The Pros and Cons of Digital Cookbooks

Ever since Ugh and Glug first picked a charred piece of swamp rat out of the fire, cooking has been an essential part of the human experience.  In social animals, meals are a communal activity and the shift to post-industrial society has not diminished the social nature of mealtimes.  In fact, much has been made of the importance of gathering the family around the table for a communal meal. 

In the earliest days, cooking lessons and recipes were a part of the oral traditions of families. These recipes often contained measurements using devices as simple as a stick. In the collection at the Balzekas Museum of Lithuanian Culture is an ancient recipe for Meade which contains the instructions, “Using a stick, mark on the stick the distance from the top of the kettle to the surface of the contents.” At some point, people began to record their better or more popular recipes. The oldest known recorded recipes are attributed to Marcus Gavius Apicius and dates from the first century AD. The oldest known European recipe book dates from the twelfth century.

The fixing of daily meals traditionally fell to the people who were in the home.  Cooking evolved from “eat this, don’t eat that” to the production of dishes which incorporate combinations of ingredients and regulated cooking times and temperatures to produce more or less consistent results, not only from one meal to the next, but also from one cook to the next.  

Arguably, the heyday of cookbooks began with the publication of the original Fannie Farmer cookbook in 1896. Ms. Farmer’s dedication to accurate measurements and her promotion of “domestic science” made it possible to produce a dish one had never before prepared with a reasonable expectation of success.  Many mother and daughter memories were formed leafing through the dog-eared pages of the family’s favorite cookbook.

With the disappearance of the large central kitchen of the farmhouse and the return to the workforce of so many of the traditional homemakers, it might seem that the art of home cooking and, therefore, the demand for new recipes would also decline. Not so, it seems. As the time spent cooking at home has declined, the popularity of cooking shows has increased. In fact, Americans currently spend more time watching cooking shows than they actually spend cooking. The modern American has a plethora of ingredients available year round and has only his imagination to slow him down. 

The availability of recipes has changed also. One is no longer limited to the choices available from the cookbooks on our kitchen shelf. Ethnic cooking, exotic dishes, gourmet cooking all are now available to us with the click of a mouse. Online recipes have the potential to change the way Americans think of cooking. There are sites which provide video instruction for the novice chef.  On some sites, an ingredient list appears and can even be sent to a mobile device as a shopping list.  Perhaps best of all, an entire bookshelf of cookbooks can be available on a device the size of a steno pad with room left over.

With all of the advantages of having access to the entire world of food at one’s fingertips, what could be the downside? The strengths of digital cookbooks and recipes are also their weaknesses.

Paging through a hardbound book can provide tactile information not available in electronic formats. Turning pages is a way to stimulate the senses when looking for inspiration. Plug entrée into any popular search engine and the sheer volume of information will be overwhelming. A single digital cookbook can provide inspiration in bite sizes, but overly broad keywords on an Internet search can overwhelm the seeker.

Perhaps the biggest difference is that digital formats are temporal and physical recipe cards and books are spatial. As humans close in on that time of life when they will no longer be spatial, but temporal, it often becomes a priority to bridge generations in a way that no high-end e-reader can do. Even an e-reader or tablet which can tolerate a kitchen accident cannot convey the memories contained in a dog-eared volume passed down through a family.  The smell of the page which was open the day the Krupnikas caught fire brings back so many memories. Omah is gone now, but oil stains in the book where she taught a child to make Pampuskos is as clear as ever. Omah’s Omah has been gone for nearly one hundred years, but the fragile yellowed sheet with the shaky, barely legible pencil thin cursive lines is ready to be entrusted to the next generation. 

Preparing a meal together is one way to share the stories within and among families. Digital cookbooks are wonderful tools, but they will never replace the stained volume with notes in the margins and the birth information of a grandchild written on the cover because it was there when the call came in.