Advertisement

Cookbook Trouble : When Good Recipes Go Bad

TIMES STAFF WRITER

“Smart chefs realize that the easiest cookbook to use is the Yellow Pages and the handiest appliance in the kitchen is the telephone. With it, you can turn out more delicious meals than with your oven, your broiler, your blender, and all your pots and pans combined.” --"Miss Piggy’s Guide to Life”

*

Tracy Jackson Templeton started on crabcakes right after lemon tarts. Before that it was meatloaf, meatloaf, meatloaf. Meatloaf every night until she made a great meatloaf.

As an avid cook--she has more than 70 cookbooks and still buys about three a month--her hobby is to keep trying recipes until she finds the one that will lead to perfection. The perfect meatloaf came from “Gene Hovis’s Uptown Down Home Cookbook.” The perfect lemon tart was from Patricia Wells’ “Bistro Cooking.”

Advertisement

Earlier this evening in her Los Angeles kitchen, Templeton attempted to make the perfect crabcakes: “Aunt Freddie’s Crabcakes” from “Lee Bailey’s City Food.” The recipe called for canned evaporated low-fat milk, stale bread, eggs, butter, crabmeat. Sounds great, she thought, and followed it exactly.

Uh huh.

“They were soggy little balls of yuck,” says Templeton. “Even my husband wouldn’t touch them, which is really amazing. They were too disgusting. I had to throw them out.” (The Times Test Kitchen tried the recipe and got similar results. See H10.)

Templeton, a film and television writer who owns all of Bailey’s books, won’t cook from “City Food” again. “His books are beautiful,” she says, “the pictures are great.” And she still thinks the desserts in his other books are fabulous.

Advertisement

The crab cake disaster comes as no surprise to Ellen Rose, owner of the Cook’s Library, Los Angeles’ only all-cookbook shop. “More than half the books in my store have at least one recipe in them that doesn’t work,” says Rose, who stocks about 4,300 books.

John Taylor, who owns a culinary bookstore in South Carolina and wrote “Hoppin’ John’s Lowcountry Cooking,” puts it more bluntly: “If I only sold books where the recipes work, I wouldn’t have any books on my shelves.”

“It’s a scandalous situation,” adds Pat Adrian, who buys all the cookbooks for Book-of-the-Month Club. “Customers in good faith assume that recipes are put through the rigid standards of a test kitchen.”

Although she won’t name names (“I couldn’t possibly because the publishers also put out very fine books and I could really wreck things for myself”), there are at least half a dozen writers who regularly turn out cookbooks that Adrian refuses to buy. “I wouldn’t even call them cookbooks,” she says, “I’d call them product.”

“Books in Print” listed almost 800 cookbooks published last year, and there will certainly be more next year. Cookbooks were estimated by the Book Industry Study Group, a trade association, to make up 11% of all U.S. book sales, forecast for this year to hit $18.6 billion.

And those figures were estimated before the release of Rosie Daley’s low-fat book, “In the Kitchen With Rosie.” According to its publisher, Alfred A. Knopf, the book of recipes Daley created for talk-show queen Oprah Winfrey is the fastest-selling book-- not cookbook--in publishing history. In its 23rd printing, the book has sold 5 million copies since its release in May.

For cookbook authors, slaving over a test kitchen stove can pay big dividends: The most popular personalities can earn hundreds of thousands of dollars for each book. Added to this are revenues from product endorsements, consulting fees, sponsorships, television shows and video cassettes.

Or, in the case of style czarina Martha Stewart, your very own magazine. She started out as a Connecticut caterer, wrote the book “Entertaining,” and parlayed that into a reported $2-million empire--plus a stream of royalties from television shows, videos, CDs and all those Martha Stewart products sold at Kmart.

Advertisement

A famous name on a cookbook, though, is no guarantee that the recipes work. “Nobody in their right mind buys a Martha Stewart book for a recipe,” says Hoppin’ John Taylor. “They buy them for her ideas and great pictures. If a recipe works in a Martha Stewart book, it’s somebody else’s.”

“That quote sounds like somebody in the cookbook business who wrote a book and it didn’t sell,” responds Stewart’s long-time publicist, Susan Magrino. “I think those are just some sour grapes.”

The Los Angeles Times Test Kitchen knows all too well how many imperfect cookbooks there are. Most recipes are tested before running in the Food Section. And we often run across flaws and inconsistencies in cookbook recipes--bits and pieces left out, and dishes that just don’t taste very good.

