Things we hate about cookbooks include everything from missing recipes and no recipe list to cookbooks that have obviously not been well researched or, at worst, haven’t had their recipes tested.
We love cookbooks. As much as it’s convenient to pull up a recipe on an iPad, we still prefer to page our way through a food-smudged cookbook.
While most of our cookbooks are in storage (I guess some are ‘vintage’ now), we’ve bought or have been given dozens of cookbooks while living in Asia. We put them to good use, too, in our Siem Reap kitchen.
I used to have a career in publishing, running the design and production department of one of Australia’s largest publishing companies, so I know my book anatomy and my recto from my verso – you can look it up, it’s not rude. That means it’s impossible for me to look at a cookbook without a critical eye.
Here are some of the things we hate about cookbooks…
Things We Hate About Cookbooks
When Cookbooks are Vanity Projects
A lot of cookbooks being published across Asia these days are being written by people who think they know enough about writing, photography, editing, and design to put together a book. Mostly they don’t and it’s the vanity project cookbooks designed to raise money for a charity that commit the most crimes against traditional publishing.
And I’m not referring to the Australian cookbook produced for a Battambang-based Australian charity that plagiarised Lara’s writing as well as lifting text from a well-regarded Cambodian cookbook. That was also a vanity project but plagiarism is a crime of a different sort.
The reason I call these vanity project cookbooks is that for all their good intentions, they’re amateurish. For most of those that we’ve read, none of the key players – the writer, photographer, stylist, and editor – would ever get a real book deal for their cookbook.
It’s a vanity project in the sense that people donate their time in return for seeing their name in print. If they really cared about generating funds for the charity they would have declined the invitation to work on the book or wouldn’t have volunteered in the first place.
Quite often it appears that these books don’t make their money back – money that would have been better spent on the actual charitable activity of helping people instead of boosting egos, or hiring a team of professionals with cookbook experience to produce a book that actually sells.
Keep in mind that this is a different scenario to self-publishing where the author invests their own money into getting a print run of their book. It’s also different to using a vanity publisher which is just a scam to flatter an author, make promises that are never kept, and line their pockets with the naive author’s money. Remember: if your manuscript is worth printing in the publisher’s opinion, the publisher will pay you.
When Cookbooks are Incomplete
One of the things we hate about cookbooks is when they’re incomplete. The cost of providing ‘extras’ in a book, such as conversion tables, glossaries and so on, might necessitate the book having an extra eight page section. This makes the book more expensive to print and, in turn, pushes up the number of sales the book requires before it’s profitable.
We understand that, but if you’re dealing with a cuisine that will be introducing ingredients or cooking techniques that will be ‘foreign’ to many readers, you have a duty to help people learn about the cuisine, otherwise, why are you publishing the book?
Cookbooks Without A Recipe List
Another of the things we hate about cookbooks is when they come without a recipe list. Unfortunately, this is increasingly common. I understand that with a cookbook like David Thompson’s Thai Food, with hundreds of recipes, it’s easier to look up a key ingredient to find a dish. That’s true and to David’s publisher’s credit, the index is pretty amazing. More on that later.
However, smaller cookbooks that tend to lump recipes under the key ingredient (fish, pork, chicken, etc) or the course (appetiser, main, etc) don’t appear to think that a recipe list is necessary. Really, it would only take a couple of pages.
But we have a few cookbooks that have no recipe list, no index, and no real front matter (not even a Table of Contents) to even give you a hint as to what page we might find a certain recipe. Clearly no publishing professional came anywhere near these titles during production, even though one cookbook on our shelves is a large hardcover title that would have been very expensive to print.
Cookbooks Without an Index or Poor Indexing
Cookbooks should always have an index – no exceptions – even your expensive, hardcover vanity project title. Cooks who are serious about making a great meal from a cookbook will go to the markets, see what’s fresh, and then decide what dish they want to make.
Found some great chuck steak? When you know that there’s a great beef Massaman curry recipe in a cookbook, you should be able to find it by the key ingredient ‘beef’, but it should also be listed under ‘curries’ and under ‘Massaman curry’. No exceptions.
My theory as to why many cookbooks are being published without an index is that indexing is very time-consuming, exacting, and a specialised skill. It was even more time-consuming before we started using computers to produce manuscripts and layout books. It’s still painstaking and it can only be completed once the book is ready to go to print and the page numbers are locked down.
The same goes for referencing other recipes within the book. It’s something that we’d do at the very last stage – even after indexing. That’s why often with poorly edited books you might spot ‘see page XX’ instead of the actual page number. Because that’s the placeholder ‘number’ we used to use to refer to another page before the book was finally laid out.
It’s such a specialised task that we would send a laid-out manuscript, the text files, and the basic index to a specialised editor who indexed books for a living. It would be returned only needing a quick proofread of the page numbers. It’s important.
Cookbooks with Recipe Omissions
While making a Rendang curry the other day, I discovered that one of the cookbooks I was referencing (I often reference up to three cookbooks to decide on my canonical recipe) stated that you should serve the curry with a style of roti, which was listed in the recipe in italics.
