Brian Edwards Media

Who the hell is buying all these cookbooks?

The leader in the latest Listener looks at the likely effect of the e-book on the publication and sale of the printed word. As a virtual non-reader, now for the first time enjoying reading newspapers, magazines and books on my iPad, I suspect that the effect, if not fatal, will be both negative and significant.

But what interested me most in the Listener editorial was to learn that, in an otherwise flat book market in 2010, Annabel Langbein’s – her surname, if you’re interested, means ‘longlegs’ – The Free Range Cook had sold 88,400 copies. As the Listener rightly pointed out, ‘This is a phenomenal figure for a New Zealand-published book, which would more commonly sell fewer than 5,000.’ ‘Phenomenal’ may almost be an understatement. It’s bloody amazing.

It helps of course to have your own television series. Thanks in no small part to the small screen,  the newly-damed Alison Holst may well have sold more cookbooks than Ms Langbein, but not in a single year. And there were Graham Kerr and Des Britten and Hudson and Halls and others whose names I have forgotten.

But you don’t have to be on television to sell a cookbook. Indeed the cookbook seems to have displaced the sports book as the publication most likely to succeed. Non-fiction authors expecting their just-published memoir to head  the top-ten-selling non-fiction books in any one week, are likely to find themselves at #9 for the first week and nowhere at all thereafter. To rub salt into the wound, six of the books above them will have been cookbooks. As a nation we appear to be obsessed with food. And our obsession is fed and fattened by television, where you can not only see three cooking programmes on a single channel on a single evening, but indulge yourself in non-stop, 24-hour viewing of channels devoted to nothing else.

You can of course do that for free, or virtually for free. But you have to buy a cookbook. So the question remains – why do Kiwis buy so many cookbooks? 

My good wife, herself an excellent cook, has come up with several possible reasons.One is that when she was a girl, mothers taught their daughters how to cook. There was no need for books of recipes, which was fortunate because there were very few recipe books. And the recipes that were handed down from generation to generation reflected the more limited tastes and menus of the time with an emphasis on ‘good wholesome food’ (meat and veges), leavened with cakes, biscuits and desserts. ‘The cake and biscuit tins in our house,’ Judy says, ‘were always full.’

But the harried mother of today has less time to pass on the culinary secrets that were passed on to her, and her offspring may well claim to have ‘more important things to do… If I need to cook, Mum, I’ll get a cookbook.’ Meanwhile there’s Twitter and Facebook and YouTube and a thousand texts to send.  

Several other factors may have influenced the sale of cookbooks: greater affluence among the general population, large-scale immigration of people from exotic places, bringing with them their exotic cuisines; the availability of limitless varieties of foodstuffs; and, through television, the rise of the celebrity chef with his or her loyal and devoted disciples. We have become better informed about food, more experienced with food, more interested in food, more… I hesitate to use the word… ‘sophisticated’ in our food tastes.

We also eat out more. When I first moved to Wellington in 1969 there were, from memory, only three licensed restaurants: Le Normandie, The Jolly Frog and Orsini’s. Even cafes were few and far between. It was virtually impossible to get a coffee in the capital on a Sunday.

Now, of course, there are dozens, perhaps hundreds of licensed eateries in Wellington and cafes and coffee shops on every street. And so it is across the nation.

But there’s a mystery here. Buying a cookbook surely implies that the buyer intends to try at least some of the recipes in the book, to actually cook some of the entrees, mains and desserts that the author and publisher have so tantalizingly described and lavishly photographed. But with economic necessity compelling both mum and dad to have a job, when you can eat out at the local Thai, Indian or pizzeria for a song and when  all manner of inexpensive and tasty takeaways are available simply by lifting the phone, who has the time or inclination to spend an entire afternoon getting in the 25 ingredients for Chamonix Peppered Loin of Venison or Strawberry Semi-Freddo with Orange and Pink Peppercorn Sauce, let alone making the bloody things?

Here’s my theory. Cookbooks are primarily bought by the middle and the upper middle class. Or they are given as presents by members of the middle and upper middle class to other members of the middle and upper middle class. A cookbook is easy to buy, expensive, looks nice and flatters both the giver and the recipient. It says, ‘We are both into fine dining’.

A cookbook will often be an impulse purchase, the result of seeing a celebrity chef demonstrate a recipe on television or coming across it in a magazine. Why cut out Julie Biuso’s failsafe recipe for Spaghetti alla Puttanesca from New Idea when you can have all her wonderful recipes simply by buying  her latest book? Make the puttanesca, then put the book on the shelf with all the others. Whether you actually open it again is largely irrelevant. A shelf, or preferably several shelves of cookbooks ‘says something about you’.

I’m not sure how many cookbooks we have, maybe a couple of hundred. A few we’ve bought, most we’ve been given. Of those two hundred we regularly use perhaps three or four. I suspect that’s the norm.

