Why would anyone buy a cookbook these days? Aren’t there enough recipes on the internet? Who’s got room for more books anyway? I know I don’t. They’re crammed onto shelves, piled onto surfaces, stacked by the bed, teetering on window ledges. And yet, I keep needing them, buying them, loving them – and apparently I’m not alone.
“Cookbooks are doing very well,” says Jane Willson, publishing director at Melbourne-based Hardie Grant. “It’s a crowded and competitive market but when you find an author who has something to say, they can really resonate.”
The pandemic lockdown has meant strong sales for local authors with devoted followings, with Willson pointing particularly to Natalie Paull’s Beatrix Bakes cookbook, which sprang from the popular North Melbourne cake shop and cafe of the same name. The book launched in March and has just gone into its sixth print run. Independent bookstore Readings’ ran an online promotion recently and sold 492 copies in one day. “It speaks to the iso baking trend,” says Willson, “but also the heartening appetite across Melbourne for supporting indies.”
This year sees new books by established authors such as Jamie Oliver, Bill Granger and Yotam Ottolenghi but Willson is more excited by books from younger Australian chefs such as Danielle Alvarez and Shannon Martinez. “Danielle and Shannon are the next generation,” she says. Chef books are often a tough sell because home cooks can be put off by restaurant-style recipes, but Willson is confident that’s not the case with these two.
“Danielle has a beautiful touch, with a reverence for ingredients and the seasons, and the style of her restaurant [Fred’s in Sydney] is that she cooks like she’s cooking for you at home.”
Willson expects vegan specialist Shannon Martinez to smash out of the vegan niche with her third book, Vegan with Bite. “Vegan isn’t a trend anymore,” says Willson. “It’s part of how we cook and eat now.”
The publisher is confident of the place cookbooks have in our culture and our homes. “People say, ‘Oh cookbooks – as if the world needs any more of them!’ But you could say that about fiction,” says Willson. “They work when you have a point of view and a story to tell, and a strong author who can help to sell the book.”
With stay-at-home meals the default these days, Murdoch Books publisher Jane Morrow believes cookbooks are only going to become more important. “There has been such disruption to everyone’s lives including how the average person cooks,” she says. “You’re going to see a lot more food books published and the public is going to embrace them warmly because we’ve been enticed back into our kitchens. For some people, cooking is enjoyable and for some people it’s a solution to a problem so we will see books at different levels.”
For less confident cooks, she points to Step by Step with Marley Spoon, which runs through the meal kit company’s top 100 recipes. “It’s a learn-to-cook book,” says Morrow. Then there are problem-solving books such as Use It All by the crafty crew behind sustainable Sydney cafe Cornersmith. “The book is structured by shopping basket,” explains Morrow. “It’s about buying less, buying well and using it all with solutions for saggy berries or floppy greens.”
Making the most of produce is also the philosophy behind author and educator Alice Zaslavsky’s In Praise of Veg. “Vegetables are much maligned,” she says. “I’m trying to reframe the way we talk about them.”
Her 500-page reference and recipe book meets people where they are: “It’s for the novice who has just stepped into the kitchen, the avid home cook, vegetarians and meat-eaters, everyone.”
Zaslavsky has a strong online following but doesn’t believe the immediacy of social media is a substitute for printed tomes. “I put recipes online every day but the photos don’t sing because they’re shot by me, not by an incredible photographer,” she says. “My book shoot took three weeks. There was a team behind that and it shows in beautiful photographs, beautifully styled,” she says.
The physicality of a book is appealing too. “I am a cookbook fiend. There’s something visceral about touching pages, poring over photographs.” She also loves the marks left by meals past. “The patina of age on a physical cookbook carries memories and emotions from the events that book was part of,” she says. “Books are like the person sent me a telegram, a part of themselves, and it’s sitting on on my bookshelf saying, ‘If you need me, I’m here’.”
Julia Busuttil Nishimura is releasing A Year of Simple Family Food, her second cookbook, later this month. “Life is so much online these days but I think that makes books even more special,” she says. “If you’re like me, I have 1000 tabs open on my computer and forget to save recipes and forget how to find them again. Cookbooks are so tangible. You feel like you’re in the kitchen with the author.” That means even more in a year when she can’t do in-person events. “I love doing book signings but hopefully the book itself will bring people a lot of joy in their homes,” she says.
Some books are as much about prompting new ways of thinking and behaving as they are about recipes. Grant Hilliard and Laura Dalrymple run Feather and Bone Providore in Sydney, an ethical butcher that buys whole animals directly from farmers. Their new book, The Ethical Omnivore, is a beautiful, practical manifesto that explores how to live with less impact on the environment.
“At its heart, our book is a call to create community and connection,” says Grant Hilliard. “What’s on the plate is the end result of so many decisions and choices. There’s the genetics, the place it is grown, the methods employed, whether it’s net carbon loss or gain; if we’re not doing that evaluation of how our food is produced, we are not doing it the right way. No matter who you buy your food from, there’s an obligation to inform yourself and ask questions.”
He thinks a book like his has never been more relevant. “We saw with the fires and we see with the pandemic that short supply chains are more robust and resilient,” he says. “The illusion of abundance is just that. You only have to block one road and there’s nothing to eat.” Paradoxically, the disruption of the pandemic is also an opportunity to connect. “The pandemic has created communities and shattered them at the same time,” says Hilliard. “People have been forced into a different way of engaging and asking questions about food can be part of that.”
Vaughan Mossop’s Somekind Press is shaking things up in a different way. Over the past four months the Geelong-based freelance book designer has released 16 small cookbooks with the majority of the profits going back to the chef authors. It’s a pandemic project that looks sure to continue beyond 2020.
“We call it a crowd-funded community publisher,” he says. “We presale for two weeks then go into production for six to eight weeks.” The 96-page paperbacks are printed in Melbourne. “Everything has to be locally made,” says Mossop. “Our plan is to get money circulating in the community.”
“We’ve raised over $100,000 for Australian businesses,” he says.
Melbourne restaurants Ides, Lee Ho Fook and Daughter In Law have all published with Somekind with the weeks-long turnaround quite radical in a publishing industry where books are planned more than a year in advance and printing usually occurs in Asia with resulting long shipping times.
“We don’t fit in and I think we are putting a lot of pressure on major publishers,” says Mossop. “We believe authors should get more of the profits. A lot of authors get into contracts with publishers and leave pretty confused. What we do is transparent – our financial reports have a complete breakdown on who was paid what. The publishing industry has needed a shake up for a very long time and I think we are going to be it.”
Melbourne chef Joseph Vargetto has published his upcoming book Siciliano with indie publisher Melbourne Books. “The book gives a voice to immigrants that came across in the 1950s and '60s from Sicily and Italy more broadly,” he says. “It’s a celebration of my parents who came on the boat and brought their culture with them.”
Vargetto isn’t sure whether releasing a book during lockdown is a good idea or not. “It could be good timing because everyone is home and they want to cook or it could be a bad time because no one has any money to buy books,” he says.
Nevertheless, there’s personal satisfaction in getting a book out there. “Seeing all the recipes in there, the tips on preserving, recycling, not spending too much, it’s a representation of who I am,” he says. “Even if it doesn’t sell, for me it’s an accomplishment. It’s a representation of who I am.”