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Cookbook Trouble : When Good Recipes Go Bad

August 04, 1994|KATHIE JENKINS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

"Smart chefs realize that the easiest cookbook to use is the Yellow Pages and the handiest appliance in the kitchen is the telephone. With it, you can turn out more delicious meals than with your oven, your broiler, your blender, and all your pots and pans combined." --"Miss Piggy's Guide to Life"

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Tracy Jackson Templeton started on crabcakes right after lemon tarts. Before that it was meatloaf, meatloaf, meatloaf. Meatloaf every night until she made a great meatloaf.

As an avid cook--she has more than 70 cookbooks and still buys about three a month--her hobby is to keep trying recipes until she finds the one that will lead to perfection. The perfect meatloaf came from "Gene Hovis's Uptown Down Home Cookbook." The perfect lemon tart was from Patricia Wells' "Bistro Cooking."

Earlier this evening in her Los Angeles kitchen, Templeton attempted to make the perfect crabcakes: "Aunt Freddie's Crabcakes" from "Lee Bailey's City Food." The recipe called for canned evaporated low-fat milk, stale bread, eggs, butter, crabmeat. Sounds great, she thought, and followed it exactly.

Uh huh.

"They were soggy little balls of yuck," says Templeton. "Even my husband wouldn't touch them, which is really amazing. They were too disgusting. I had to throw them out." (The Times Test Kitchen tried the recipe and got similar results. See H10.)

Templeton, a film and television writer who owns all of Bailey's books, won't cook from "City Food" again. "His books are beautiful," she says, "the pictures are great." And she still thinks the desserts in his other books are fabulous.

The crab cake disaster comes as no surprise to Ellen Rose, owner of the Cook's Library, Los Angeles' only all-cookbook shop. "More than half the books in my store have at least one recipe in them that doesn't work," says Rose, who stocks about 4,300 books.

John Taylor, who owns a culinary bookstore in South Carolina and wrote "Hoppin' John's Lowcountry Cooking," puts it more bluntly: "If I only sold books where the recipes work, I wouldn't have any books on my shelves."

"It's a scandalous situation," adds Pat Adrian, who buys all the cookbooks for Book-of-the-Month Club. "Customers in good faith assume that recipes are put through the rigid standards of a test kitchen."

Although she won't name names ("I couldn't possibly because the publishers also put out very fine books and I could really wreck things for myself"), there are at least half a dozen writers who regularly turn out cookbooks that Adrian refuses to buy. "I wouldn't even call them cookbooks," she says, "I'd call them product."

"Books in Print" listed almost 800 cookbooks published last year, and there will certainly be more next year. Cookbooks were estimated by the Book Industry Study Group, a trade association, to make up 11% of all U.S. book sales, forecast for this year to hit $18.6 billion.

And those figures were estimated before the release of Rosie Daley's low-fat book, "In the Kitchen With Rosie." According to its publisher, Alfred A. Knopf, the book of recipes Daley created for talk-show queen Oprah Winfrey is the fastest-selling book-- not cookbook--in publishing history. In its 23rd printing, the book has sold 5 million copies since its release in May.

For cookbook authors, slaving over a test kitchen stove can pay big dividends: The most popular personalities can earn hundreds of thousands of dollars for each book. Added to this are revenues from product endorsements, consulting fees, sponsorships, television shows and video cassettes.

Or, in the case of style czarina Martha Stewart, your very own magazine. She started out as a Connecticut caterer, wrote the book "Entertaining," and parlayed that into a reported $2-million empire--plus a stream of royalties from television shows, videos, CDs and all those Martha Stewart products sold at Kmart.

A famous name on a cookbook, though, is no guarantee that the recipes work. "Nobody in their right mind buys a Martha Stewart book for a recipe," says Hoppin' John Taylor. "They buy them for her ideas and great pictures. If a recipe works in a Martha Stewart book, it's somebody else's."

"That quote sounds like somebody in the cookbook business who wrote a book and it didn't sell," responds Stewart's long-time publicist, Susan Magrino. "I think those are just some sour grapes."

The Los Angeles Times Test Kitchen knows all too well how many imperfect cookbooks there are. Most recipes are tested before running in the Food Section. And we often run across flaws and inconsistencies in cookbook recipes--bits and pieces left out, and dishes that just don't taste very good.

Of course, we have to admit, sometimes the mistakes are in recipes that we develop ourselves--sometimes it's an error in typing up the recipe; occasionally, it's a lapse in judgment.

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