Book Club Tuesday: Food 52, The Piglet, & Cookbook Criticism

Now that I have a few posts under my belt and I can see that they’re being read (btw thank you so much! I appreciate you taking the time to stop by!!) I think a lot about whether what I post will encourage/discourage people from buying a particular cookbook. With cookbooks (and books in general) rising in price every day I get a slight shutter (feeling like my subjectivity will cause a person to waste their money) when I wonder if people are happy with the cookbooks they’re purchasing? Maybe I  think about cookbooks and cooking waaaay too much. That being said, It’s one of my favourite times of year on the web — Food 52‘s The Piglet competition is beginning! While reading over the list of cookbooks chosen for the 2016 tournament, the way they choose cookbooks has me reflecting on how I choose my own cookbooks. It also has me reflecting on how much merit I give to online reviews, cookbook criticisms, and what role I play by writing my own reviews.

I know, that for the most part, I’m pretty happy with my cookbook selections. Excuse the quality of the photo below, but it’s a quick snap of my kitchen counter which is usually strewn with cookbooks, printouts of recipes, cooking mags, culinary-themed books, etc. (you get the picture!). Amazon is where I usually pick up my cookbooks (Clean Cakes just arrived last week, yay!), yet as of late I’ve been turning to places like Home Sense (I picked up my copy of Seven Spoons there for $9.99 CDN ) and Value Village (totally willing to take a chance on Sophie Dahl’s Very Fond of Food at $4.99) in order to get more value for my money.

Usually before I buy any cookbook my first move is to read through the reviews on Amazon, and while it may seem strange, I actually read the worst reviews first. I feel like if what’s written is a deal-breaker for me (especially when it sounds like little care was taken to ensure recipes were tested before the book was printed) I won’t buy it. I hate wasting food, time, and money! Then I’ll go on to the glowing reviews. It’s like being on Trip Adviser — you can usually tell the genuine criticism from the cranky missives of internet trolls. For the most part the reviews on Amazon are great indicators of what to expect from any given book.

My other go-to site for comparative analysis of popular cookbooks is Food 52. For the past 7 years they’ve run a cookbook contest-competition called The Piglet. Cookbooks and judges are chosen, then each judge is given a pair of cookbooks to compare and review. At the end of each pairing a winner is declared, then the winner is paired with a winner from another pairing. Using this “bracket system” an ultimate winner is finally chosen after many rounds. I find the whole thing really fascinating and I like reading what others think and feel on any one particular cookbook. TBH I love Food 52 — the community, recipes, the wealth of culinary knowledge there — but I find myself loving The Piglet less and less.

You see, during the 2015 Piglet there was a judgment made against Mimi Thorisson’s A Kitchen in France and I think like many people I felt like the judge (Adam Roberts) made the critique personal by needlessly mocking Thorisson’s life and how she portrays it in the cookbook. (If you want to read more about the controversy Lottie + Doof has a great piece or even Eater has some thoughtful things to say). I, for one, really enjoy Thorisson’s blog and was a bit taken aback by what he had to say about her, her cookbook, and her life in general. Lively discussion is great, so is constructive criticism but at that time I felt unhappy that something that should be interesting and fun should become so negative. Not meaning to dwell in the past but I feel like what was said on Lottie +Doof : “Part of constructive criticism is not making it personal, which I am guessing is part of what made Thorisson uncomfortable with Roberts’ review. It was no longer about the work, and became about her and her life. Roberts could have done a better job of explaining why her book was alienating some readers and Thorisson could have done a better job of explaining why this criticism felt gendered to her. But regardless of all of that, Food52 had no business getting involved in this argument. Instead of encouraging the discourse they tried to shut it down. They clearly took sides, our friend not that woman. They revealed that they weren’t as interested in honest discourse as they had lead us to believe. It undermines the spirit of the Piglet and it reflects this general problem” is rearing it’s ugly head again.

One of the first pairings of The Piglet 2016 is The Violet Bakery Cookbook and A Girl and Her Greens. After reading Klam’s comparison of these books I was surprised at the winner: The Violet Bakery Cookbook. My surprise stems solely from the fact that based on several reviews I read on Amazon, I decided not to purchase this book because there seemed to be discrepancies between amounts and directions, which resulted in some really disappointing outcomes for a few home cooks (see here and here). So I expected that Klam’s comparison might address these points, especially if she was trying some of the recipes. But her review was pretty glowing and clearly she did not experience any problems (I did find it interesting that people in the comments section did note similar problems to the ones experienced by those Amazon reviewers). It was all fine, I shrugged my shoulders and went on with life.

Then I read this post by The Piglet Editor and Co-Founder — I felt like they were defensive because there were many comments criticizing their pairing of these cookbooks, choosing Klam as a judge, to the tone of Klam’s comparison. I think that everyone is entitled to an opinion but when someone denies another person’s opinion because it’s deemed they don’t “get it” is wrong. It makes me feel icky (because it seems like they’re trying to “troll-ify” any comments they don’t like) and I guess what I expect from the writers at Food 52 is not to get defensive but to take into account criticism that is offered humbly and genuinely even if they don’t like it. It also reminded me of the trouble that went on over Roberts’ post last year. For something that should be enjoyable it seems like there is too much explaining going on. That being said, it sounds to me like they’re taking sides again by trying to justify their choices or their judge’s writing.

Personally I think it’s okay if some readers don’t like Klam’s humor. I know that from week to week I try to make my reviews interesting and it may be that my humor (or attempts at it) fall flat. I would hope that people wouldn’t take what I write too personally because for whatever else I try my best to show why I like any given cookbook. You’ll never find negative reviews here because I’m writing about books that I regularly use and cook from. So I’ll try to take this year’s Piglet with a grain of salt and enjoy it for what it should be: entertaining and interesting.

 

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