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As apps rise in popularity, will cookbooks fall out of favor?

With so many ways to find recipes and cooking tips these days, many food enthusiasts wonder if cookbooks will go the way of the dodo.

It's a great time to be a foodie.

You can find celebrity chefs cooking on prime time television, cable channels dedicated to covering every possible food fad, and thousands of free recipes available with the click of a mouse. So it strikes many as odd that cookbooks sales represent a bright spot in the struggling publishing industry.

Slate's food editor Laura Anderson is one observer who wonders if cookbooks have reached their twilight years.

"I think in a few generations people will look back at the cookbook as an item that was useful for a very specific period of time," says Anderson. "As a popular item, they are a relatively new phenomenon. Before the 20th century, most people learned how to cook by just watching other people and just learning from other people. So I think that people will look back on it as relatively a flash in the pan in history."

So what accounts for the 5 percent rise in sales for cookbooks over the course of the recession compared to other books?

"People I think are cooking more at home as opposed to going out because it saves them money. I think that that's part of why people still enjoy opening a book and why they're maybe a little resistant to bringing their tablet or iPhone into the kitchen because they feel like they're surrounded by screens all the rest of the time and they want to just get away from it for a little bit," says Anderson.

Sarah Gardner: So I'm curious, are you cooking today? Seems like the holidays are the only time many of us have to make a memorable meal. But now we've got celebrity chefs and thousands of online recipes to help us. And even that old throwback, the cookbook. Laura Anderson is the food writer at Slate. She's predicting the demise of the cookbook. Laura, thanks for being here.

Laura Anderson: Thank you, Sarah.

Gardner: Do you really think that some day we won't have cookbooks anymore? I mean, they'll be something sold in antique stores and my cookbook collection I'll be showing my grandchildren and they'll be thinking oh my gosh, like that old typewriter.

Anderson: I happen to think that is true. I don't know if it's going to happen in the next 10-20 years, maybe even 50 years. But I think in a few generations people will look back at the cookbook as an item that was useful for a very specific period of time. As a popular item, they are a relatively new phenomenon. Before the 20th century, most people learned how to cook by just watching other people and just learning from other people. So I think that people will look back on it as relatively a flash in the pan in history.

Gardner: I must say, maybe this is a generational thing, but what you said makes me really sad because I'm one of these people that loves my cookbooks. I'm a little emotionally attached to them. I'm not a great cook, but I love going into the bookstore -- which I guess is also dying -- and looking at the cookbook section. I mean, somebody must still be buying cookbooks.

Anderson: Oh people are definitely buying cookbooks. Cookbook sales have risen about 5 percent over the course of the recession compared to other books, which is pretty impressive. People I think are cooking more at home as opposed to going out because it saves them money. I think that that's part of why people still enjoy opening a book and why they're maybe a little resistant to bringing their tablet or iPhone into the kitchen because they feel like they're surrounded by screens all the rest of the time and they want to just get away from it for a little bit.

Gardner: I mean, when I buy cookbooks generally I have to admit I buy them for other people as gifts.

Anderson: Mmhm. I feel like this is a big part of what is driving the cookbook economy. It's a nice, discreet, usually aesthetically pleasing object. And it's about the right price that you want to spend on a gift, $20-40. You don't feel like a cheapskate buying that for someone. I don't really know how that's going to change. It's possible in the future people will feel OK about giving apps or online subscriptions to cooking websites to people as gifts instead, but obviously you lose something tangible when that happens.

Gardner: Yeah. And you can't wrap them in pretty gift wrap.

Anderson: Right. Exactly. You can't attach a card. I think that generally speaking publishers are tentatively embracing and trying to branch out into technology, so I think that you will find cookbooks are being released accompanied by apps that either contain all of the recipes in the cookbook or maybe just some of them. Or maybe just of a little bit of sort of added value, a few videos or a few techniques. I think that's a trend that will continue to grow.

Gardner: Let me ask you, do you bring your iPad or whatever tablet you have into the kitchen and set it up on your kitchen counter and actually cook from there?

Anderson: I have been known to cook from my iPhone. I have also been known to cook from just my laptop and just like set it up. I think people are afraid of bringing their devices into the kitchen because they think that they are going to spill all over it and basically ruin it. There's this very strange emotional attachment to stained cookbooks with like the pages stuck together and I actually think that's a little bit gross. I think people are going to look back on that type of emotional attachment and think that it's kind of strange that people used to idealize the stained cookbook.

Gardner: Laura Anderson writes the "You're Doing It Wrong" column for Slate. Laura, thanks a lot and bon appetit.

Anderson: Thank you so much for having me, Sarah.

About the author

L.V. Anderson is a Slate assistant editor.

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