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What is it about cookbooks?

Samantha Fields Jan 31, 2023
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Leslie Gray Streeter, prepping to cook mushroom risotto, has 47 cookbooks in her kitchen. This year, her goal is to make something from every single one. Samantha Fields/Marketplace

What is it about cookbooks?

Samantha Fields Jan 31, 2023
Heard on:
Leslie Gray Streeter, prepping to cook mushroom risotto, has 47 cookbooks in her kitchen. This year, her goal is to make something from every single one. Samantha Fields/Marketplace
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How many cookbooks are too many cookbooks? Is there such a thing?

Two shelf rows are lined with cookbook at Leslie Gray Steeler's Baltimore house.
The cookbook shelf in Streeter’s kitchen. So far this year, she’s already made recipes from 28 of them. (Samantha Fields/Marketplace)

Only if you don’t use them, is what Leslie Gray Streeter decided. She’s a single mom, an author, a columnist for the news site the Baltimore Banner and a cookbook … hoarder? Collector? Enthusiast? All of the above? 

She has dozens of them — some she bought, some she was gifted, some old, some new. Almost all have been sitting on a shelf in her cluttered kitchen, untouched, for a long time. 

“In my regular rotation, I probably was regularly using three?” she said. “Four?” Still, she kept buying more. Her latest? Pinky Cole’s “Eat Plants, B*tch.” 

“And when I bought that, I spent too much money on it,” Streeter said. “And I thought, ‘I have to use all the cookbooks that I have.’”

So, in January, she made a resolution publicly, in the Banner: to use every cookbook in her kitchen at least once this year. 

A month in, she’s already made something from 28 of them. 

“I think of a cookbook as like an album”

People love buying cookbooks, whether for themselves or for others. 

“It’s always a strong category,” said Kristen McLean, book industry analyst for market research company The NPD Group. “They are the fourth largest category of nonfiction that we sell here in the United States.”

Sales fluctuate a little year to year, but they’re generally stable — around 20 million or so. In the first year of the pandemic, cookbook sales spiked about 16%. Though they have dropped off a bit since then, sales remain strong. What changes more is the kinds of cookbooks people are buying at any given time.  

“In 2020, after the pandemic arrived, we saw a very sharp uptick in certain types of cookbooks, including cookbooks on the basics for cooking for yourself, cookbooks on bread baking, cookbooks a little bit later on cocktail making and other types of like in-home entertaining,” McLean said. “So it was a real ticker tape of the psychology of the folks who were stuck at home.”

Today, it’s a completely different list. 

“Now the emphasis is really on quick and easy, single-pot dishes,” she said. “The type of thing you would expect if people were having to integrate cooking back into very busy lives.” 

Case in point: On the New York Times bestseller list right now are Ina Garten’s “Go-To Dinners” and Jamie Oliver’s “ONE: Simple One-Pan Wonders.”

“I think people are just tired of deciding what to make for dinner,” said Paula Forbes, who writes cookbooks, cookbook reviews and a newsletter called “Stained Page News.” “On my newsletter, some of the most popular posts are guides to cookbooks that I pull off with on a shelf when I have no idea what to make for dinner.”

Flipping through a cookbook can be less overwhelming than scrolling endlessly on your phone, looking for inspiration. “If you have a cookbook, you can browse it, you can flip through it, and you see what catches your eye, see what sounds tasty on that particular day, and you make it,” Forbes said. 

And if you end up liking the “chicken with miso, ginger and lime,” recipe on page 230 of “Ottolenghi Simple,” chances are you might also like the “pork with ginger, green onion and eggplant” on page 231.

“I think of a cookbook as like an album,” Forbes said. “The individual recipes on blogs and things, those are singles. But when you have the cookbook, you have an album, and if you like one of the songs on the album, you’re probably going to like another song on the album.”

Like albums, a lot of cookbooks are also beautiful works of art that can just be nice to have around the house.

“The archival record that comes with touching paper”

For Leslie Gray Streeter, there’s also something about print that she loves. 

“Something about having a cookbook, and putting it on your counter, and maybe flour on your hands, and olive oil on your fingers … and just the archival record that comes with touching paper,” she said. 

One of the recipes she’s revisiting, now, for the first time in years, as part of her new year’s resolution, is wild mushroom and asparagus risotto from Sarah McLachlan’s “Plenty” cookbook, which her sister gave her back in the ‘90s when Streeter was in her “Lilith Fair phase.” 

At the time, she followed every single instruction to a T.  

“You can see the check marks,” she said, picking up the book. “I literally — the first time I made this — I put a check next to everything I did, so I knew the stuff I’d already done.”

Leslie Gray Streeter pours broth into a pan with mushroom risotto.
Leslie Gray Streeter going a bit off the books when cooking mushroom risotto. (Samantha Fields/Marketplace)

Now, more than 20 years later, she’s a whole lot looser in the kitchen. Today, for this wild mushroom risotto with asparagus? “We’re not using asparagus, because I don’t have any,” she said. 

Instead of garlic cloves, she’s using dried minced garlic; instead of rosemary, an herb blend and instead of white pepper, black.  

But she loves being able to pick up this book and see those check marks from her younger self.

“You can see the stains on it, and the things that spilled in the middle, and the worn quality of it,” she said. “And it reminds me of the first home that I had, and the first time I hosted Thanksgiving, and I just remember those things when I use this.”

And she loves that one day, she’ll be able to pass this book and all her others — with their history, stains and all — onto her son.  

Leslie Gray Streeter holds the cookbook page showing the recipe for the Wild Mushroom Risotto with Asparagus. There are pencil checkmarks on the page and the page is slightly worn and grease-stained.
“You can see the stains on it,” Streeter said of one of her favorite old cookbooks, “Plenty.” “And it reminds me of the first home that I had, and the first time I hosted Thanksgiving, and I just remember those things when I use this.” (Samantha Fields/Marketplace)

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