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Chicagoans Hungry for Books About Food

This story was published via The Medill News Service on April 28, 2008. It was written for a class while Molly was attending Northwestern’s Medill School of Journalism.


Loaves and popovers grow lofty and puffy because yeast feeds on sugar and releases carbon dioxide. These rising breads are causing something else to rise — the popularity of food books.

In the past decade, interest in food books has skyrocketed for Chicago’s publishers, libraries and bookstores.

“If an editor wants to make a little extra cash, a good way to do that is to publish a food book,” said Susan Bielstein, executive editor at the University of Chicago Press. “I think people love to eat. I think people are interested, they want to know more about what they put in their mouths,” she added.

Nielsen BookScan, part of Nielsen Book Services Ltd., counts the total units of books sold yearly. In 2007, there were over 13.9 billion “cooking/entertaining” books sold nationwide, up 12 percent from 12.5 billion in 2004. The highest year recorded was 2006, when approximately 15 billion food books left the shelves.

“It’s a hot topic. Everybody loves cooking books,” said Katherine Behan, a manager at Myopic Books in Wicker Park, which stocks 1,333 food books.

Food Network Television, owned by Scripps Networks LLC, premiered in 1997, and the arrival of celebrity chefs like Rachael Ray, Emeril Lagasse and Anthony Bourdain has undoubtedly fanned the flames of Americans’ interest in food.

The oft-made crossover from recipe books to merchandise, spices, kitchenware and so on has fostered a whole food culture. We’ve become a nation of noshers with serious loyalties.

Consequently, bread dough is leading to money dough. Food Network’s Rachael Ray and Paula Deen were credited in the 2007 Books-A-Million Inc. annual report with dominating sales in the cookbook category.

R.R. Bowker LLC tracks ISBNs and bibliographic information. According to its Books in Print Database, 3,044 new cooking titles were released in 2007, up 53 percent from 2002, which was the lowest year in a decade. The number of new cooking titles is up 27 compared with 1996.

Much like describing a flavor or scent, the category of food books is hard to define. It might include recipe books, celebrity chef biographies and memoirs, gastronomy, environmentally sensitive cuisine, wine, food travel books, or food histories like those published by the University of Chicago Press.

It’s easier to make a soufflé than get an accurate estimate of food book revenues. Most booksellers said they do not record sales by genre. The number of food titles stocked in their stores, however, has shown a definite rise.

“Cookbooks is a very strong category for us,” said Carolyn Brown, director of Corporate Communications at Barnes & Noble Inc.

Jeffrey Burakowski, general manager at Chicago’s only Books-A-Million store, said he’s seen a dramatic increase in attention paid to food books, particularly in the way the section is organized.

“I’ve been in the book business for 13 or 14 years,” he said, “and food writing was never something we had a specific category for” until now. He also noted the presence of familiar faces. “The thing with celebrity chefs is that we always had the celebrities right next to people that didn’t really have a name, and now we have a specific section just for chefs… as they have their own shows they start writing not so much recipes, but more food stories,” he said.

Bielstein points out that stories about food are an important part of society: “You can get the pulse of an entire civilization by looking at its food,” she said. The University of Chicago Press has between 10 and 15 food books in print now; a decade ago they had about five.

Food-oriented magazines are gaining popularity as well. Condé Nast Publications’ Bon Appétit showed a 19 percent increase in circulation in Illinois from Dec. 1997 to Dec. 2007, to 57,742 copies sold from 48,497. Its national circulation jumped 28 percent during the same period.

Gourmet, also owned by Condé Nast, has seen its circulation rise to 957,136 copies sold nationwide in 2007, up 7 percent from 891,797 in 1998.

The Publishers Information Bureau, part of Magazine Publishers of America, reports on magazine and advertising trends. In the first quarter of 2008, advertising categorized as “food and food products” increased 29 percent, to $568 million from $440 million in the year-earlier period.

The PIB also reported that in 2006, 12 new magazines in the epicurean category were launched. In 2007, food and nutrition was the fifth-most popular subject category in magazines. The number of editorial pages devoted to food and nutrition was over 14,000, up 7.4 percent from the year before. (Top categories included celebrity, apparel and home management.)

Borders Inc., which currently stocks about 2,000 food books per store, is in the process of spicing up its food sections with concept stores called “Cooking Destinations.” Fourteen concept stores will be built in 2008, none in Chicago.

Kolleen O’Meara, a representative for Borders, said the concept “combines cooking books, DVDs and products such as recipe holders; eventually we’ll have cooking utensils, hot pads, things like that, as well as Borders TV which runs cooking specials, tips and interviews with celebrity chefs.”

Last month for the first time, The Newberry Library hosted a food-oriented book seminar. It plans to do more such events in the future.

“Part of [this popularity] is things like Food Network and frankly, Martha Stewart and that whole domestic movement,” said Riva Feshbach, Newberry Library’s exhibits manager, who is seeing more interest in food books.

Gapers Block, a local events and blogging Web site, launched its food blog a year ago. Drive-Thru is dedicated to the Chicago food scene and includes hot trends, restaurant openings and closings and user comments. It’s the site’s most popular blog.

“Because there was so much interest in Chicago restaurants and dining out and Chicago has such a dynamic food scene in general, between the restaurants and ethnic groceries, specialty food stores etc., there was enough to cover that we could devote an entire section to it,” said Editor and Publisher Andrew Huff. Drive-Thru generates about 5,000 visits per week.

“It doesn’t seem like it’s a trend that’s going to slow down any time soon,” Huff said.

After all, eating is as American as apple pie.

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