When I was growing up, my mother's cookbooks required just six inches of shelf space between the refrigerator and the mixer. She kept two boxes stuffed with dog-eared recipe cards and a few well-spattered volumes. These days my kitchen can't even contain my invasive, ever-growing collection, which has spilled out from the pantry and onto my coffee table.
I'm not alone, assures Aaron Wehner, associate editorial director and cookbook guru at Berkeley's Ten Speed Press. "Food writing has become more accepted as general-interest nonfiction," he says. "Eric Schlosser, Jeffrey Steingarten, and Ruth Reichl are fixtures on best-seller lists, and newspapers are putting more resources into food sections. The culinary aesthetic in America has evolved quite a bit in the past twenty years."
Ten Speed has also evolved to capitalize on this increased interest. The local publisher broached the food biz in the late 1970s with The Moosewood Cookbook, a tattered copy of which now sits on every past, present, and wishful vegetarian's kitchen shelf. A quarter-century later, half of its business is cookbooks, from Totally Camping to The BayWolf Restaurant Cookbook. Ten Speed's strength -- both in terms of sales and critical recognition -- is its full-color restaurant cookbooks, many authored by Northern Californian household names. Books from Napa's Terra, Berkeley's Cheese Board, and San Francisco's Boulevard are in the works.
In Wehner's view, these books cement the reputations of established chefs, rather than create new celebrities -- that's the role of the Food Network. I ask him what he considers the biggest trends in cookbook publishing besides the obvious, and immense, influence of the "Bam!" TV channel. "You have the phenomenon of Jamie Oliver and Nigella Lawson, with their personality-driven, stylish cookbooks," he says. "You also have people looking to cookbooks for different kinds of content: Our biggest book last year in terms of acclaim was Thai Food by David Thompson. A good half of the 700-page book is about Thai history, Thai regions, and Thai ingredients; it's almost an armchair traveler's guide. People are looking to cookbooks more and more for education -- not just techniques -- and for good storytellers."
The market for single-subject cookbooks (Pasta! Asparagus! Toast!) is nearing saturation, but one trend with staying power is the $50, full-color chef book, such as Charlie Trotter's series -- replete with impossibly beautiful, improbable-to-recreate recipes -- and the massive, equally elaborate French Laundry Cookbook.
Sales of pricey food porn are still strong despite the weak economy, Wehner reports. "Compared to $200 for a meal at French Laundry," he says, "I think people are looking at the price tag and thinking, 'I can keep this forever and get ideas and inspirations from it.' It's an indulgence that's financially justifiable."
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