I love to read a good book review, one that’s full of insights tinged with humor and sometimes, a bit of well deserved snark. T. Susan Chang is one of the few professional cookbook reviewers in the United States. You may know her work from National Public Radio, the Boston Globe, or her website. She takes every book to task, testing recipes and evaluating the merits of each work on a variety of levels. Susan’s got twelve (12!) years of professional experience to back her up, plus a solid knowledge of cookbooks that goes back further yet.
You may not agree with Susan on all of her calls but you don’t have to. Like all excellent reviewers, she lays out her deep assessment so that you can form yours. She recently released a nifty phone app called CookShelf. It’s a cookbook rating app—available for iPhone and Android —that’s extremely thorough and handy for whether you're shopping or just catching up on what's out there.
I bought the $2.99 app, and after reading through a number of reviews (she adds content regularly too so you’re buying into a lifetime subscription, of sorts), I had questions to ask Susan about the art and craft of reviewing cookbooks. Read on and if you’ve got an iPhone, enter the giveaway; sorry, there are no Android giveaway codes available.
Physical cookbooks are famously robust sellers. I think I recently heard that biographies and cookbooks are the only growing categories in the publishing industry. If that's the case, I'm not surprised. The act of cooking from a recipe is pretty physical and stressful, and it's helpful to work from a physical book for many reasons: you can turn back and forth between pages, you can browse through recipes and compare several at a time, you have intuitive structure in the way the book's organized, so you know to go to the back for the desserts or the front for the ingredient glossary—all things you can do digitally, but it's harder. You can annotate easily, you can drop it on the floor or spill stuff on it. Cookbooks are working books.
Even when they're not working, cookbooks make great physical gifts—buying someone a bunch of online recipes just wouldn't be the same. And many are terrific reads you can take to a beach or pool and other places you don't necessarily want to subject your device to.
That said, there's a good reason for the popularity of e-cookbooks, recipe apps, online recipes. While there are some things they don't do as well as regular cookbooks, there are also things they can do better—video instruction, online sourcing, measuring conversion are examples. So, if it serves the reader for me to review online recipes and virtual cookbooks as well, I will. I'm expecting to be introducing e-cookbooks into my review process before too long. Where the market goes, CookShelf will go too.
CookShelf’s rating system is more comprehensive and complex than Amazon’s star system. How did you figure out a fair rubric for judging the books?
The rating system is the product of years of hair-pulling. From years of 10-best lists and cookbook reviews and roundups, I've had the opportunity to really ask myself what makes a great cookbook—not just for me but for other people too.
A ton of factors go into that assessment. Some affect how usable a cookbook is. Some affect how interesting it is and how durable its appeal is. Some affect how great a gift it makes. Rather than try to condense all that into one star-based rating, I decided to break out the information a bit so you can use it. The most important qualities seemed to be how truly new the cookbook is, whether it makes a good gift, what level of skill you need to use it, and how it lasts over time ("Keeper"). The only really subjective rating in CookShelf is the "Keeper" rating. That's where I go out on a limb and make an absolute value judgment - this cookbook will serve you forever, this cookbook goes out with the recycling.
But I also put a bunch of other key data points into each entry to help people weigh things they might care about—like how many recipes you get in the book, how hard it is to get the ingredients, how fast the recipes are and—a key one for many of us!—how tiny the type is.
Apps tend to entertain, inform, or inspire. What does CookShelf do best?
CookShelf's primary mission is informational. It's just plain hard to choose a cookbook, and my first job is to help. I try to make my reviews a bit like wine reviews: consistent, authoritative, and whenever possible, based on testing. Although you may not always agree with me, you know there's a baseline for my judgment. That may or may not be true when you're sifting through 100 user reviews on Amazon.
But it's also important to me that CookShelf be a good read. My style is a personal one, and I hope you'll get some insights and some laughs from each review. Still, I try very hard not to allow my affection for lively prose to lead me astray. There's a real temptation to get snarky in the review business, so I make an effort to avoid that when I'm being critical.
As to inspiration—well, I do hope CookShelf inspires people to buy more cookbook. Even though, as my friend Jane says, that makes me an enabler. But come on! a good cookbook can serve a family for 50 years! One cannot say the same for Angry Birds.
Who is the ideal CookShelf user? How would she or he use the app?
