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ANNUAL HOLIDAY COOKBOOK ISSUE : Small Packages : Is Less More in a Cookbook? An exploration od This Years Tiny Tomes

November 30, 1995|MICHELLE HUNEVEN

I was given my first little cookbook about 10 years ago.

I had picked up a pasta machine at a garage sale with a friend, and when my birthday rolled around a few days later, this friend included in her gifts to me a tiny book on making and saucing homemade pasta. A slim four-inch-by-five-inch paperback, it was just slightly fatter and better bound than a stapled pamphlet.

I needed it. I used it. I loved it. It was a great gift.

Of course, I lost it. It was so small it slipped through a crack.

Today, as I write, I have around 30 little cookbooks spread out before me. The largest are eight by eight inches, the smallest 2 3/4 by 3 3/4 inches. Stacked in a wobbly tower, they reach 14 inches.

Some focus on one ingredient, like basil or carrots. Others offer variations on a theme, like tea drinks, low-fat muffins or canapes.

There are timely books: one on cold weather foods, another on Jewish holidays. Still other books address cravings: for something sweet, for something spicy or for midnight snacks. A few seem to exist for no good reason at all.

In the last two years, most major publishers have dipped a toe in the little-cookbook market, enlisting well-regarded food writers to take on these small, focused projects.

Little cookbooks seem to be the descendants of the single-subject pamphlets, put out by the Beef Board or the California Citrus Council, that my mother collected in the '50s. She had pamphlets on beef, pork, candy making, cocktails, hors d'oeuvres, etc.

The good ones (i.e., the ones not tied to ersatz cheese spreads or one brand of rum) contained in-depth information. They were handy and helpful and, because they were usually a form of advertising, they were also zippy and beguiling, especially to a child.

Never mind that back then, food photography was fairly unevolved--often murky, sometimes downright unappetizing. I found these little recipe collections far less intimidating than my mother's bulky, picture-free "Settlement Cookbook." Another thing these ad pamphlets had going for them was price: They were usually free, or almost free ("send $1 for postage and handling").

The little cookbooks I have here today are not free. They range from $4.95 to $15--and cooks resist them for that reason. I recently asked nearly all the cooks I know whether they would ever by a little cookbook for themselves and the answer was a universal, resounding no. Some of the negatives were based on a prejudice that bigger is better. "I stick to a few large, comprehensive cookbooks," said one cook, "and little cookbooks seem specialized, pricey, not something I'd use."

Another cook brought up a functional problem with many little cookbooks: "I like a cookbook that stays open." She's right. Unless you mutilate the spines on some of these little books (especially some of the tall, rectangular ones), the pages insist on fanning shut. By the time you weigh it down with a sack of sugar, you've covered the whole darn page.

"I probably wouldn't buy one, no," said still another cook, who actually owns six or seven diminutive volumes. "They're not economically feasible. I don't want to spend that much for the one or two recipes I'll actually use. I'll put my money into a 'Joy of Cooking' or 'The Way to Cook.'

"But I do like little cookbooks. They're fun. I gave my mother one on bread making when she got her bread machine, and she loves it. I would never have bought it for myself. They're more entertaining than useful, although I have cooked at least one thing from every one I own."

If many cooks are hesitant to plunk down household funds for small single-subject books, the publishing industry has finessed this pecuniary reluctance by targeting not the cook but the cook's family, friends, guests. Most, if not all, little cookbooks are sold as gifts. Placed near cash registers in gourmet shops and bookstores, these pretty, alluring objects sell like the proverbial hot cakes.

"They're bought as mementos," says a cheese shop owner.

"They're stocking stuffers," says a bookstore clerk.

"When I'm going over to someone's house, they're cheaper and last longer than a good bottle of wine," says a bookstore customer.

Whether cooks like little books or not, they will probably get some. And the very smallness and cuteness may beguile them into reading them, if not into trying out a recipe.

In this sense, little cookbooks may actually prove more immediately useful than those big old manuals. Last Christmas, I gave Richard Sax's encyclopedic and wonderful "Classic Home Desserts" to an avid cook. It took her ten months to crack it open and actually start cooking from it. A few weeks ago, I gave her a little cookbook on sweets. In a day or so, she'd read the whole thing and brought me some molasses spice cookies from one of the book's recipes.

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