Of course, we have to admit, sometimes the mistakes are in recipes that we develop ourselves--sometimes it’s an error in typing up the recipe; occasionally, it’s a lapse in judgment.

Our feeble excuse: Working with newspaper deadlines, a few mistakes are inevitable. Besides, a newspaper costs a lot less than a cookbook. And corrections can be made the very next week if necessary. It takes months, sometimes years, to get a cookbook published--and there’s no one to complain to when a recipe doesn’t work out. Short of a recall--or waiting until the next printing--publishers can’t correct even the mistakes they’ll admit to.

In 1977, Random House published a cookbook, “Woman’s Day Crockery Cuisine” by Sylvia Vaughn Thompson, with a recipe for “Silky Caramel Slices” that recommended placing an “unopened can” of condensed milk in the crockpot and then covering and cooking on high, four hours. Six months later, a Random House employee tried the recipe--the can blew up after two hours, shattering the glass lid and liner. Urgent warnings about the recipe were dispatched to the media the following Monday. Ten thousand copies had already been sold; the remaining 2,000 to 3,000 were recalled from bookstores. It was considered a publishing first at the time.

In 1991, Ballantine recalled Carole Walter’s “Great Cakes,” because it recommended decorating a dessert with lily-of-the-valley. After the book was published, someone pointed out that eating the flower can cause symptoms ranging from upset stomach to irregular heart beat and other circulatory problems. After a corrected edition was published and re-released, the book won a James Beard award.

While cookbook publishers claim to care about accuracy in recipes, most are unwilling to spend the money to make sure the recipes actually work. In a standard publishing contract, the responsibility of recipe testing is left up to the writers--the money comes out of their advances.

Advertisement

A good book can depend on how hard a worker the author is. Some swear they test and retest. Others say it’s futile: Not only are you trying to communicate results to a readership that can’t bake a cake, but you don’t have the same flour, the same pan, the same stove, the same anything as a home cook.

“Sometimes I have to abandon a recipe because I can’t make it consistently enough,” says Barbara Kafka, author of “Microwave Gourmet” and two other cookbooks. “I’m working with veal for a new book and I found a variation in quality. I tested a recipe with veal from a butcher, then I retested it with veal from a supermarket near my house and then with veal from a supermarket not in New York. The quality was so different and made the results so variable that I’ll have to tell people to either buy really good veal or not use the recipe.”

*

Not only that, but she still has to put the recipe into words her readers will understand. “I assume people pretty much know how to do certain things like cut and chop. Otherwise it’s a judgment call each time I write a recipe,” says Kafka. “I’m never going to get total precision. One man’s simmer is another man’s slow boil.”

That’s especially true for cookbooks put out by restaurant chefs. It’s no easy feat adapting restaurant cooking so that it can actually be used by a home cook, and very few chef-writers are successful at it. The home cook seldom has the equipment or support staff found in professional kitchens. Nor does he or she have a stock pot full of veal bones simmering on the back of the stove, an essential ingredient in most restaurants, which contributes a huge amount of flavor to dishes.

Also, the quantities and procedures used in restaurants are entirely different: Professional chefs seldom measure, and they test for doneness by using their senses, not strict cooking times. On top of that, very few chefs are writers.

“I’ve noticed that chefs and other professional types who aren’t writers very often choose to work with people who also are not writers. . . . Relatives, friends, business associates, all kinds of people who aren’t the right person,” says Bantam cookbook editor Fran McCullough. “And while they can, with a little coaching from an agent, get together a pretty credible-looking proposal, sometimes what you end up getting is a big surprise.”

Another problem: In today’s society, where three in five woman are in the work force (contrasted with one in three in 1950), authors and publishers can no longer assume a cookbook buyer knows how to cook. The majority simply want a way to put a decent meal on the table when they come home from work at night.

This means that not every cooking failure can be blamed on bad recipes. A lot depends on the expertise and knowledge of the cook.

“The results you get by touching and smelling and seeing is what nobody knows anymore,” says McCullough. “Their grandmother didn’t teach them, their mother didn’t teach them and they haven’t a clue. So even if it’s imprecise, I like my authors to say, ‘about 10 minutes or until such and such happens.’ ”

Mark Miller, chef/owner of several popular Southwestern-style restaurants in Santa Fe, Washington D.C. and Las Vegas, and author of three cookbooks, assumes a certain level of competence in his readers. “If you actually had to include all the steps to make a home cook understand what’s going on, the book would be, well, like instructions for software. I think recipes are guidelines for generating ideas about food and flavor combinations much the way you might look at a painting and admire a certain combination of colors. It’s not that you are going to paint that painting, but it might trigger something.”

