Thoughts on The Essential James Beard Cookbook

When I gave my thoughts on James Beard’s Theory and Practice of Good Cooking, the focus of my thoughts on that book were – this is a solid template on how to write about cooking, and some of the guidance is good, but the passage of time has hindered the utility of some of these recipes. In 2012, The Essential James Beard Cookbook was published – collecting approximately 450 recipes from Beard’s writing and collecting it together into one book, with additional notes and sidebars addressing the passage of time – so I decided to check the book out.

The book cover of The Essential James Beard

First things first – one of the things The Essential James Beard gets right is it starts off fully aware of the almost 30 years since Beard passed, and what this meant culinarily. That there are herbs available in grocery stores, both fresh and dried, that were not available outside of specialty stores when Beard was writing. Same with various spices – not to mention chiles of all shapes, sizes, and Scoville ratings, both fresh and dried. Even there, things have progressed further, with the safety around pork production (for example) meaning that the minimum safe-doneness level for pork has moved from an internal temperature of 160 to 145 F.

Consequently, a lot of the recipes include notes on how to update recipes for these more available ingredients while leaving the original recipe intact – stuff like indicating that Beard (for example) substituted fresh parsley for cilantro in one recipe, because he didn’t have ready access to cilantro. On the other hand, I can go down to the grocery store and just buy a bundle of fresh cilantro if I need it. I don’t do that because one of the people I cook for has the gene that makes cilantro taste like soap, but I could if I wanted to. (Another development with time – the Cilantro Soap Gene).

The problem, though, is with how these recipes are presented. I’ll explain.

In writing and layout there’s a concept called “Widows and Orphans”. An Orphan is a portion of a paragraph or section that is cut off from the rest of the paragraph or section on the following page – it’s without its parents. The reverse applies for a Widow – a part of a paragraph or section that is on the page preceding the majority of the paragraph or section. When writing recipes and laying them out, you need to be aware of widows and orphans, because you’re then creating situations where people cooking keep having to flip back and forth on the page for your recipe, and potentially creating a situation where the reader will miss information because it’s in an orphaned paragraph.

Ideally, when you’re laying out the cookbook – you put the majority of your recipe on the main page, with no Widows at all, and Orphans only in particularly involved recipes. This is something that both of the previous Beard books got right – especially Beard on Bread. The Essential James Beard, on the other hand, has Widows and Orphans all over the place. It just goes from one recipe straight into the next without hesitation, within the same column. The vibe feels more like the editor is just trying to cram as many recipes into the book as possible, usability be damned – the idea being that if you want to use a particular recipe, to transcribe it to an index card first.

I think, ironically, this ends up undercutting some of Beard’s own personal goals – Beard wrote about how cooking should be fun, and knowing what you’re doing helps make cooking more enjoyable because you’re not stressing what you’re doing. One of the ways James Beard did that with his cookbooks was with the inclusion of personal stories about the recipes involved, and the other was by using a layout that, even if it wasn’t entirely intentional, made the recipes easier to use, making them less stressful to work with while cooking, and ultimately making cooking more fun.

I can’t stress this enough – when writing a cookbook, especially in our modern age of graphic design, layout matters. I understand the desire to put as much of Beard’s work in this book as possible, so people can be exposed to as much of Beard’s writing as they can. This presentation, however, doesn’t actually help.

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