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What to look for in a Celebrity Cookbook

We live in a world of instant celebrity. Whereas stage, screen, television, records, radio and sports have always given us celebrities, the process has traditionally been somewhat slow to develop. Most celebrities spent years in the trenches to achieve their celebrity status. Now, thanks to shows like “American Idol,” we can create celebrities in the blink of an eye. And thanks to “Top Chef,” “Iron Chef” and the various chef programs on Food Network, we can now add culinary celebrities to our pantheon. When the pencils come out, culinary stars write cookbooks. Entertainment and sports celebs write tell-alls and biographies. And cookbooks. But what should you look for in a celebrity cookbook?

First things first; what constitutes a cookbook? According to Webster, it’s “a book of cooking directions and recipes.” Okay. I have compiled such a book. I’ve been working on it for years and it’s chock full of recipes and tips. Some are my own creation and some are contributions from family and friends. The vast majority are personal favorites adapted from other people’s cookbooks. It’s a great book! How many can I put you down for? What? Oh, yeah, that whole “celebrity” part. I forgot.

In our culture of celebrity, that’s the big selling point. In most textbooks and instructional manuals, it’s not so much who you are as what you know. Unless you’re marketing a cookbook. As I’m writing this, famed culinarian and country singer Trisha Yearwood has a cookbook. International singing, dancing, and cooking superstars Gloria and Emilio Estefan have a cookbook. There’s a cookbook by actor and professional Italian chef Tony Danza. Well, at least he’s sort of a professional Italian. Speaking of which, you know that famous team of kitchen experts from the TV show “The Sopranos”? Yes, even they have a cookbook. Buy it, if you know what’s good for you. And, if you look hard enough, you’ll probably come across a modest few cookbooks by people like Mario Batali, Emeril Lagasse, Rocco DiSpirito, Bobby Flay, Wolfgang Puck, Giada De Laurentiis, Paula Deen, Julia Child and some others who have done a little cooking here and there. What sets their cookbooks apart from mine? I’m at a loss to explain it.

A lot of celebrity cookbooks are actually “ghostwritten” or, at least, co-written by other people. (Not so in my case, I assure you.) But unless you are buying the book based solely on your affection for and appreciation of the person on the cover, you look for the same things in a celebrity cookbook that you expect to find in a book written by somebody you’ve never heard of. Like me. Things like:

Recipes. Recipes should be clear and concise. They should follow a standard format that includes measured quantities of all ingredients, as well as detailed preparation and cooking instructions. A little backstory on the recipe is a nice touch as are serving suggestions.

Pictures. Everybody likes pictures. It is widely believed that you eat first with your eyes. Pretty presentational pictures of how a completed dish is supposed to look are an essential element of a good cookbook. And, if there are some tricky techniques to be employed in the preparation of a particular dish, step-by-step instructional pictures are important, too.

Tips and techniques. In cooking, some things are very basic. This is a frying pan, this a chafing dish. Both useful items, but rarely interchangeable. What’s the difference between baking powder and baking soda? Ignorance of this can produce some really interesting results. The most difficult part of writing a cookbook is gauging your reader’s level of expertise. Some people have been preparing elaborate meals for their families for fifty years and are just looking for something fresh and new, while others have difficulty boiling water and are just looking for help. A good cookbook provides tips and techniques beneficial to both extremes. Sometimes these tips and techniques accompany individual recipes, sometimes they occupy a section of their own, and sometimes they appear as sidebars interspersed throughout the book. However they are presented, there should be lots of them and they should be as clear and concise as the recipes.

Layout and construction. Nobody wants to read a book that reads like the author is just throwing out random thoughts in no particular order. The same is true of a cookbook. The book should be laid out in a logical and progressive manner. At the very least, appetizers, main courses, side dishes, desserts and beverages should all have their own dedicated sections. These sections can then be subdivided into appropriate groups and types according to the dishes involved. A table of contents up front and a comprehensive index at the back are a must. Otherwise, you’ll just get frustrated looking for that rutabaga salad next to the rhubarb pie.

Style. Okay, you bought the book because there’s a picture of somebody you like on the cover. This person should mark the style of the book. There should be lots of elements by and/or about the celebrity author throughout the book. Again, there should be pictures. Pictures of the author cooking. Pictures of his or her family enjoying the author’s cooking. Pictures of the author in compromising situations – no, no, wait. Those belong in the tell-alls and biographies alluded to earlier. But, there should be stories. Stories about how so-and-so’s grandmother’s cooking influenced their lives, and such. And, of course, there should be a dedication to all the loyal and devoted fans who have so enriched the author’s life, along with their agents and their accountants, and now it’s time to give back something personal and intimate, etc, etc. In short, if the person whose picture is on the cover is not reflected throughout the book, you might as well have purchased something crushingly generic by some wretched unknown. Like me.

Finally, consider cost. Do you really want to take out a loan to buy your favorite celebrity’s cookbook? You could probably purchase the same good, comprehensive cookbook your grandma always had in her kitchen for the same money. Probably less. Then you could use the savings to buy a celebrity magazine, put it on the shelf next to the cookbook and there you are.

To celebratize or not to celebratize! On whichever path through the kitchen you choose, I wish you happy cooking!