As we contemplate turning 25, and celebrating that fact, we paused for a moment to look at the past quarter century in food: the food revolution, the global pantry, the local artisanal movement, the rise of the superstar chef, and not to mention the nutrition (and diet) fads that have come and thankfully, gone. Through it all, cookbooks have chronicled the popular food trends, and many a tree has fallen. Despite society’s rapid migration to the digital world, cooks continue to buy books, even in the face of the worst economic downturn this generation has seen.
So it got us curious. What is it with cooks and their books? In our quest to answer this question, we decided to pick our favorite 100 books of the past 25 years. To build our list of candidates, we looked at all the bestseller and awards lists, talked to editors, authors and other experts. For consideration, books had to have been published in the US since 1987 (or at least be available in an English language version), and either still be in print or easily available through online ordering.
We gathered stacks of books and put each one through an initial round of review by a small committee. The stand-outs were put through to the next round. Books were fanned out to members of the food staff who read carefully through the pages and actually cooked from each contender. We believe that a winning book needs to clearly state and deliver on its mission. And recipes have to work. Most important rule: no tinkering with the recipes—they need to stand or fall on their own merits. Also important: The author’s voice needs to persist throughout, like the main flavor of a dish. We were interested in accuracy and appeal to the current cook: If two books were similar, the more up-to-date (the one that addresses sustainability in a seafood section, for example) would be awarded bonus points. Kitchen tips, tricks, entertaining anecdotes, and other helpful info made a difference with other books. And finally, because we wanted a list relevant to the widest possible audience of cooks, we asked ourselves: Who would you give this book to? And the answer to this question proved to be vital in building the most versatile list for each category.
In the end our judging criteria was at once objective and subjective. Objective in that we designed a weighted numerical scale to judge each book. But subjective in that some of the most persuasive arguments were based on emotions or memories evoked by the author’s voice or the recipes or a combination. Winners emerged after a lot of passionate debate about voice, originality, beauty, importance: deliciousness, in other words.
We’ll reveal our list of Top 100 Cookbooks, a category at a time, over the coming months. Let us know what you think of our selections. Share your own successes or failures with our favorite books, and let’s keep the conversation going.