While I at first thought it was lazy that they didn’t put in the referring page where the recipe for the roti was, it turned out there was no recipe for the roti in the book.
Quite often the same goes for sauces and dressings, such as a vinaigrette. Some cookbooks will put all the sauce and dressing recipes together just before the end matter (such as the index, if it has one), but to leave these accompanying recipes out is a crime against cookbooks.
If it’s a well-known chef’s cookbook, his vinaigrette and his béchamel might be very different to another chef’s — and that’s why we’re buying his cookbook, to learn a little about his secrets.
Recipe Names That Aren’t Translated
One of the things we hate about cookbooks – Lara especially loathes this one – is when recipe names haven’t been translated to their original language. A Cambodian dish called “fish in coconut custard”, aside from being a poor description of a dish that is essentially a steamed fish curry, is not going to help someone new to the cuisine who might want to do further research or look for it on a menu when they travel to Cambodia. Is it really so hard to write “Cambodian steamed curry – Amok Trei”?
A poor translation is more helpful than none, but they don’t help cooks who have never tried the dish let alone made it before. If you imagined that amok trei (or fish amok) was going to look like a creamy custard from that description, you might be frustrated to see it starting to resemble something between a mousse and a soufflé.
Recipes That Haven’t Been Tested
Thankfully I know enough about the cuisines I cook to understand the ratios of ingredients that go into a recipe. This is the only thing that stopped me from putting half a bottle of fish sauce into a curry.
Those little typos, such as 125ml instead of 25ml of a sauce, should never get to the final layout of a book. It’s really important to make sure that the final manuscript of the recipes is compared to the original recipes and that they are cooked by a recipe tester one last time.
With the vanity project cookbooks, quite often the recipe is donated to the cause by well-meaning chefs, but the dish is never actually cooked by anyone on the ‘team’, let alone a professional recipe tester. For the actual purpose of a cookbook – having people cook the recipes – to skip this stage is unforgivable.
Cookbooks With Not Enough Photos
Another of the things we hate about cookbooks is insufficient images. The first cookbook I ever purchased was one that I bought after our first trip to Mexico in the mid nineties when I fell in love with the food. That book was The Art of Mexican Cooking by Diana Kennedy.
Part culinary anthropology, part cookbook, it is still very highly regarded to this day. While I was initially disappointed that there were no colour photographs of the finished dishes, I now see the book for what it is — an indispensable reference book for anything to do with Mexican cuisine.
The reason that photos are so important to recipes in cookbooks is that, firstly, they inspire you to cook and, secondly, they give you an idea of what the final outcome (hopefully) should look like. I guarantee that most people who use cookbooks are more inspired to make a recipe when that recipe is accompanied by an inspiring photo.
The only case where photos can intimidate rather than inspire is cookbooks by famous chefs, particularly those whose kitchen resembles a laboratory. I’ve lost count of the number of times people have asked me about cookbook photos and commented how fake they look and that they’d never attempt the dish as it just looks too intimidating.
While it’s true that these dishes can be daunting, for me it’s the amount of preparation time to make those dishes that can be dispiriting, not the presentation. Cooking for a dinner party once where I only used The French Laundry cookbook recipes, meant I had to start prepping a week ahead.
Cookbooks That Have Been Poorly Proofread and Edited
I have to put aside my years as a technical writer and as a travel and food writer when reading most cookbooks in Asia as the editing and proofreading is generally appalling. With the vanity cookbooks, it’s common to find that they might have been written in another language first and then translated, it appears, by good old Google (mis-)Translate.
Proofreading and sub-editing are also exacting tasks. The first sub-editor I ever worked with used to sit in what we used to call a fish-bowl office, quietly reading his technical manuscripts – until he found an error. Then we’d seen him get up and march out of his fishbowl into the main office area, stride over to the offending writer and yell “gotcha!”
If he’d read some of the cookbooks I have over the last few years, he’d be reaching into his desk for a hip flask of whisky before 9am.
If he’d read in a manuscript, for instance, that states “unfortunately, no specific name exists for this plant in French or in English”, he would have sprung to his feet and headed straight to our library. I’d hate to think what he’d do when he discovered, as we realised, that, yes, indeed the plant Boesenbergia rotunda or Boesenbergia pandurata (Roxb.) does have a name in French (petits doigts) and several in English (Chinese keys, fingerroot, lesser galangal).
Not every cookbook needs to comprise – or aspire to undertake – the kind of rigorous research of titles such as The Art of Mexican Cooking or Thai Food by David Thompson. But fact checking and triangulation of data should be at the centre of qualitative research when producing a work of non-fiction, even something as inconsequential as a cookbook. For me, one of the joys of researching a recipe is finding the names and origins of so-called ‘exotic’ ingredients. An inquisitive mind is an essential muscle in doing actual research.
It doesn’t matter if the book is supporting a charity, the publishers are still charging the public the same price for their book as a book produced by professionals, so the cookbook should be produced by professionals.
In this age of digital publishing, anyone can publish a book. That doesn’t mean that they should.