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The Unbearable Heaviness of Cookbooks

Anne Mendelson

I sprained my back last month getting a cookbook out of a bookcase.

Not seriously, I hasten to add. And it was my own dumb fault for reaching up to grab the gigantic volume — Poopa Dweck’s “Aromas of Aleppo — one-handed from a top shelf without paying attention to what I was doing. (Could have been worse; the only aftermath was outraged messages from my back every time I stood up for the next few days.)

“How much does that thing weigh, anyhow?” I wondered. I plunked the offending object onto the kitchen scales and temporarily forgot about the lovely Syrian Jewish recipe for stuffed eggplant that I’d meant to consult. More than 5¼ pounds? I had to be dreaming.

On impulse, I hauled out the first Middle Eastern cookbook I’d ever owned, an early 1960s compilation titled “The Art of Syrian Cookery by Helen Corey. Avoirdupois: approximately 12 ounces.

It wasn’t the first occasion on which I’d cursed the swollen proportions of contemporary cookbooks. This time, however, I decided to subject some representative exhibits to actual weigh-ins. Selected results:

The New York Times Cookbook” by Craig Claiborne (1961): roughly 2 pounds, 14 ounces
“The Essential New York Times Cookbook” by Amanda Hesser (2010): roughly 4 pounds, 10 ounces

My first general Chinese cookbook, a skinny 1975 paperback reprint of Grace Zia Chu’s “The Pleasures of Chinese Cooking”: about 6 ounces
My newest general Chinese cookbook, Eileen Yin-Fei Lo’s “Mastering the Art of Chinese Cooking” (2009): about 5 pounds

My first Thai cookbook, a pretty substantial (for its time) 1983 paperback of Jennifer Brennan’s “The Original Thai Cookbook: just over 1 pound
Thai Food by David Thompson (2002): more than 4 pounds, 8 ounces
“Thai Street Food by David Thompson (2010): about 5 pounds, 12 ounces

Cuisines of Mexico by Diana Kennedy (1972): about 2 pounds, 6 ounces
“Oaxaca al Gusto by Diana Kennedy (2010): about 6 pounds, 3 ounces

The two volumes of “The American Heritage Cookbook,” in slipcase (1964): just under 4 pounds, 8 ounces
The two volumes of “The Oxford Companion to Food and Drink in America“, no slipcase (2004): about 11 pounds, 3 ounces

My cat, Angela (admittedly a very thin animal): just under 7 pounds, 8 ounces

Now, I fully acknowledge that many middle-aged Americans could benefit from upper-body-strength training. But I’d rather not get it by picking up a cookbook — though cookbooks certainly aren’t the only instances of galloping book bloat. Any diehard who still buys real, physical books of any kind has to be amazed at the increase in general tonnage over the last 10 or 15 years. I recently received an author’s complimentary copy of a lavishly produced jeremiad on concentrated animal feeding operations to which I’d contributed an essay. It weighed in at approximately 6¾ pounds, and I had a pretty good upper-body workout merely getting it out of the wrappings.

Just what are such mighty tomes for? Not reading; the human lap’s ability to balance 6-pound slabs of eloquence on any subject is painfully limited. Nor do today’s jumbo cookbooks belong in kitchens. Unlike such utilitarian predecessors as “The Art of Syrian Cookery,” they are both too heavy to be easily pulled from a shelf and too gorgeously produced for deployment anywhere near the gravy-spattered front lines.

Maybe these behemoths should be regarded as latter-day analogues of folio Bibles in gilt leather bindings — with the further parallel that the actual contents may be no holier than those of the plainest, cheapest cousin. Size doesn’t imply either superior or inferior culinary insight. Often huge cookbooks in stunning formats contain more information (or more recipes, or more thoughtfully presented recipes) than plain-Jane volumes like my first Thai cookbook. But just as often, they amount to nothing more than grotesquely hypertrophied art designers’ fantasies on heavy coated stock, with dozens or hundreds of color photographs wagging the dog.

Even where photographs aren’t part of the mix, cookbook publishers seem hypnotized by the popular belief — already a near-religious tenet as regards flat-screen TVs, breasts and mocha lattes — that big means important. (Authors sure think it does.) Has it occurred to anyone except me that big also means less room? Already I find 5 feet of shelf space holding only about two-thirds the number of new cookbooks than they did when I started in this business.

Modest proposal: I’d like to put cookbook publishers in touch with authorities on liposuction.

Anne Mendelson is a freelance writer, editor, and reviewer specializing in food-related subjects. She has worked as consultant on several cookbooks, was  a contributing editor to the late lamented Gourmet, and has been an occasional contributor to the New York Times Dining Section and the Los Angeles Times Food Section. Her biography of Irma Rombauer and Marion Rombauer Becker, Stand Facing the Stove (Henry Holt 1996), won widespread critical praise for its insights into the history of modern American cooking. In 2000 – 2001 she held a fellowship at the Dorothy and Lewis Cullman Center for Scholars and Writers at the New York Public Library, working on a study of food history in New York City. (Part of this research, a survey of pre-European foodways among the Lenape Indians, won the 2007 Sophie Coe Prize in Food History at the Oxford Symposium on Food and Cookery.) Her most recent book is Milk, a cultural-historical survey of milk and fresh dairy products (Knopf 2008).She is now working, with a grant from the Guggenheim Foundation, on a study of how the global Chinese diaspora is influencing Chinese food in America.

Zester Daily contributor Anne Mendelson is a freelance writer and culinary historian who has written for various newspapers and magazines. She is the author of "Stand Facing the Stove" (a biography of the authors of "The Joy of Cooking"; Holt, 1996) and "Milk" (Knopf, 2008). The past recipient of honors including a fellowship at the Cullman Center of the New York Public Library and the Oxford Symposium's Sophie Coe Prize in Food History, she is currently working on a book about Chinese food in America.