Why Americans Are Hungry for Cookbooks

Why Americans Are Hungry for Cookbooks

Cookbooks are easier to reference than a small smartphone screen.

SourceSilvia Rico/Getty

Why you should care

Sales of these books are on the rise in the U.S., influenced by celebrity authors, trendy diets and a little nostalgia. 

YouTube creator Allisen Byrd sits in front of the camera in her bedroom with a large package on her lap. “I just got the Magnolia Table cookbook,” she says excitedly. “I’m gonna show you what it feels like to open it!” She tears open the box and does a close-up on HGTV star Joanna Gaines’ brand-new cookbook, lovingly running her fingers along the thickly bound spine. Byrd, 29, flips through the pages, ogling over the weight of the book, the beautiful food photography and personal notes from Gaines throughout. “I never buy cookbooks,” Byrd says. “This is something I wanted for myself because all her recipes have been so comfortable.”

Byrd’s fondness for Magnolia Table isn’t exclusive to YouTube stars or even millennials. Despite the popularity of food blogs, cooking videos and meal-kit delivery services, Americans are increasingly buying good old-fashioned cookbooks. Five years ago, managing editor at Digg, L.V. Anderson, predicted the death of cookbooks. “Print cookbooks offer nothing that apps, e-books, and websites can’t,” Anderson wrote in a feature for Slate. But Anderson was wrong.

In the first half of 2018 alone, U.S. cookbook sales rose 21 percent year on year, according to data from market research firm NPD Group.

And the best-selling book in the culinary category for 2018 so far? Joanna Gaines’ Magnolia Table, of course, which as of July had sold more than 676,000 copies. Gaines and husband Chip gained popularity from their HGTV show Fixer Upper, which ended its run this year. But the husband-and-wife duo has built a lifestyle empire that continues to grow. In addition to the cookbook, they released an entire Magnolia home and lifestyle brand.

The Gaineses aren’t the only celebrities to take their fame and neatly package it in a personalized recipe collection. Of Amazon’s current top 50 best-selling cookbooks, eight of them are written by celebrities, including Chrissy Teigen, who, at the time of this writing, takes the #5 spot for Cravings: Hungry for More, and the #10 spot for Cravings: Recipes for All The Food You Want to Eat. Reese Witherspoon is at #6 for Whiskey in a Teacup, and Snoop Dogg is at #37 for From Crook to Cook. These books do more than just teach people how to cook, they offer comfort and charisma from the author as well. “My grandmother Dorothea always said that it was a combination of beauty and strength that made Southern women ‘whiskey in a teacup,’” Witherspoon, who grew up in Nashville, Tennessee, writes in her introduction. “We may be delicate and ornamental on the outside […] but inside we’re strong and fiery.”

jens instantpot

For some though, cookbooks aren’t about celebrity appeal – they’re about trying recipes from trusted sources. “I started really getting into buying and cooking from cookbooks when I realized I could attempt to recreate some of my favorite dishes from the restaurants I love,” says Hunter Meyer, an events associate in San Francisco. One of Meyer’s favorites is Zahav, by Michael Solomonov, head chef of Zahav restaurant in Philadelphia. Meyer also thinks cookbook popularity has to do with an increasing desire for physical things in a digital world. “I think it’s a similar trend to the rise in record player and vinyl sales,” he says. “Some things are more fulfilling when you can actually hold them in your hand […] and it appeals to our thirst for nostalgia.”

Another reason behind the rise of the cookbook: specialist appliances like Instant Pot and the Air Fryer. Cookbooks with recipes that utilize small food prep appliances like these saw an 84 percent sales increase so far this year, NPD reported. Paula Deen’s Air Fryer Cookbook, another Amazon best-seller, is a combination of two juggernaut genres — a celebrity cookbook combined with Air Fryer recipes. What you won’t find in Deen’s book, though, are trendy diet recipes. The ketogenic diet and other similar eating regimens that have gained popularity in recent years have also spurred cookbook purchases.

But the trend has begun to slow somewhat. “I think we’re seeing the market start to correct itself,” says NPD Books analyst Allison Risbridger. “The success of multi-cookers and Air Fryers this holiday season will be a determining factor of the growth in cookbooks next year,” she says. “We can bet on diet and celebrity cookbooks but it takes an additional phenomenon to drive the kind of growth we’ve seen thus far.”

Sometimes though, using a cookbook in the kitchen comes down to pure logistics. ”Cookbooks are easier to reference than a small smartphone screen,” Meyer says. “And having my laptop open in the kitchen when I’m cooking makes me nervous!”

Gif by Jens Mortensen

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