Simon Thibault is your guide to some of the season’s hottest new cookbooks
A cookbook’s general purpose is to inspire the reader to cook. It does so by convincing them to try new techniques or guide them into new flavour territories.
Although that may sound easy, for the author it’s actually incredibly difficult. Each reader has unique circumstances that may or may not lead them to pick up your book, let alone cook from it. Your job is to be a populist, yet focus on a very specific topic and audience.
In the case of Krista McLellan’s World Food For Student Cooks, Wendy McCallum’s No More Junk Food and Michael Smith’s Real Food, Good Food, the goal is to get you to understand how easy it is to get food on your table from your own hands, rather than through someone else’s – like Big Food.
She wants you to enjoy cooking with tofu, legumes and whole grains – not only because they’re healthy, but also because she promises that they will be tasty, filling and cheap. In other words, things that are important to a student on a tight budget. Although I think readers and eaters may eventually find restaurant and region/culture-specific versions of the recipes to be arguably better, McLellan is looking to open the door to amateur chefs to the wide world of flavours and cooking techniques. And she does this in an easy-to-follow manner.
On the other side of the spectrum, McCallum’s book aims for parents who are probably exhausted by fussy eaters as well as their own sense of right and wrong when it comes to what goes into their children’s bodies. With a subtitle of “80+ delicious recipes to replace popular processed foods,” she doesn’t hold back on her mission statement. It’s an admirable position but not necessarily a popular one.
McCallum works hard to keep readers attentions and appetites, even when she is essentially recreating (with an overabundance of exclamation points on every recipe!) reasonably tasty facsimiles of foods your kids will probably be asking you for. I have to admit my own eye-rolling bias to her use of the word “natural” in her argument towards cooking foods, but if I were a parent of kids, I’d also have a really hard time debating the merits of pre-made meals and snacks when I felt like I had no time.
McCallum sticks to her guns to re-teach parents that cooking can be done in less time than one may think and gives actionable tips on how to teach kids about food from a playful yet educational manner. I sympathize with her desire to keep kids away from sugar-laden foodstuffs and although I think substitutions are often painful reminders of what someone isn’t having – I’m looking at you sunflower-seed butter – McCallum shines when her recipes offer substantial meals and practical cooking information for both parents and kids.
In food television, there is a term known as “dump and stir” – where one dumps ingredients into bowl, stirs it up and then serves the delicious food to the camera and the audience. It’s easy, it’s relatable and you can do it too. Michael Smith is Canada’s king of the dump and stir – that’s not a criticism. His ideology towards cooking is an act of subversion and a gentle kick in the pants to the masses who watch food television, reminding them that they too can cook what he is making. If I can do it in front of you, you can do it too.
Even without Smith’s voice coming at us through a screen, his voice is still there in the words on the page: familiar and familial, with a touch of the tutor. The allure of Smith’s cookbooks – and the cookbooks of most celebrity chefs – is that we place an inherent amount of trust in what they put out.
Thankfully, with Smith that trust is not misplaced, at least insofar as the information that is presented to the reader. He is smart in listing off, at the beginning of the book, what foodstuffs you can buy and why you should buy them. Again, I will admit some bias towards the word “real” but I think this is more a question of marketability and digestibility – the term “real food” is an easier sell than the old granola-esque “whole foods.” And I get it – Smith wants you to understand the value or making your own food, not only from a nutritional perspective but also from a perspective of knowledge. Meals do taste better when we make them ourselves, even the failed ones.
All three of these books want their readers to understand the intrinsic values in cooking for oneself, whether they be health-based, financial or educational. Not everyone feels comfortable or feels like they are being spoken to with such classics as The Joy Of Cooking. Today’s reader is as varied as the options available to them. With books like these narrowing the path for them, there may well be more cooks in the kitchen.