Cookbooks Are About More Than Just Food Now

The new ethos of recipe collections elevates them beyond how-to manuals: Your weekly guide to the best in books

A golden book with a pat of butter melting on top of it, resembling a pancake
Getty; The Atlantic

Home chefs, whether of Great British Bake Off caliber or not, can turn to an abundance of cookbooks to guide their kitchen projects. But the recipe manuals of today are not those of the past. In A History of Cookbooks: From Kitchen to Page Over Seven Centuries, the historian Henry Notaker traces how recipe collections have evolved. In 15th- and 16th-century Western Europe, cookbooks were demonstrations of luxury, targeting an upper-class audience with access to rare and expensive goods. But over the centuries, as printing became easier, literacy rates increased, and food became more abundant, the genre democratized, becoming available to all sorts of people. By the 20th century, popular writers were primarily developing recipes for the European and American middle classes.

Over the past 10 years or so, cookbooks have expanded their remit, complicating narratives, changing ideas of what counts as cooking, and turning authors into influencers. Some chefs have added a historical dimension to their writing, spotlighting people and regions that were previously overlooked or erased. In The Arabesque Table, Reem Kassis explores culinary evolution across the Arab world. The book emphasizes the idea that, as she wrote recently in The Atlantic, there is no such thing as a stable, pure national cuisine. Provisions: The Roots of Caribbean Cooking similarly serves recipes alongside a course correction. Its authors, the sisters Michelle and Suzanne Rousseau, highlight the contributions of enslaved African women to the food heritage of the Caribbean, including how they and their ancestors innovated dishes using beloved ingredients such as cassava and plantains.

Other writers are forgoing fussy techniques and letting readers into their lives. In Cooking at Home: Or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying About Recipes (And Love My Microwave), the chefs Priya Krishna and David Chang collaborate to help people at every level of kitchen skills. They lay out “recipes-that-aren’t-really-recipes” based on intuition, personalization, and experimentation—and take advantage of frozen vegetables and microwaves, both of which would have been verboten in many cooking guides of the past. And Ina Garten’s Cooking for Jeffrey is as much an essay collection as it is a cookbook. Readers and viewers of Garten’s Barefoot Contessa have become obsessed with her marriage to Jeffrey, a Yale economist, and this book balances that infatuation with its musings about food, acknowledging the Gartens as a celebrity power couple.

Every Friday in the Books Briefing, we thread together Atlantic stories on books that share similar ideas. Know other book lovers who might like this guide? Forward them this email.

When you buy a book using a link in this newsletter, we receive a commission. Thank you for supporting The Atlantic.


What We’re Reading

A painting of a man wearing a crown drinking

Barney Burstein / Corbis / VCG via Getty

A 600-year history of cookbooks as status symbols
“As new ideas formed about equality, democracy, and social stratification, presenting certain books as best suited for rich or for poor was no longer considered effective marketing, but culinary literature nonetheless has borne class markers for as long as it has existed.”


A plate with different types of food on it, including pizza and soup

Getty; The Atlantic

National cuisine is a useful illusion
“Every nation’s culinary lineage is both regionally specific and indelibly influenced by trade, migration, and conquest. Now, eight years after having my first child, I finally understand that even though national cuisine is a social construct, it can be a useful one.”


Vegetables, fruit, grains, and spices

Wallace Kirkland / The Life Picture Collection / Getty

Uncovering the roots of Caribbean cooking
“The Rousseaus draw a definitive line connecting the foods of survival from the past to their present iterations as delicacies.”


A person cracks an egg into a bowl

Catherine Falls / Getty

How home cooks work smarter, not harder
“I think we need to stop obsessing over what counts as cooking … In this age of Instagram and making food look beautiful and promoting an aspirational lifestyle, we’ve kind of abandoned the value of practicality.”


Ina and Jeffrey Garten

Amy Sussman / Invision / AP

The old-fashioned, modern marriage of Ina and Jeffrey
Cooking for Jeffrey’s cookbookishness—its recipes, its lists of Contessa-recommended pantry items, its vaguely voyeuristic photographs of scattered radishes—is supplemented by bookishness of a more literary strain … Mostly, though, the author makes arguments about Jeffrey.”


About us: This week’s newsletter is written by Tori Latham. The book she most recently enjoyed was A Gentleman in Moscow, by Amor Towles.

Comments, questions, typos? Reply to this email to reach the Books Briefing team.

Did you get this newsletter from a friend? Sign yourself up.