Cookbooks and their authors

Forty years ago, when I sat down at the reference desk as a virgin librarian and awaited my deflowering from the public, I was pretty cocky. No one could possibly be more prepared for what was to come than I was. No one knew more about reference and readers’-advisory work than I did. I was ready for anything that a patron could possibly desire.

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As an undergraduate, I had studied the classics of Greece and Rome, the literature of the Middle Ages, the poetry of Victorian England, the essays of the New England transcendentalists, the tragedies of Shakespeare, and the comedies of Aristophanes. Then, in graduate school, I covered the entire spectrum of children’s and young-adult literature, the classic works of reference, and even genre fiction. I knew books–everything from Dante to Danielle Steel.

  • So … what was my “first time” like at the reference desk? A rather rotund woman approached me and asked, “Can you put me on the waiting list for that new watermelon diet book?” What a disappointment! Why not a question on the relationship of abstract expressionism to Dada? How about an analysis of the symbolism in Moby-Dick?
  • I told myself that things would get better. But they didn’t. By the end of the day, I had received five more requests for diet and cooking books. I soon learned that the single biggest informational need that people have centers on food. By the end of the week, the number was tip to 40. By the end of the month, I had stopped counting. My mantra soon became food is life.

Unfortunately, food books were the one area of the collection I knew nothing about. I was brought up in the era when boys took shop and girls took home economics. My problem was exacerbated by the fact that the food section was the single biggest area in our nonfiction collection.

How would I become proficient in this area? No way I was going to actually read these books and cook the recipes, and there were no Cliff’s Notes for cookbooks back then. How would I master the art of recommending food books? My solution was to rely on the dust-jacket photos of the authors.

  • This was a methodology that I had explored in library school. I had a theory that different readers are attracted to different author pictures and that if a reader has a negative feeling about an author based upon the dust-jacket photo, nothing (not even a great review) will motivate that reader to surrender a sense of intimacy to the book. What I did to test my theory was take a series of eight photographs of various everyday noncelebrities and show them to 150 randomly selected library patrons. I asked each patron four questions about each photograph: Would you read (1) a cookbook, (2) a mystery, (3) a romance, and (4) a general nonfiction book by the person in the photograph. What did I find? These patrons preferred to read cookbooks by fat people, mysteries by skinny people, and nonfiction books by people with a scholarly, elitist look about them–pipes, bow ties, and wire-framed glasses … that sort of thing. The romance results came back inconclusive so I did some follow-up research and found that older women preferred romances written by dignified, white-haired ladies wearing furs, and younger women preferred romances written by younger, sexier women wearing plunging blouses and short skirts.

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  • So, drawing upon my graduate-school research, I began pushing cookbooks by fat authors to the many patrons who wanted foodbooks. James Beard was the great fat cookbook author of that era. Beard was not only fat but he always looked happy and satisfied, a kind of modern-day Falstaff. I have always believed that food has two basic purposes: nourishment and pleasure. Of today’s many cookbook authors, Paula Dean and Rachael Ray seem best to radiate those two qualities. They both appear happy and a tad chunky in their dust-jacket photos. That, I am sure, is the secret to their best-selling success. One senses that their recipes provide the comfort level we seek in a meal. Martha Stewart used to put me into that comfort zone, but her recent dust-jacket photos re veal a certain world weariness, almost like she’s trying to appear happy. Martha never used to have to try.

Today, things have changed a bit in the food-book industry. As our population ages, more and more people are becoming vegetarians. It’s the health-wise way to eat. That presents a real problem for readers’-advisory librarians. The photos for the vegan authors tend to radiate more intensity than joy. The look seems to be a bit smug, as if the authors were saying, “We’re holier than the rest of you, and we are the ones saving the planet.” May I recommend Madhur Jaffrey’s book World Vegetarian? Of all the dust-jacket photos on vegetarian cookbooks, hers resonates with the most joy. She is positively radiant. I’m betting two-to-one that her recipes pack more happiness than what you will find in the average vegan cookbook.

Finally, there is the issue of the always-expanding world of diet books. As our population gets fatter and fatter, so, too, have our diet-book collections bulked up. Always look for a skinny diet author. Remember The James Coco Diet (1984)? Well, Coco looked downright rotund on his dust jacket. And two years later, he was dead.

Will Manley has been writing the Manley Arts since 1991. Visit Will at willmanley.com.

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