There are basically 3 kinds of CookShelf users, and they overlap a bit:
Cooks. CookShelf is an indispensable app for home cooks, the main users of cookbooks. It's a way of getting a better sense of a cookbook you're considering before you commit, and it's also a way of finding new cookbooks you might love. Whether cooking is your hobby or even your job, CookShelf helps ensure you find the "keepers" for your collection. $2.99 isn't much to get that kind of insight - and updated weekly for the foreseeable future!
Food lovers. Sometimes we just like reading the news about something we enjoy. For example, I like reading film reviews even though I don't go to the movies more than 6 times a year. They're just interesting. Same goes for cookbooks: don't you want to know how Deborah Madison's new book is shaking out? Don't you want to know what's the big fuss about the latest vegan bestseller? Don't you want to know if cupcakes are over . . . yet? That's the kind of perspective I try to provide. This kind of reader is most likely to go straight to the "Just added!" feature each week to see what's up.
Shoppers. Some will turn to CookShelf for help buying a gift. For these readers, it's a particularly powerful tool because of the filtering system. For example, you can say "I need a Skill 2—that's fairly easy—book for vegetarians (or new cooks or fans of middle Eastern food)" and CookShelf will generate a list for you to consider. Amazon won't do that for you. CookShelf is sort of like Zappos for cookbooks.
How often do you plan to update CookShelf? I seem to get new content weekly.
That's my plan—to update weekly with at least a few new reviews. So many cookbooks are constantly being published (I've heard a figure of 4000/year) that the only way to stay current is to keep on top of it every week. I choose the books I think are most interesting (which usually include the ones I'm reviewing for the Boston Globe) and the ones that seem to be the most popular, judging by the Amazon bestseller lists. I love the way having my own app lets me respond very quickly to the newest titles.
I try to finish writing my new material by Tuesday night, which is when I ask the developer to refresh. CookShelf is like my own personal Wednesday food section! This way, people can simply update and read the latest when they're making the rounds of the food pages Wednesday morning.
And, how many cookbooks do you own? How and where do you store them?
The answer, as it is for all of us, is "Too many!". I keep my cookbooks indexed on Eat Your Books, which tells me I have 919 cookbooks right now. That doesn't include the reference books or the ones in my "Give Away" bookshelf (about 200 titles right there). At least 4 times a year I winnow the books, taking out the ones that are doing nothing for me to make room for more, until all the books are off the floor and on shelves. The goal is not to have to buy more bookshelves in a given year.
I keep a store of about 80 "favorite" cookbooks - Asian Tofu is one of them!—downstairs in the kitchen. The rest are stored on the second floor of our house. My former office is all cookbooks, and our library is about half cookbooks. The first few years we lived here, we bought or made bookshelves every year. We haven't bought one in 2 years, but it's a constant battle. We live across the street from the town library, which now has the most up-to-date cookbook collection in Franklin County.
Want a free copy of Susan’s CookShelf cookbook rating app? It’s available for Android and Apple devices but the giveaway is only open to iOS users; my apologies to Android folks. If you have an iPhone, iTouch, or iPad , you can enter!
The ground rules for entering this giveaway:
- Prize: CookShelf mobile app (4 winners total)
- Who is eligible to enter: Despite the fact that the app is a download, this giveaway is open to readers in the U.S. only. The app is for the iPhone, iTouch, or iPad so you should have one of these devices, or have access to one in order to enter.
- How to enter: Simply leave a comment on this post about one of the following: What do you look for in a good cookbook? How many cookbooks do you own? Include your email address so that I can contact you directly if you win.
- Can you enter more than once? Yes, if you’re a fan of the VWK Facebook page, follow me on Twitter or have joined me on Pinterest, you can enter an extra time for each of those social media networks. If we’re buddies on all three, then shoot, you can enter 4 times. If you’re doing multiple entries, let me know who you are by including something like [FB], [Twitter], or [Pinterest] in your comment.
- Deadline to enter: Monday, June 27, noon (PST)
- Selection, notification, and claiming the app: The four winners will be randomly selected via Random.org and notified by email. The winners will be announced next Tuesday, June 28. I’ll send the winners instructions on how to claim the app from the iTunes App store. If you’d like more details, read the official giveaway rules.