*

Even Book-of-the-Month Club’s Adrian agrees that not everyone buys a cookbook to cook from. Some buy them for inspiration, others read cookbooks as they do novels. “A lot of them are like fantasy trips, bought by people who just like to read about the history and folklore behind food and maybe read the recipe.”

“My cookbooks are designed as souvenirs,” says Miller, who earns $750,000 a year from selling cookbooks, T-shirts, posters and other small items at his small Coyote Cocina shop in Santa Fe. “People like to go to my restaurant and remember. Is it better they bought (a cookbook) or a jar of jam or a T-shirt? We’re talking reality here.”

Maybe that’s why he won’t pay to have his restaurant-tested recipes retested in a home kitchen. “I can’t afford to pay for it, and (publishers) don’t want to,” he says. “They even want the shopping to come out of royalties. I don’t think that’s fair because they make more money (than I do).”

Not everyone agrees with Miller’s reasoning. “I write for magazines and a lot of places and eke out testing expenses somehow,” says Kafka, who uses “something the equivalent to Farberware” and cooks her concoctions on a GE range. “It’s presumptuous to think people are going to have a professional range,” she says, adding that they cook very differently from a kitchen stove. But even with double and triple-testing, mistakes happen. “I had a major blooper in the first printing of ‘Microwave Gourmet,’ ” says Kafka. “Some helpful copy editor changed a weight amount of butter to a fluid amount in a brownie recipe, and they were very oily. I got a few complaints and a lot of people going nnaa , nnnaaa , nnnnaaaa.

*

Unfortunately, publishing houses--like everyone else--are tightening their budgets and are not paying as much attention to detail as they once did. The result: Onions sometimes don’t appear in the list of ingredients for onion tart; or the writer forgets to tell the reader what to do with those fancy mushrooms mentioned at the beginning of a spaghetti sauce recipe.

Timing is also a major factor now. Publishers want to capitalize on the latest hot chef or maybe push a release date up to coincide with a holiday.

“It’s not just the Christmas market anymore,” says McCullough. “We’ve crashed a book or two for Mother’s Day. And anytime you rush it’s really a problem. (Cookbooks) are really reference books. That’s the category they belong in because they are so detailed and so labor-intensive. Yet they are usually published as if they are fiction.”

McCullough, who has been editing cookbooks since 1970, puts some of the blame on the press too. “The state of cookbook reviewing is hideous,” she says. “How often is an ordinary cookbook held to the light in terms of what it is really accomplishing or what kind of delivery it makes on its promises?”

But sometimes it just plain doesn’t matter. Some cookbooks take off for no apparent reason. No one has been more lambasted by the press than TV’s Jeff Smith, yet his eight books have sold more than 5 million copies. In her review of “The Frugal Gourmet Celebrates Christmas,” Anne Mendelson, who reviews cookbooks for the Los Angeles Times and other publications, took author Smith to task for his liberal doses of supermarket liquid seasoning in his gravies, his beef stock made with meatless bones, not to mention his sloppy research.

“He passes himself off as a scholar and a historian, and his facts are very often shoddy,” says Michael McLaughlin, who has written nine cookbooks. “He’s a very sloppy cook, his recipes are very primitive, and he’s horrendously sanctimonious.”

“I am not a chef, I’m a very good cook,” says Smith. “I see food as a means of celebrating creation. That’s what I do.” A Methodist minister and former University of Pugent Sound chaplain, Smith calls the criticism “nit-picking.”

“The only people attacking me are people who don’t write cookbooks,” he says. “They are flabbergasted by the fact that I can write a cookbook and have it so well received. I think it’s wild jealousy.”

*

Also, the Frug believes that he’s taken the snobbery out of cooking, or at least deflected it to a higher level. “Sometimes a chef will say to me, ‘I created this dish.’ But as a theologian, I have to say, ‘No, you didn’t create this dish, you simply shuffled around God’s creation.’ And sometimes you come up with good stuff and sometimes you’ve just been shuffling.”

Clearly, cookbooks reflect the personality of their authors--imperfections and all. Careful testing and clear writing, however, can keep mistakes to a minimum.

“You can’t always guarantee that cookbooks are going to be wonderful,” says Bantam’s McCullough, “but the bottom line is they ought to work.”


Advertisement