There are two types of reviews when it comes to cookbooks: reviews written by the media (magazines, newspapers, and radio shows) and reviews by readers (bloggers, recipe testers, and home cooks).
Which reviews usually influence your decision to buy a cookbook?
I pondered this after coming across a blog post by author Dianne Jacob, whose new release made The New York Times‘ holiday roundup of the best books to buy. It’s a brag-worthy piece of press that hundreds of cookbooks vie for each year, but as a food writer and editor, Dianne admitted that something “nagged” her about the so-called “review.”
Because in her eyes, a review implies the reviewer actually tested the recipes before extolling their greatness. Otherwise, it’s nothing more than a rewritten press release.
And as I thought about it more… her refreshingly frank take on the matter makes a lot of sense.
To be fair, it would be exceedingly difficult for a food editor to test recipes from all the books he’s expected to review in a given month. Budgets are low, time is precious, and what if the one recipe he decides to test from an otherwise excellent cookbook is a dud? He’d have to test at least three recipes to get an accurate sense of the book… multiply that by the dozen-plus books he probably sees on his desk every week, and one of his job duties (reading, writing, or cooking) is likely to fall by the wayside.
It just seems easier to skim the press release that the publicist sent over, flip through the book to note important things like recipe clarity and image quality, and then formulate a blurb on his first impressions. Perhaps not a true “review,” but a legit write-up nonetheless.
So, are cookbook reviews by major media simply overhyped? Should you take them with, er, a grain of salt?
In her post, Dianne Jacob pointed to an instance where a highly-touted, hotly-praised cookbook (a New York Times bestseller, no less, and featured in heavy hitters like Vanity Fair and Food Network) was actually a mess of a book, full of untested recipes and unrealistic photos. (And by unrealistic, I mean photos that were obviously not created from the corresponding recipes.)
It was called out in a one-star Amazon review from a prominent, award-winning chef (ouch!) and confirmed by blogger Christine Gilbert, who posted the disastrous (and hilarious) results of her recipe testing… for guacamole. A very, very basic guacamole found in the book. She went so far as saying it was “The Worst Mexican Cookbook in the World,” and while I can appreciate her honesty, I can also breathe a sigh of relief that it wasn’t my book!
As a fledgling author, I’m thrilled and thankful for all the kudos given to The CSA Cookbook since its release. My book was mentioned in Audrey, Edible, Where Women Cook, Clean Eating, Honest Cooking, Northern Virginia, Publishers Weekly, Statesman Journal, The Press Democrat, Heritage Radio Network, and a host of other media outlets in the last year. Whether those writers actually tried any of my recipes, I’ll never know — but I certainly hope someone in the office did, eventually, even if the book was passed down to an intern or a friend.
But after reading those thoughts from Dianne and Christine, I’m even more thankful for the reviews posted by readers on Amazon and the reviews from my cookbook ambassadors, all of whom took the time to try a recipe and write about it.
These aren’t seasoned food writers or professionally trained chefs. They’re everyday home cooks, or people learning how to cook, and their personal experiences in the kitchen are the truest test of whether my cookbook might be right for you.
I should add that every single recipe in The CSA Cookbook was tested at least twice by myself, and multiple times by my recipe testers (friends of varying skill levels in all types of kitchens). Some were even tested outside on camp stoves! If a recipe can pass that kind of test, where conditions are as unpredictable as the weather, well… I take that as a good sign. As mentioned in my behind-the-scenes post, every recipe was cooked exactly as instructed and photographed without any tricks of the food styling trade. What you see is what you get, charred edges and all.
If you’ve cooked from The CSA Cookbook, I hope you’ll consider leaving a review on Amazon to help other readers get a better feel for the book.
And if you haven’t been convinced to buy a copy yet, here are a few reviews from around the blogosphere (some of whom were sent a complimentary book, none of whom were expected to give a good review — just an honest one). If anything, maybe this list will introduce you to a new favorite blog!
If you tried one of my recipes on your blog and I missed your post, please share the link in the comments section. I’d love to hear how it turned out for you!