art, and publishers were happily putting out glossy, oversize volumes overflowing with food-porn photos. Never mind if the content itself is simple weeknight meals or the peasant food of Italy. The style is so dominant, even Cook’s Illustrated, the fusty, pedantic cooking magazine, includes full-color shots in its series of best-recipe cookbooks.
Now the aesthetic is pushing its limits, with cookbooks that aim to do away with words entirely. There’s the “Cooking From Above” series, which offers overhead photos for every step of each recipe. And last month, Rachael Ray unveiled a similar concept in her Look + Cook book, which instantly shot to best-sellerdom. (The next logical entry: How about a cook-from-above book from Giada DeLaurentis, amply showcasing the two best assets she brings to the kitchen?)
Happily, there’s the glimmer of a backlash. Not surprisingly, it emerged from jodhpur-wearing Brooklynites. TheFrankies Spuntino Kitchen Companion & Cooking Manual, released in June, nods at luxury with a leather binding and gilt trim, but its recipes are the kind you actually want to try yourself, and it forgoes color photos for instructional, black-and-white line drawings. There are now an impressive 40,000 copies of the cookbook in print. And it weighs in at just 1.4 pounds.