Read more from Slate’s special issue on the future of food.
You may have heard that the print cookbook is indomitable. Last summer, the San Francisco Chronicle reported an 8 percent increase in cookbook sales, even as overall book sales slid downward. A few months later, Amateur Gourmet’s Adam Roberts hailed print cookbooks as “indelible objects, beacons of inspiration,” in a post titled, rather straightforwardly, “Why Cookbooks Are Here To Stay.” Not long after, Grub Street’s Hugh Merwin posited that cookbooks “are evolving in ever more interesting ways” and quoted chipper literary agents and booksellers affirming their absolute faith in the staying power of cookbooks in a food-media landscape increasingly cluttered by websites and mobile-device applications.
Don’t believe it. Cookbooks may indeed outlast other print books, but they will eventually go extinct. And that’s OK.
I’m not exactly objective about this. When I was a teenager, my idea of a relaxing after-school activity was to read cookbooks in my family’s La-Z-Boy, salivating over the photography, relishing droll turns of phrase, and dog-earing recipes I wanted to try. My first job out of college was as an assistant for a successful cookbook author, a position for which I spent thousands of hours writing, testing, and editing recipes. Cookbooks dominate my bookshelves. A good friend ghostwrites cookbooks for famous chefs. You’d be hard-pressed to imagine someone more predisposed to be sentimental about cookbooks than me.
And yet I’m not only certain of the imminent demise of the print cookbook—I’m fine with it. That’s because print cookbooks offer nothing that apps, e-books, and websites can’t, despite print enthusiasts’ efforts to recast them as objets d’art.
To understand why we shouldn’t mourn the impending extinction of cookbooks, it’s worth asking why people buy them in the first place. The primary reason—and the reason they’ve been relatively resistant to the book-publishing industry’s deterioration in recent years—is that they make remarkably convenient gifts. You don’t need to know a person well to give him a cookbook as a gift; everyone likes to eat, and most people prepare food for themselves at one point or another. And while you really must read a novel before giving it as a gift to a relative or acquaintance—it might contain laughably bad prose or weird sex scenes—you can get a pretty good sense of a cookbook’s content by flipping through it briefly. They are often visually appealing, and the price is right: The $20 to $40 price sticker on most cookbooks neither yells “cheapskate” nor breaks the bank.
The appeal of a tangible gift—one that can be wrapped and physically handed to another person—is deeply ingrained in some people. But over time, our present-exchanging customs will adapt to our increasingly online world. Cooking applications for tablets and smartphones will likely join Netflix subscriptions, Amazon gift cards, and iTunes playlists as popular digital presents, effectively wiping out the gift-cookbook phenomenon.
Of course, not all cookbooks are given as gifts: Some people—a minority of people—buy them for themselves, too. The value of a cookbook qua cookbook is threefold. First, there’s the quality of its recipes: how easy and reliable they are, and especially how good they taste. Second, there’s the readability of its recipes: clarity, style, consistency of language. Finally, there’s its aesthetic value. By this, I refer both to visuals (mouthwatering photography—“food porn,” many call it, though the term makes me cringe) and prose (witty or thoughtful chapter introductions and recipe headnotes)—the qualities that make people enjoy cookbooks not just as how-to manuals but for their entertainment value.