Episode 26 l Do Cookbooks Need Stories? with Maggie Green

Episode 26 l Do Cookbooks Need Stories? with Maggie Green

Hello and welcome back to another Episode of the Cookbook Love Podcast and today I am talking about cookbook stories. When I interview cookbook readers, buyers, collectors, and clubs on my podcast, Cookbook Love, I like to ask their favorite feature in a cookbook. So many say they love stories. So this brings me to the question of stories, and recipes, and do the two belong together in cookbooks? Are cookbooks mere instruction manuals, or do they do more for us?

The stories we tell about our lives, kitchens, meals, and cooking are important. It helps people see themselves in us and offers a place to connect outside of the recipes. This is also true for the stories we share about others. Their traditions, meals, communities, and cultures have a place in the discussion of food and cooking.

Here are a few things to consider:

1. Many cookbooks contain stories and are constructed of stories: A good example of this type of cookbook/book is Amy Zaring’s Flavors from Home: Refugees in Kentucky Share Their Stories and Comfort Foods. This book is all about stories of refugees, in their kitchens, cooking their foods from home.  

But cookbooks aren’t always instruction manuals. Often, they tell deeper stories of the dish, whether its the history of the ingredients or the way the author came to the recipe.If you love that depth, you may enjoy this list of  8 Cookbooks You Can Read Like Books. This list validates the love for a story around food and cooking.

2. Many cookbooks don’t contain stories and are instruction manuals – but as in The Food Lab – the narrative and the book itself is a place for J. Kenji Lopez-Alt to tell about his experiments with food and cooking in the kitchen in long form.  And the popularity of Betty Crocker and Better Homes and Gardens Cookbooks over the year are cookbooks without a story, backed by corporate test kitchens, although Betty Crocker was given a fictitious face and persona to make readers and buyers think a person was behind the book.

3. Some don’t like the story, they just want recipes and for some, in particular, when searching for recipes on blogs, the stories annoy as described in the piece in Slate magazine.

4. Agents do love the story part, it’s what sets you apart. I’ve had agents tell my clients this.  Julia Turshen talks in this Eater piece, with Nik Sharma about voice, and how this was something their editor desired for their books.  

So it seems that the desire for stories is a little bit all over the place, from story-heavy to no stories. So where does this leave a cookbook writer? I still recommend to new cookbook writers that they include stories in their work.

First, to write stories is good practice. Tell a story and share a recipe. Tell a story and share a recipe. Practice, practice, practice. Writing practice of this sort leads us down the path of writing even when we don’t know what to write about. We get to practice putting words on a page. All we have to do is tell a story about yesterday, and have the courage to believe someone out there will read it and care. We can become writers using our everyday lives as the material we share.

Next, when we add stories, we add personality and voice to our books. They become unique and our own. No one else can tell our story. And, when I have the courage to write and share my story, this gives others the opportunity to connect with my material because they see themselves in me or they can relate to what I’m writing about. Relationships are formed across the page.

And third, many cookbook lovers are readers and book people at heart. They buy a cookbook because they while they may cook out of it, they also like to read it. The stories are the part everyone loves to read.

So, I keep saying, tell your stories. When you write about traditions, places, and other people, and in particular, stories fit. Cookbooks are more than just a mere collection of recipes. They are personal. They share part of you and part of the story you are telling. What you share and bring to the table draws in the reader. So be personal. Share people, places, stories, and add your own unique voice to make the book your own. And then let the reader decide.

Listen to Episode 26 below:

Things We Mention In This Episode:

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