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.
The Internet is far superior to cookbooks for helping readers suss out recipe quality (and, to a lesser extent, so are apps that allow users to rate recipes). Before the Internet, if you wanted to find out how good a recipe was, you had to make it yourself (or take the word of a friend whose palate may or may not be compatible with yours). Now, you can Google the type of recipe you’re looking for, browse several versions (and readers’ comments on them), and choose the one with the highest user rating. Reader reviews can even help you make a recipe better (by suggesting that you add more salt or a pinch of cayenne to your stuffed peppers) or tailor it to your dietary restrictions (by substituting crumbled tofu for that ground pork if you’re vegan or kosher). For people who are interested primarily in cooking recipes that taste good, the Internet is a better resource than any cookbook ever was.
When it comes to readability, though, the Internet on the whole is not so good. Food blogs and recipe-sharing sites are rife with maddeningly poorly written recipes that use “tablespoon” for one ingredient but abbreviate it to “tbsp.” (or, the worst, “T”) for another; that fail to give either temporal or visual cues for knowing when something is done; that misspell ingredient names and cooking techniques. Many can overlook such linguistic inconsistencies, but they practically ruin the pleasure of cooking for me.
Their relatively long editing process gives physical cookbooks an edge in the grammatical domain, but copy editors and style guides exist for magazines, websites, and e-books, too. If you’re the type that wants your recipes spic, span, and stylistically consistent, you can get your recipes from these publications, and you won’t even miss print cookbooks when they’re gone.
The hardest thing for cookbook-lovers to let go of—as indicated by Roberts’ description of them as “indelible objects, beacons of inspiration”—is their aesthetic value. And yet, again, smart writing and beautiful photography are in no way specific to the print medium. As both technology and design continue to improve, looking at gorgeous food photography on Internet browsers, e-readers, and tablets will soon be as satisfying and comforting as seeing the same images on the page.
What I suspect cookbook devotees are really talking about when they wax poetic about the beauty of cookbooks is the fact that cookbooks are curated and finite, unlike a Google search for “best roast chicken recipe” or a continually updated cooking website like Food52.com. There is indeed something comforting about a discrete object with a beginning and an end. But cooking apps are curated and finite, too. (So are e-cookbooks, which I suspect will come to be indistinguishable from apps as they add multimedia elements.)
Some of cookbook aficionados’ sentimental musings are downright nonsensical. A bookstore owner interviewed by the San Francisco Chronicle asserted, “Cooks like to splatter on [cookbooks], mark them up and make notes.” Cooking apps and websites let you make notes about recipes, too (and they’re always legible), and splattering food on cookbooks is actually kind of gross. I predict future humans will look back on food-splattered cookbooks the way we look back on medieval folks who changed their underwear only every few months or so. “But spills are inevitable,” critics will say. Well, circumvent them—get a kitchen iPad rack instead. (Invest in one for cookbooks, too, if you want to keep using them as long as they’re still around: Cookbook pages are much easier to read at an angle than lying horizontally on the counter.) You can also invest in apps that respond to voice commands and that read recipes out loud to you, that show you videos demonstrating tricky techniques, that start timers for you so you don’t have to.
Will some cookbook lovers resist these improvements? Yes, but eventually they will all be dead. Will some rich people always seek out obscure memorabilia to display as status symbols or art objects? Yes, but in the future, cookbooks will be quirky art objects in the same sense that typewriters are today. Their value will be in their history, and the rest of us will wonder how anyone ever cooked from them in the first place.
Also in the special issue on food: five “food frontiers," including technologies to make diet food tastier and fight salmonella; small-scale farmers decide whether to embrace automated agricultural equipment; and the case for bringing back home ec. This project arises from Future Tense, a joint partnership of Slate, the New America Foundation, and Arizona State University.