Friday, December 18, 2009

Who Moved My Cookbooks?

I wasn’t looking for cookbooks. As a resident of one of the great prepared-food capitals of the world, Manhattan’s Upper West Side, I rarely cook. And yet, when the escalator deposited me on the second floor of B&N last week, I was disoriented. Where was the mouthwatering pasta, the glistening sashimi, the veggies perfectly braised and drizzled? And where were the friendly celebrity chefs that have greeted me at the top of that escalator for so many years? What happened to the cookbooks, and why move them during the holiday season?

It was hard to tell exactly what was in their place. A pinwheel of multicolored ribbons graced the cover of one oversized tome, and an abstract photo of a textured mound graced another. Were these art books? Design compendia? Coffee-table gift books? Then what were these smaller books, with stylishly designed soft covers and trendy printing? I made my way over for a closer look and to my surprise, these were, in fact, the cookbooks. There just wasn’t any food on them anymore.

What happened--did cookbook designers rebel en masse against putting food on the covers? Were lavish photo shoots too expensive? Perhaps they had enough of uncooperative ramps refusing to stay perky for the camera. Were the foodies to blame? The vegans?

Cookbooks are certainly doing well as a category. Laura Miller writes in the Wall Street Journal that “according to Nielsen BookScan, sales of books in the cooking/entertaining category were up 4% in the first four months of 2009 over the same period last year, while the sales of adult nonfiction overall sank 9%.” Okay, so people are cooking more at home instead of going to restaurants in this economy, but since when were good sales figures a green light for ditching a tried and true design formula?

“Many people confess to reading cookbooks 'like novels', " Miller continues, "that is, cover-to-cover, usually in bed and often with no real intention of preparing the dishes the author describes.” And then it hit me, it's form following function. Those cookbooks that haven't gone the way of the art book, are employing the very same design conventions as contemporary fiction—satin finishes, spot varnish, minimalism, art photography, retro illustration. If these books will be read as “novels”, then why not just design them that way.

Now the movie 'Julie and Julia' may be responsible for renewed interest in Julia Child, but how many of the thousands who will be unwrapping the two-volume set of her cookbooks this Christmas, are actually going to try recipes. It's way more likely that these cooking classics will reside in the bedroom, something comforting to cozy up with and nod off to. In that case, why go with an ugly spiral binding, They may as well look like a set of Jane Austen--and coordinate with the sheets.

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