Cookbooks have been part of the culinary landscape for thousands of years, even if they were in the form of stone tablets in the BCE period. In the United States, their rise was attributed to both industrialization and growing literacy rates, among other factors. The Fannie Farmer Cookbook, published as The Boston Cooking-School Cook Book in 1896, “popularized the modern recipe format, and it was a fitting guide to food and home life in a modernizing country,” the Saturday Evening Post wrote.
Since then, cookbooks and, more broadly, cooking have gone outside the kitchen, becoming a fixture in American culture—from a surprising menu twist in a 1962 Twilight Zone episode to the commercial and personal challenges a pair of brothers face in 1996’s Big Night to the proliferation of cooking programs in recent years.
But perhaps more significantly, such works, including one recently penned by writer and producer Nicole Taylor, have served as narratives of identity and family while also bolstering the historic record in innovative and compelling ways.
“Even on the days that are not demarcated as holidays or holy days or special days, we should do special things for ourselves and the ones we hold dear,” Taylor writes in Watermelon & Red Birds: A Cookbook for Juneteenth and Black Celebrations. “These small everyday traditions, these molecules of the ordinary, can have power and meaning, if we allow them to. Rituals of leisure and care are as much a testament to what Juneteenth has made possible as voting rights and desegregated buses are. It’s these rituals that I want my son, Garvey, to embrace and feel and understand as important components of the legacy of Juneteenth.”
Cammie Kim Lin, whose scholarship includes multicultural/multiracial identity and food studies, encompasses both of these in a recently released cookbook, (Serious) New Cook: Recipes, Tips & Techniques, coauthored with her sister, Leah Su Quiroga, a former head chef at Berkeley’s renowned Chez Panisse restaurant.
“One of the things I really loved about writing this book was how it kind of reaffirmed my American identity,” says Lin, a clinical assistant professor in Liberal Studies who also teaches writing courses. “And that’s an interesting thing to me, considering the fact that I grew up in an interracial immigrant household in a really white town in the Midwest, and I often felt like an outsider growing up.”
Lin, who describes her multicultural family as “quintessentially American,” sees her publication following the same recipe for success that she conveys in the classroom.
“The thing that every writing student learns is that relatability comes not through generalization, but through specificity,” she explains. “So it’s in the details of stories that we create avenues for connection, whether it’s being reminded of a similar experience or simply relating to the way something makes you feel.”
NYU News spoke with Lin about cookbooks, past and present, and how their value reaches beyond our palates.
Do cookbooks today need to “bring more to the table,” if you will, than just recipes and photos?
I do think that cookbooks, in their purpose and their function, have changed pretty significantly over the years. When I was growing up and I was expanding my cooking repertoire beyond what I’d learned to cook from my mom, I looked to cookbooks, which were primarily just collections of recipes. I had no idea who the authors even were, and they were pretty disparate recipes at that. And I think many cookbooks are still that way. But the truth is, if you just need a recipe to make a particular dish, the internet is where most of us go for that.
So why bother with cookbooks? The reason I think is because cookbooks today are different. They’re fundamentally still books. Sure, they’re reference books, but they’re potentially more than that. I think they can do what all great books really do, which in the case of cookbooks, they can introduce us not only to new flavors, but also new ways of thinking about food and culture that can help us to understand how various foodways have been shaped by history—and on the flip side, how foodways shape our culture and impact our environment. I think at their best they help us to understand the world and maybe even ourselves a little bit better.
Lin talks more about "(Serious) New Cook"—along with food, family, and her students.
Were these elements missing in earlier cookbooks?
There have been cookbooks in the past that have done this, of course. The one that comes to mind first for me is Edna Lewis’s The Taste of Country Cooking. She used that book to introduce readers to the roots of Black food in America. When she did that, she redefined what American cooking is. And she did it by sharing stories and recipes from her own life growing up in the 1920s in Freetown, Virginia. So there have been standout cookbooks like that over the years. But I think the majority of cookbooks have been, for the most part, reference books.
By contrast, when you look at the most popular and the award-winning cookbooks today, they do something a little different. For instance, Korean American by Eric Kim (CAS ’12) is primarily a collection of recipes about Korean American food. But the thing that moves me the most about it is that it’s also an incredibly moving memoir about him growing up and finding his place and understanding his own identity as a Korean American person coming of age in the US.
