A Recipe for Good Cookbook Reviewing

Photo courtesy of Justin Bernhaut

Becoming a cookbook reviewer is a great job for a cookbook lover, particularly one, who has gained experience by reading actively. (“Actively,” as opposed to passively, means you have read many books and assembled enough knowledge to enable you to make informed comparisons with similar books in specific genres.)

In a way, you are a first cousin to a restaurant reviewer. Both require you, the critic, to have good taste, an understanding of food and the business, and the ability to write well.

Every critic brings a personal perspective to the task. One judge’s opinion may be swayed by the celebrity of the author, while another my have a bias against celebrity and be seduced by impeccable scholarship.

It is obviously unethical for a vegetarian to pass judgment on a book devoted to grilling steaks.

The marketability and sales potential doesn’t or shouldn’t have any part in the decision making.

Honesty is an imperative.

If an author declares a recipe can be prepared in 15 minutes, the critic must decide whether this feat is true or possible only for an experienced cook and is beyond the realm of reality for a Mom juggling two small children, a telephone, a guest and a glass of wine.

Julia Child’s two volumes of Mastering the Art of French Cooking survive and thrive because the recipes are masterpieces of accuracy and clarity.

A conscientious cookbook reviewer tests several recipes, and scrutinizes the index to ensure it is composed logically before rendering a final opinion.

Food Styling: The Art of Preparing Food for the Camera by Delores Custer

The reviewer should evaluate the author’s writing style. Top flight authors provide readers with personal stories and enough inspiration that they will want to race to the kitchen immediately.

A cookbook reviewer should evaluate the cost and availability of the cookbook ingredients, and offer an objective view on the overall value of the book itself. Delores Custer’s new book, Food Styling: The Art of Preparing Food for the Camera, is $75.00 (On Amazon, it’s $47.25.) Expensive? Yes. But worth its weight in gold for a professional in this field.

Too many cookbook critics feel their role encompasses the need to inform the reader that their knowledge of a specific cuisine is superior to that of the author. They spend far too much time expressing their own views before getting around to the evaluating the work of the author.

A cookbook writer may have spent years writing a book so it is essential that it receives careful consideration — not the tossing off of a vapid opinion after a desultory flipping of pages and a mere glance at the photographs.

A good cookbook reviewer, (and anyone about to buy the book), should read the author’s introduction. It will provide an effective way to assess the author’s objective and a map to determine if the goal has been scored.

The importance of the concluding paragraph of the cookbook review is surpassed only by that of the opening lines. Don’t let your report stop abruptly as though you had nothing more to say. Your final words let your reader know your opinion decisively. It’s not O.K. to damn it with faint praise. If you want to damn it, damn it! “Boring” is not too strong a word to use.

Even when a book review is afforded a mere 20 words, it can still have significant impact on capturing a reader’s attention. Here are a couple of great examples from Newsweek:

Simple Pleasures by Alfred Portale

“In Fast Food My Way, one of the world’s most honored chefs, PBS star, Jacques Pepin encourages ‘baking’ potatoes in a microwave.”

“In his book, Simple Pleasures, Alfred Portale pares his complex cuisine to the basics. Who knew making roast cod with escargot butter could be this easy?”

The fastest way to get started as a cookbook reviewer is to blog exclusively on the topic of cookbooks. You can ask for review copies from publishers or publicists. You will easily find their addresses online. Eventually you may automatically be placed on their mailing lists.

You must use your own distinctive voice to develop a readership of your own. (The competition online and off is stiff.) But don’t be afraid to say what you think.

Do not heed the advice of E.M. Forster who said, “I don’t know what I think until I hear what I say.”

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