When you’ve made last-minute plans to host a dinner or are overcome with an urge to cook something new, the internet is there for you. The great media disruptor has become a fount of professional and user-generated dishes, complete with videos on everything from slicing that chicken to caramelizing those Vidalias. We don’t need cookbooks anymore, but we still want them—seemingly more than ever. Just look at the truckloads that publishers unloose at this time of year, ready for gift shoppers and those of us who buy them as presents when we know they’re never leaving our home.
The question is, Why this undying interest—especially now? I think the answer is pretty simple: seduction. I’m not about to damn the internet, but let’s just say it’s easy to come across a recipe that’s stripped bare and purely instructional or one that reads like a screed on some minor culinary point. In that way, certain sites aren’t so different from such authoritarian late-19th- century missals as Mrs. Lincoln’s Boston Cook Book, which covered the home front and enjoyed a place in every hutch. Cookbooks became less stern in the 1930s, which is when The Joy of Cooking began its decades-long run as an essential tool for anybody who wanted to balance homey sauerkraut-stuffed apples with something ambitious like a crown roast. Along the way, Julia Child lent spark to her subject in 1961’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking. One of the more telling experiments in cookbooks came from, of all places, a Buddhist retreat in Northern California: Edward Espe Brown’s 1970 classic, The Tassajara Bread Book, used plenty of routine techniques, but printed on untreated brown paper, the instructions looked as if they’d been pulled from a monastic vault.
That thematic packaging has a lot to do with why cookbooks have such a hold on us. Done right, they draw us into a world that blends fantasy and utility, adding a fillip of personal growth. There’s the smooth cover suffused with an appetizingly oozy close-up or an overhead of a half-eaten dish or the lupine consideration of hunks of meat. In the idealized, oh-so-casual interiors that fill the pages, no one is ever doing the dishes. There are no flies around the long tables under plane trees. The person attached to those mysterious hands methodically peeling pearl onions in one gauzy shot is no doubt unmolested by the barking of a neighbor’s pain-in-the-ass dog.
There’s often a heavy dose of personality and perspective, too, given how cookbooks are so often linked to a chef, a restaurant, or (cue the irony) internet experts such as J. Kenji López-Alt. I had pretty absolutist views on defatting stocks until I read his point in last year’s The Food Lab that “a few stray bubbles floating on the surface add richness and depth.” And until learning about “Merck-grade artisanal” gochugaru—the red chili powder central to many a hot pot in Deuki Hong and Matt Rodbard’s Koreatown: A Cookbook—I hadn’t realized the ingredient had such gradations. I have gone so deep into Yotam Ottolenghi’s world that, prompted by his Jerusalem and Plenty More best sellers, I’ve bought pomegranate syrup for vinaigrette. I’ve even caught myself looking at an overcomposed salad, thinking how I could Ottolenghi-it-up with some nuggets of Gorgonzola and sorrel leaves. Coarsely shredded, of course.