I went to New York two weeks ago.
It was different, very different, from my last trip.
For one, I barely saw the city, save for my final night there when I escaped my hotel to wander around midtown and Grand Central Terminal. I was traveling alone, separated from my entire family for the first time in . . . what feels like forever. And, as much as this trip was focused more on food than any I've ever taken before, it turned out to not be about the food at all.
I was there to attend the Cookbook Conference, which exceeded my expectations and opened up my world in all sorts of ways I hadn't anticipated. I met some of my food writing idols, people whose work I have admired for years, and discovered that the conference provided the perfect jumping off point for making real connections with them — having real conversations — instead of feeling like a starry-eyed fan fawning at the feet of untouchable celebrities. (Although, trust me, there were still times I felt like that. When Judith Jones is standing a mere five feet away from you, how can you not?) I met wonderful, inspiring people I had only before known online, which means that the Internet, and Twitter especially, now feel a lot more friendly and personal to me. And I learned so much, about so many things I hadn't even realized I was craving insight on. Practical things, like using social media to promote your brand, and the differences between ebooks and apps, and why literary agents are more necessary than ever in today's modern, digital world. And more academic subjects, also, like using cookbooks as a means of understanding a particular moment in time, and the social and cultural values hidden in the recipes, and how the cookbooks we chose to buy reflect the identities we are trying to embody.
It was so, so wonderful to be there.
But in the midst of all the cookbook and food writing love, a little nagging issue began forming in the back of my mind. By the end of the conference it was a big nagging issue, one I couldn't help fretting over. And one that no one seemed able to help me with.
In a world barreling at break-neck speed towards the future, one that is embracing and promoting technology in all aspects of our lives, in a time when a respected publisher can tell an audience to get used to the size of their smartphone screens, because soon that's how we'll be reading all books, what does that mean for the cookbook? Cookbooks, which are designed to appeal to our senses, to entice us into the kitchen, to encourage us to roll up our sleeves and actually make something - what does it mean for them to become just another functionality of our devices?
The first time this thought crossed my mind, in a brief moment of panic during one of the conference panels, I scribbled in the margin of my notebook: The disconnect between the digitization of cookbooks (apps, ebooks, etc.) and the tactile, sensual act of actually cooking (print cookbooks bridge this gap much better). What does that say about how we feel about and approach cooking? Don't all these devices further the theme of speed, a convenient, detached, sterilization of modern life? Will the romance of cooking disappear?
The more I thought about this, the more I mulled it over, letting it get comfortable and take up residence in my mind, the less panicky I felt. I don't think we're going to lose the romance of cooking. I don't think our approach to food will become sterilized. But I do think that print cookbooks serve a special role in our lives, one we can't afford to lose.
The physical presence of a bound book gives it a permanence in our lives that a digital file would be hard-pressed to replicate. There is no sense of history, of nostalgia, of common experiences weaving through generations, binding us to each other, in an ebook. The quickly-scrawled notes in the margins that tell a reader of cookbooks how the cook had approached the particular recipe, what their family had thought of the end product, are lost in an app. The feeling of flipping through pages, especially ones wrinkled and splattered, looking for a favorite recipe that your fingers instantly recognize by the way the pages spread open more fully from years of use - how does this translate to a screen? And the sense of intimacy, of a true connection to the foods and stories and people behind the recipes, doesn't naturally come through when one is consuming the pages via high resolution touch screens.
I also think the real-life applicability of cookbooks is being affected by technology. When your favorite volumes reside on a digital device, one you take pains to protect from moisture and oils, nevermind hot pasta sauce and egg yolks, you are unlikely to prop it in the midst of your dinner prep area, for guidance and advice as you work to get a meal on the table. For those who bemoan the rise of coffee-table cookbooks as mere status symbols, tomes which are clearly never meant to get down and dirty with us as partners in the actual making of food, well, I think ebooks and apps are getting even more removed, farther away from the kitchen counter.
And how are we supposed to loan a friend a favorite cookbook if it's just a file? Heck, how are we supposed to pass down our most treasured, worn volumes to future generations? Somehow, preserving the past via digital copy doesn't feel very authentic to me. It feels remote, like something that will be hard to establish real bonds with.
Clearly, I don't know what to do about this issue. And maybe I'm just old-fashioned and sentimental, and none of my concerns will ever pan out. Maybe there's really nothing to worry about. Maybe the food revolution we're in the middle of, the one drawing so many people back to the kitchen to cook real food, the one propelling giant lawsuits against corporations like Monsanto, maybe this tide of awareness and caring means that my worries are unfounded. I don't know.
I do know that when I asked two conference panelists from two different publishing houses what their thoughts were on the issue, I got two blank stares. One stammered that she was sure someone was working on the problem (just not her), and the other wondered if maybe the job of maintaining the strong physical link between real cooking and the texts that guide us there has fallen to food bloggers. At which point he got a blank stare from me. (I don't mean to minimize the positive impact blogging can, and does, have on the food world. It's just that I was essentially bemoaning technology's invasion of the recipe and food writing industry, and we food bloggers do the majority of our work on the Internet. I don't see how that is the solution.) It was the only truly discouraging part of an otherwise delightfully inspiring conference.
So, where does this leave me (and you, if you share my feelings)? Fumbling and floundering around, mostly. Continuing to embrace technology while harboring fears of just what all this boundless enthusiasm might beget down the road. Hoping that we are not headed into a future where the printed cookbook is a relic. And cherishing my own cookbook library all the more, determined to help it grow even bigger, heavier, more voluminous. While I still can.
This weekend, I say we all go out and buy cookbooks.
Posted by Tara Barker at 4:39 PM