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Cookbooks in America

Despite the fact that Americans cook less and less at home, cookbooks sell steadily; just as you think every possible variation and format has been saturated, another one comes off the press. Commercially published cookbooks are sold in the United States in a number of distinct formats:

  • Perennial general subject references like the Better Homes and Gardens Cookbook, The Fanny Farmer Cookbook, The Joy of Cooking, Larousse Gastronomique, La Varenne Pratique, and the Pillsbury Complete Cookbook. The Joy of Cooking, as a particular example, has seen many editions over a 75-year period; the current edition is a best seller, and collectors can even buy a facsimile of the original 1931 edition.
  • Health, diet-oriented, and “light cooking” cookbooks: American Wholefoods Cuisine, The American Heart Association Cookbook, Patti Labelle’s Lite Cuisine, The South Beach Diet Cookbook, The Good Carb Cookbook, French Women Don’t Get Fat, are only a few offerings in this constantly growing array of titles.
  • The celebrity chef and famous restaurant cookbook: Sara Moulton Cooks at Home, Tyler’s Ultimate, Paula Deen & Friends, Morton’s Steak Bible, Rachael Ray 30-Minute Get Real Meals, Bobby Flay’s Grilling for Life, Anthony Bourdain’s Les Halles Cookbook. Nearly every well-known restaurant in the United States has a cookbook, and prominent local restaurants often self-publish cookbooks for their own markets.
  • Ingredient-specific cookbooks: Everything Tastes Better With Garlic, the Heirloom Tomato Cookbook, How to Cook Meat, Deviled Eggs, Sea Food Cooking, Beer Can Chicken, Sushi.
  • Techniques cookbooks: Canning and Preserving for Dummies, Roasting, Slow Cooking, Grilling, Wok Cooking, Baking, Candy-Making, Outdoor Cooking.
  • Guides to entertaining: The Art of the Cocktail, Party Appetizers, Delicious Dips, Cooking for a Crowd, Real Life Entertaining, Fiesta Latina, Party Receipts from the Charleston Junior League, and guides to every holiday and family event.
  • American regional cuisines: Southern cooking (always a favorite), New England Cooking, California Cooking, Tex-Mex Cooking, Cowboy Cooking.
  • International cuisines: Italian, Mexican, Thai, Cuban, Greek, and every other possible national and regional combination. These books, given their travel orientation, may sometimes be produced as expensive, large-format, lavishly illustrated “coffee table” books.

In addition to these major categories, there always seems to be room for another book about food history, food science, and the restaurant and food preparation industry.

Among the best sellers, current celebrity and television chefs rate extremely high. Diet and healthy cooking books are almost always on the top ten cookbook lists (and in fact rate perennially high on the major lists of best selling non-fiction books of any type). All other genres are secondary to these two.

Sales or production records are not available for community and organization cookbooks (since these are rarely sold in bookstores), but the market is vast. A church, school or community group will collect recipes from its members, publish the book, and sell it to raise funds for its own organization or to benefit a charity. The local Junior Leagues (an international women’s community organization) are particularly prominent in this activity. A number of printing companies specialize in producing these books on a cost-effective basis for the organizations. The books are most often spiral-bound paperback volumes. The cookbooks may be sold in conjunction with a special community event or dinner. Years later, these cookbooks turn up in local used book and antique stores; some of the recipes may indeed be gems, some not quite as memorable, though the books often make stimulating reading for those interested in the community, and important keepsakes for the contributing cooks.

Food companies and industry groups publish recipe and “how-to” books in an effort to promote the use of their products. Though they never show up on conventional bestseller lists because of the way they are distributed, these books may be sold, or sometimes given away, in immense quantities. Commercial cookbook publishers occasionally reprint collections of such recipes, either from individual manufacturers or following such general themes as “food package recipes from the 1950s.”

Cookbooks are avidly collected in the United States. Many collectors specialize in a particular theme, or in rare, vintage or out of print cookbooks; others collect out of a desire to boast that they have every recipe ever published. Stories do circulate of cookbook collectors who have so many books they cannot find a recipe when they need it and must occasionally buy a new copy of a book they already have rather than risk being buried in a book avalanche. Fortunately, the worst afflicted of these can find virtually any recipe on the Internet (or simply go out to dinner at a restaurant).

Given the breadth of the American market and the sheer number of cookbooks published every year, good quality cookbooks, often of the most interesting and stimulating variety, are often available used, in used bookstores, at yard sales, in rummage sales and even in antique stores. Wherever books are found in the United States, cookbooks play a leading role. They have great value for those who want to learn more about food and cooking, even if they do dine out more often than not.