Is It What You Know Or Just Who You Are?
We live in a world of instant celebrity. Whereas stage, screen, music, television, radio and sports have always given us celebrities, the process has traditionally been somewhat slow to develop. Most celebrities spent years in the trenches “paying their dues” in order to achieve their elevated status. Now, thanks to shows like “American Idol,” we can create celebrities in the blink of an eye. And thanks to “Top Chef” and “Iron Chef” and “MasterChef” and “Next Food Network Star,” and numerous other shows of that ilk, we can now add instant culinary celebrities to our pantheon. Would anybody have ever heard of Carla Hall if not for her popularity on “Top Chef?” Now she's a co-host on a daily network food/talk show, along with fellow celebrity chefs Mario Batali and Michael Symon, who, while exceptional cooks, would also be unknown to the vast majority were it not for TV. Used to be when the pencils came out, culinary stars wrote cookbooks and entertainment and sports celebs wrote tell-alls and biographies. Not anymore. Now they also write cookbooks, defined by Webster as “a book of cooking directions and recipes.”
In our culture of celebrity, celebrity itself is the biggest selling point. In most textbooks and instructional manuals – which, after all, is what a cookbook is – it’s not so much who you are as it is what you know. But not if you’re marketing a cookbook these days. Then it's the exact opposite. As I’m writing this, country singer Trisha Yearwood has a cookbook and a cooking show. International singing and dancing superstars Gloria and Emilio Estefan have a cookbook. Gwyneth Paltrow has a cookbook. Freddie Prinze, Jr has a cookbook and, not to be outdone, so does his wife, Sarah Michelle Gellar. Chrissy Teigen has a cookbook. Sheryl Crow has a cookbook. Kris Jenner, Patti LaBelle, and Eva Longoria have cookbooks. You can go “Cooking With Kenny Rogers” or partake of “Dolly's Dixie Fixin's.” There’s a cookbook by noted professional Italian chef Tony Danza … well, at least he’s a professional Italian. Speaking of which, you know that famous team of kitchen experts from the TV show “The Sopranos”? Yes, even they have a cookbook. Buy it, if you know what’s good for you. In addition to being Italian and an actor, Stanley Tucci likes to cook so naturally he has a cookbook. And then there are the people who have actually done a little cooking here and there and who, thanks to TV, have achieved “celebrity” status: Mario Batali, Emeril Lagasse, Rocco DiSpirito, Bobby Flay, Wolfgang Puck, Giada De Laurentiis, Julia Child.
I myself have compiled a great cookbook. I’ve been working on it for years and it’s chock full of recipes and tips. Some are my own creation and some are contributions from family and friends. The vast majority are personal favorites adapted from other people’s cookbooks. So what sets celebrity cookbooks apart from mine? I’m at a loss to explain it. Oh…..yeah, that whole “celebrity” part. I forgot.
What should you look for in a celebrity cookbook? A lot of celebrity cookbooks are actually “ghostwritten” or, at least, co-written by other people. (Not so in my case, I assure you.) But unless you are buying the book based solely on your affection for and appreciation of the person on the cover, you should be looking for the same things in a celebrity cookbook that you would expect to find in a book written by somebody you’ve never heard of. Like me. Things like:
Recipes. Recipes should be clear and concise. They should follow a standard format that includes measured quantities of all ingredients, as well as detailed preparation and cooking instructions. A little backstory on the recipe is a nice touch as are serving suggestions.
Pictures. Everybody likes pictures. It is widely believed that you eat first with your eyes. Pretty presentational pictures of how a completed dish is supposed to look are an essential element of a good cookbook. And, if there are some tricky techniques to be employed in the preparation of a particular dish, step-by-step instructional pictures are important, too.
Tips and techniques. In cooking, some things are very basic. This is a frying pan, this a chafing dish. Both useful items, but rarely interchangeable. What’s the difference between baking powder and baking soda? Ignorance of this can produce some really interesting results. The most difficult part of writing a cookbook is gauging your reader’s level of expertise. Some people have been preparing elaborate meals for their families for fifty years and are just looking for something fresh and new, while others have difficulty boiling water and are just looking for help. A good cookbook provides tips and techniques beneficial to both extremes. Sometimes these tips and techniques accompany individual recipes, sometimes they occupy a section of their own, and sometimes they appear as sidebars interspersed throughout the book. However they are presented, there should be lots of them and they should be as clear and concise as the recipes.
Layout and construction. Nobody wants to read a book that reads like the author is just throwing out random thoughts in no particular order. The same is true of a cookbook. The book should be laid out in a logical and progressive manner. At the very least, appetizers, main courses, side dishes, desserts and beverages should all have their own dedicated sections. These sections can then be subdivided into appropriate groups and types according to the dishes involved. A table of contents up front and a comprehensive index at the back are a must. Otherwise, you’ll just get frustrated looking for that rutabaga salad next to the rhubarb pie.
Style. Okay, you bought the book because there’s a picture of somebody you like on the cover. This person should mark the style of the book. There should be lots of elements by and/or about the celebrity author throughout the book. Again, there should be pictures. Pictures of the author cooking. Pictures of his or her family enjoying the author’s cooking. Pictures of the author in compromising situations…no, wait. Those belong in the tell-alls and biographies. But, there should be stories. Stories about how so-and-so’s grandmother’s cooking influenced their lives, and such. And, of course, there should be a dedication to all the loyal and devoted fans who have so enriched the author’s life, along with their agents and their accountants, and now it’s time to give back something personal and intimate, etc, etc. In short, if the person whose picture is on the cover is not reflected throughout the book, you might as well have purchased something crushingly generic by some wretched unknown. Like me.
Finally, consider cost. Do you really want to take out a loan to buy your favorite singer’s cookbook? Is it worth skipping a car payment to pick up the latest from your favorite TV chef? You could probably purchase the same good, comprehensive cookbook your grandma had in her kitchen for the same money or less. Then you could use the savings to buy a nice celebrity magazine and put it on the shelf next to the generic cookbook.
I'm not saying celebrity cookbooks aren't good: many of them are. A lot of famous people – especially the TV chefs – can cook. But just remember when you're emptying your wallet, you're actually buying celebrity more than recipes, tips, and techniques – things found in abundance in your grandma's Better Homes and Gardens cookbook.
To celebratize or not to celebratize! Along whichever path through the kitchen you choose, I wish you happy cooking!