IACP's Destructively Blind Traditionalism [cookbooks]

Earlier today, we listed this year's winners of the IACP cookbook awards, which were announced on Saturday at an awards ceremony in Denver, Colorado. Eat Me Daily's Books Editor, Helen Rosner, weighs in on how the organization picked the wrong winners, and why that bodes poorly for the future of book publishing.

As an organization, the International Association of Culinary Professionals likes to bill its awards as the food industry's "most coveted acknowledgement [sic] of excellence." Typos aside, I'm starting to worry that "excellence" isn't, in fact, the quality that IACP rewards.

IACP is a trade group. Its members are teachers, editors, and food writers, and it pretty much flies under the radar — it certainly doesn't occupy the same place in popular awareness as, say, the Beard Awards, nor does an IACP win guarantee a book the kind of sales bump that a Beard does. What the organization does bring to the table, at least in theory, is an accurate sounding of the state of culinary literature, as determined by its practitioners.

Given that, you'd think that the IACP awards should honor books that break new ground, books that move the industry forward. The problem is that the view — at least, from where I sit — is of a voting majority of judges clinging desperately to a failing past.

Looking backwards

These folks have got to be happy to watch their industry die. What else could explain a retail-branded same-old baking book winning over Matt Lewis's topic-resuscitating Baked? Or old-guard favorite Arthur Schwartz's retread of American Jewish recipes snatching victory away from Virginia Willis's spectacular culinary epic Bon Appetit, Y'All?

But most egregiously, I'm stunned by Chanterelle: an inexplicable double winner in categories "Chefs and Restaurants" and "Food Styling and Photography."

It's not that I can't see Chanterelle's appeal: it's a well-executed compilation of a classic New York restaurant's classic dishes, it's a lovely book with elegant design. But it's also, quite frankly, a snooze. It's strikingly similar in format and layout to dozens of other high-end restaurant cookbooks — bland headnotes, sidebar ingredients, a monochrome color palette. Script typefaces. Heavy white gloss paper. Atmospheric still-life photography that could have come straight out of a stock file. Yawn.

Who should have won

Chanterelle's yawniness is exponentially more apparent when you hold it up next to, say, Eric Ripert's On the Line or Thomas Keller's Under Pressure. Those books were its competitors in "Chefs and Restaurants" and "Food Styling and Photography," respectively — and neither is a traditional cookbook in any respect.

On the Line's house is built on stripping off the very high-gloss veneer that Chanterelle's pages cultivate, showing with honesty, gravity, and humor the sweat and blood that feeds the machine that is a kitchen of the highest caliber. Under Pressure most vividly makes the case for its expensive and esoteric technique through high-octane macro photography, page after page of beautiful and terrifying images of animals and plants in ways we'd never thought to look at them. It's a book that makes demands of its photographs, it doesn't just accessorize its words with them.

What makes a book?

But there's something else that these volumes have that Chanterelle doesn't: They have to be books. The way a great album is a collection of songs that work together to tell a musical story, both of these books require all their parts to be their best selves. In that sense, they blow Chanterelle out of the water — Chanterelle can be broken up easily; its medium can change; a handful of recipes can go online and not suffer for having lost their typeface, the book's introduction, the accompanying photography.

That's not the case for either On the Line or Under Pressure — they're books that need to be taken as a whole for maximum value, starting at the beginning and going all the way to the end. The recipes in the back quarter of On the Line are all the more extraordinary when you've read the hundreds of pages of kitchen documentary that precede them; the techniques and dishes outlined in Under Pressure aren't going to be undertaken by most cooks reading the book, so the recipes cease to be recipes and instead the entire volume serves as a striking visual primer for the next phase of kitchen science. They're both books that are more than the sum of the information they contain — but Chanterelle? It's just a collection of recipes.

People buy books, not recipes

Where this really matters isn't just in terms of the indefinable quality of gestalt, it's also a matter of the bottom line. IACP is an organization made up of exactly those folks whose bread is buttered with cookbook sales, and who are frantic at the prospect of print's slow demise at the hands of the internet. They're all babbling hither and thither about needing a new publishing model, a new way to hook sales, a new way to frame the product. So you'd think they'd realize that there's no real point in buying an old-style cookbook like Chanterelle — not only is the book just unexciting, but if anyone actually does want the content, all they need is some basic search engine knowhow and that seafood sausage recipe's in their hands. Not a dollar spent, not a dollar earned.

If they understood that, you'd think the IACP folks would realize, too, that books like On the Line and Under Pressure are the kind that demand to be read in their entirety. They demand to be purchased. There's no way to get what they have to offer by flitting around inside Amazon.com's Search Inside function, or a massive Epicurious recipe excerpt. They're the kind of books that will save book publishing, examples of culinary literature's genre-busting potential, powerful antidotes for a dying medium.

I don't find fault with IACP's choice for many of 2009's winners (in particular Cookbook of the Year winner A16's nod for Best First Cookbook, and the Single Subject victory for Jennifer McLagan's stellar Fat). But those are gimme wins, the obvious choices in their groups. If IACP wants to stay relevant, it can't pretend that a refined, cream-clad dinosaur like Chanterelle is worthy of even one win against books like On the Line and Under Pressure, let alone two.

Helen Rosner

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