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VPR's coverage of arts and culture in the region.

Labun Jordan: Cook Books

The great thing about working in a bookstore is that all day you’re surrounded by books - classic novels, experimental fiction, memoirs by notable people, books explaining the universe, books that won the Pulitzer prize, cookbooks… I’m in it for the cookbooks.

Now, it must be said that I’ve never actually followed a recipe in one of these books. Instructions really aren’t my thing. But that’s okay, because I’m not reading for the recipes. I’m reading for the chance to look at the world through someone else’s eyes. Cookbooks can go well beyond recipes - into the realm of memoir, perhaps, or offering extended science lessons. Sean Brock’s debut cookbook Heritage is a study of Southern culinary traditions. Pastry chef Dominique Ansel opens his book with a rumination on how to capture a perfect moment in time. Deborah Madison weaves in botany and gardening. Cookbooks can tell us what it’s like to start a business, or grow up in a different culture.

My favorite cookbooks do what any great nonfiction does - they pull readers into another person’s perspective - hopefully an interesting one.

These cookbooks are also part of a larger context - they show how book content is evolving, often as a response to changes in other technologies.

For example, simply collecting recipes isn’t enough - the Internet is a very efficient collector of recipes, and to find a particular recipe, that’s usually where I go. Adding in a chef, or engaging home cook, to curate those recipes isn’t enough either - blogs do the same thing and have the potential for endless updates. Cookbooks, though, build a narrative, crafted to bring the reader into the book’s world, whether that means smuggling recipes from underground restaurants in Cuba or learning what people in Paris eat for everyday meals. They often use gorgeous photography to enhance their stories. They’re built and, importantly, revised to make a coherent whole. They lead me to settle into an armchair and read peacefully, focused and uninterrupted, for an evening. In short, they are books.

So, yes, my use of online media to find recipes is growing, while the number of cookbooks I read is also growing. In this genre, old and new technologies are complementing each other, nudging each other to stake out unique territory. Today’s cookbook authors may not be the first to emphasize story, or delve into writing that can border on the literary, but writing in the context of coexisting digital and print media is new. A balance where each platform has a place is what most of traditional publishing is searching for. As a reader, that’s what I want too. And I’ll continue to look for it - in the cookbook section.

Helen Labun has worked in Vermont nonprofits addressing issues in rural economic development. Today, she is Executive Director of the Vermont Fresh Network, connecting chefs to Vermont farmers in support of the local food economy.
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