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Publishers fight the Web with behemoth cookbooks

What exactly is one person supposed to do with 2,000 Italian recipes? Or 1,400 French dishes? A new generation of comprehensive (some would say behemoth) cookbooks is cramming thousands of recipes into weighty volumes, some nearly 8 centimeters (3 inches) thick and weighing more than 1.8 kilograms (4 pounds). Why the heavyweights? Publishers say it …


What exactly is one person supposed to do with 2,000 Italian recipes? Or 1,400 French dishes?

A new generation of comprehensive (some would say behemoth) cookbooks is cramming thousands of recipes into weighty volumes, some nearly 8 centimeters (3 inches) thick and weighing more than 1.8 kilograms (4 pounds).

Why the heavyweights? Publishers say it is a matter of survival, crediting the internet and the tough economy with driving the trend.

This might be a reaction to the internet and the encyclopedic selection of recipes that s at your fingertips, says Chris Steighner, senior editor at Rizzoli Publications, publisher of La Cucina, a 1.8-kilogram (4¼-pound), 2,000-recipe ode to regional Italian cooking.

A lot of it is about quantity now because we re faced with the internet, he says.

During the past four years, roughly a dozen of these monsters have crashed the landscape of five-ingredient, 30-minute meal books. The Silver Spoon, for example, the category s 2005 standard-bearer, jams 2,000 Italian recipes into 1,264 pages.

For Francophiles, there is this year s I Know How to Cook, a translation of a popular French cookbook featuring 1,400 recipes over 975 pages. And last year, the 10th anniversary edition of Mark Bittman s How to Cook Everything sported 2,000 recipes.

By comparison, the just-released Gourmet Today (from the defunct Gourmet magazine) seems slender with just 1,000 recipes and pages. Most traditionally sized cookbooks clock in closer to 150 recipes.

People are demanding them, says Emilia Terragni, editorial director at Phaidon Press, publisher of The Silver Spoon, I Know How to Cook and other mega-volumes. We have over 1,000 or over 2,000 recipes, and they re still selling for $45. That s a good price.

Giant cookbooks are nothing new. As far back as 1896, Fannie Farmer offered more than 1,800 recipes for everything from after-dinner coffee to capon in aspic. The Joy of Cooking has had a kitchen-sink approach since it was first mass published in 1936. And Julia Child s 1961 Mastering the Art of French Cooking eventually filled two volumes.

Such cookbooks mostly lost favor during recent decades, supplanted by slimmer and more narrowly focused volumes, many of them driven by celebrity names. Then the internet changed how people find recipes, and bigger books have tried to bounce back.

Critics say these books lack one crucial element: voice. Most of these books are light on accompanying text and personality. Yet a sense of voice gives cookbooks not only readability, but also credibility.

Mastering the Art had such a huge living personality behind it, and I don t know who the author of The Silver Spoon is, says Lynn Andriani, a senior editor at Publisher s Weekly who covers cookbooks. When you have an author behind a book who has a distinct voice and gets to know their audience and seems committed, it helps a book gain a foothold culturally.

Many people are less interested in voice, however, than in a reliable resource for one-stop shopping. For that, these books can shine.

These mammoth cookbooks have that encyclopedic quality that people find reassuring, says Rebecca Federman, electronic resources coordinator at the New York Public Library. She also writes about the library s culinary collection. People use them as reference works too, by consulting them for basic recipes.

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