So my theory is roughly this: that cookbooks are bought by people who give dinner parties; by the followers of celebrity chefs (‘But my dear, have you seen the new Ray McVinnie?’); as attractive presents; as additions to one’s already overflowing bookshelf collection; and of course, as designer kitchen decor.

What chance has the average memoir against all of that with its tiresome anecdotes, dreary cover and faded monochrome photos?

He asked with just a hint of bitterness.

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  1. This particular cookbook, which a member of my family asked for and received, is not just about the recipes. You are also buying into an aspirational NZ which is colourfully and elegantly presented in the TV series. There’s a beautiful house in Wanaka with a rustic but immaculate kitchen, a verdant garden which provides perfect summer produce even in winter, neighbours who provide the best wine, cheese or whitebait on cue and with little apparent effort, and then all come around for a healthy, tasty and perfectly balanced meal which the cook has prepared joyfully, and without a hair or piece of jewellery out of place. With spectacular scenery as a backdrop. Who wouldn’t want to buy all that for $49.95 (including DVD)?

    • Hilary – I seem to have left the impression that I was criticizing Annabel or her book. That was certainly not my intention. Judy and I are both huge fans. The extraordinary sales of her book was simply what started me thinking about the popularity of cookbooks.

  2. I’d rather have lower sales of a book that’s actually read than bloody amazing sales of a book that is neither read nor even looked at for the over present food porn photos in them

  3. I got rid of a lot of my cookbooks when we moved house a few years ago. The ones I do use are the Edmonds Cookbook (of course), the Aunt Daisy Cookbook and Betty Crocker’s Picture Cookbook that my mother was given for her 21st back in the early 60’s.

    The advantage of the Aunt Daisy Cookbook is that it is geared for feeding lots of people. We are a family of seven so it’s great for us. Most modern recipes only feed four people so it’s great to have a cookbook written for larger families. My kids are particular fans of her “Large Cakes” section. Although usually I just cook two cakes at a time anyway.

    I also have all the hand written recipes of my grand-mother and her cousin.

  4. Hilary can be forgiven for coming to the conclusion, she has arrived at. She — like myself — feels, you regard the average cookbook-buyer as being somewhat feckless and vain. The purchase of recipe books made as a somewhat redundant accoutrement to an already over-burgeoned kitchen bookshelf, it seems.

    Check this out:

    “Who the hell is buying all these cookbooks?”
    “What chance has the average memoir against all of that with its tiresome anecdotes, dreary cover and faded monochrome photos?”
    “He asked with just a hint of bitterness.”

    There are a few Tbs of indignation, deprecation and embitterment that go with those comments. If those ingredients don’t intonate “criticism”, I’m not sure exactly what does.

    • There are a few Tbs of indignation, deprecation and embitterment that go with those comments. If those ingredients don’t intonate “criticism”, I’m not sure exactly what does.

      Oh, for heaven’s sake! I finish with a small humourous, self-deprecating remark and you respond by taking up arms on behalf of the hard-done-by cookbook buyers of the world. Did I not mention that there are 200 cookbooks in our house, so this must also be an attack on ourselves. My point was relatively simple – very few of the cookbooks that people buy or are given get regularly used. Now, how about adding a pinch of humour, a soupcon of irony and a dollop of perspective to your own recipe.

  5. I didn’t mean to imply that you were criticising the book or the author – I was just trying to explain the attraction of the total package as I see it. (In this house we are fans of her many of the recipes.)

  6. The dirtier, splodgier, and more tattered the cookbook (a la an earlier edition of our Edmonds and a coupla really ancient tomes) the more valuable –
    I cannot see anyone daring to muck up Annabel and her photos – her recipes are probably quite safe from experimentation

  7. We bought Anabelle langbein’s book because the recipes are simple and even I, a challenged male BBQ operator, can make things from it.

    I would love to know where the book + DVD’s were available for $49.95 as per one the posts above. On Christmas Eve in Whitcoulls Westfield Lower the book alone was $69.00!!!!!….I think we paid $54.00?? at Borders in Lambton Quay.

  8. We bought 3 copies of Annabel’s cookbooks for Chrissy presents and my daughter got one for her recent birthday. The TV series complimented the book nicely. We bought the book because the recipes are simple and yummy and Annabel is just gorgeous and her voice is yummy and I LOVE her pearls and her and the way she cooks. Everything about her, her recipes, the beautiful location and the way the book was written meant that I could not resist it for others. I didn’t buy one for myself though – just bought for the younger generation. I have borrowed my daughter’s book to copy out some recipes. I am a bit fed up with cooking after all these years, (and cooking is not my first love), but the younger generation is now discovering how good home cooking is and are cooking like my mum and grandma used to thanks to our wonderful NZ cooks like the “two” Annabel’s (Langbein and White, Allyson Gofton, Alison Holst and Jo Seager (to name a few). That has got to be a good thing.