So with our book, the thing that I tried to draw on were different aspects of my sister’s background and my background and to share our perspectives and our stories in a way that I hope can bring new cooks into this conversation—foremost about the joys of cooking and eating delicious food but also, and in hopefully subtle ways, about culture and sustainability and social and environmental responsibility. It becomes more of a conversation rather than just instruction.
So do you think cookbooks are a promising vehicle for having a dialogue about social, racial, and cultural issues—as opposed to op-eds, the classroom, or more traditional means of pedagogy or engagement?
We’re talking about such important conversations and important issues so we need to come at them from different angles. And I think that cooking is just another angle you could come at it from. Food and cooking always bring people together, and cookbooks can play an important role in learning about others and, moreover, connecting across differences.
I think the stakes are lower when we’re talking about cooking. It’s a way to approach those conversations more subtly, and by doing it more subtly I think people are a little bit more open to it.
As somebody who really values the work that I do in the classroom, I don’t want to say that the cookbook angle is more important. But I think that it’s a way of capturing some people that you might not capture in those other ways—especially young people.
Cooking is a means to reach them in a way op-eds and some of the other traditional modes you mentioned can’t do or they’re less inclined to do. We need all of these avenues for connection, but I think doing so in subtle ways can really open us up for those larger conversations. I feel like we have a responsibility to do that in all aspects of our lives. Cooking is just another one of those.
Can you give me an example of how this has been done successfully?
Alexis Nikole Nelson, who is known on social media as “Black Forager,” posts primarily about foraging and how we can eat things from the land—and that we should understand how to do that. But it also is so much about activism. She’s changing the conversation in a lot of ways by slipping in sociocultural commentary and critique along the way. So bringing it in, in a way that’s “secondary” to the exchange, allows people to be a little bit more open to it. When we’re having really direct conversations about things that strike people as political, I think it’s easier for people to put up walls and feel defensive and a little bit less open.
You write that cooking is both a “science” and an “improvisational art”—a daunting balance that would seem to require a “culinary mindset.” Is there a personality type or talent that’s especially “cooking friendly”—like the ability to learn new languages—or is it largely a matter of preparation and following the recipes?
I know that seeing cooking as a science and an art seems kind of contradictory. But I really do think that you need a little bit of both.
I think it’s incredibly helpful to understand the science behind what happens in the kitchen and to approach cooking as an experiment. That’s essential to becoming a good cook. You need to be willing to experiment, which means paying attention to the details and how they affect the outcome. But I think to be really good at it, it’s also helpful to just relax and try to get a feel for what works and what doesn’t work, what flavors and textures work in harmony with one another and so on.
So I guess I think the best cooks are probably people who can reside comfortably at that intersection. They’re scientifically minded and really detail oriented. So they’re always paying attention to the way those little moves, like a little extra pinch of salt, how big the salt granules are, a little bit more heat, a different cooking instrument, an extra squeeze of lemon—how all those little things will actually affect the outcome. That to me is quite scientific. But they also need to be comfortable improvising and be moved by the beauty of cooking.
That said, though, I do think that anyone can cook, actually, and what defines a good cook is probably as variable as good food. A good cook can be somebody who just enjoys doing it, who likes to cook for others, who respects ingredients, or who’s just interested in trying new things. Is it as easy as just reading a recipe? I think it depends on the person.
How do you balance “sophistication” with “hand-holding”—both of which you refer to in the book—when it comes to the kitchen?
I think the traditional approach to beginner cooking usually involves really easy recipes that make basic food, and I just don’t think that has a lot of appeal for people who have sophisticated palates but just lack the cooking skills to match. And nowadays that describes a lot of people. We have become a nation of foodies. But luckily I think that cooking to appeal to a sophisticated palate doesn’t necessarily require complicated cooking. I just don’t think enough cookbooks have zeroed in on that yet.
So to me, sophistication in the kitchen can mean understanding how to use a wide range of ingredients, being familiar with a broad range of cuisines, learning techniques that might not be obvious, but aren’t necessarily difficult, and even being attentive to these other things we’ve talked about, like the social, cultural, environmental implications of the things we cook. To me, all of those things speak to sophistication in the kitchen. So for me as a teacher and as a writer, my hand-holding, so to speak, involves trying to keep readers engaged. My sister and I really explain and demonstrate not just what to do, but how to do it and why to do it. So rather than doing what a lot of other sophisticated cookbooks do, which is just to make a lot of assumptions about readers’ backgrounds, knowledge, and experience, we really try to get to that sophisticated place and also to walk the newer cooks there in the process.