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Book Review Usefullness

post #1 of 19
Thread Starter 
We're always striving to make our cookbook reviews more meaningful. So I've been curious, especially since changing platforms, how useful you find them.

Given their constrictions, it's difficult to construct a poll, so let's handle this as a regular thread and discussion. What I'm interested in knowing is:

1. Do you regularly read the Cheftalk book reviews?
2. Do you find them useful, informative, and entertaining?
3. Have you bought, or considered buying, a book based on seeing a review here at Cheftalk?
4. When buying books do you use the direct links to Amazon.com?
5. Do you think the frequency new reviews are posted is too often, not often enough, or just right?
6. Any other comments, suggestions, criticisms?
They have taken the oath of the brother in blood, in leavened bread and salt. Rudyard Kipling
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They have taken the oath of the brother in blood, in leavened bread and salt. Rudyard Kipling
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post #2 of 19
I read the reviews and find them useful, particularly since I live out in the boondocks and don't have an opportunity to see most books before purchasing them online.  I think the reviewers are far less critical than I am though...most of the reviews seem to be quite positive, but IMHO less than 1/3 of the cookbooks published today are worthy of praise.  (Maybe ChefTalk preselects the cream of the crop for review?)  Frequency is fine.  I usually buy from Jessica's Biscuit rather than Amazon...their prices are slightly better, free shipping, and much faster service.
post #3 of 19
Thread Starter 
Thanks for the input, KCZ.

It's not that we preselect books. Generally speaking, however, we'd rather talk about books you should own than ones you shouldn't. Occasionally a book is so bad, but likely to be bought by unsuspecting readers, and it gets a fully negative review.

We do, however, try and make a point of mentioning downsides in an otherwise good book. See, for instance, my review of Moto Gusto.

Keep in mind, too, that with the new platform, you can comment on a review, post your own, etc. So if you disagree with a reviewer, we urge you to say so (but be sure and give your reasons). Frankly, I had hoped for greater use of this feature.
They have taken the oath of the brother in blood, in leavened bread and salt. Rudyard Kipling
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They have taken the oath of the brother in blood, in leavened bread and salt. Rudyard Kipling
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post #4 of 19
I don't read most of them as they are about books I have little interest in. Too pro, too much about the chef d'jour, at least those are topics that are sticking in my mind whether accurate or not.

I commented on the Molto Gusto review as I agreed with your comments about sourcing. Not that I've read the book, just skimmed it in the store.

I like how search now brings up book reviews on your key words. This AM when I was suggesting Southern Cookbooks to Nicko, the search pulled up a bunch of books as I was looking for a specific thread. I think much of the review value comes over time, not just when released.

I rarely buy from Amazon. There are usually better vendors.

As far as frequency, I'd rather see the reviews appear singly rather than in dumps. Easier to absorb individually than 4-6 at a time. Maybe one a week would fit me better. Don't know about others.
Palace of the Brine -- "I hear the droning in the shrine of the sea monkeys." Saltair
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Palace of the Brine -- "I hear the droning in the shrine of the sea monkeys." Saltair
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post #5 of 19
Thread Starter 
I don't read most of them as they are about books I have little interest in.

What sort of books would you prefer seeing reviewed?
They have taken the oath of the brother in blood, in leavened bread and salt. Rudyard Kipling
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They have taken the oath of the brother in blood, in leavened bread and salt. Rudyard Kipling
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post #6 of 19
That's harder to say. I look at lots of books but more and more find fewer and fewer I want to spend time with. I hope that's from maturation in cooking and looking for something new or deeper than I've already seen and done.
Palace of the Brine -- "I hear the droning in the shrine of the sea monkeys." Saltair
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Palace of the Brine -- "I hear the droning in the shrine of the sea monkeys." Saltair
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post #7 of 19
Thread Starter 
Well, let's try and focus in:

Would you prefer more reviews of books for the home cook or the pro?
Are you more interested in recipe books, or in books that discuss food and techniques?
Would you spend time with a book that was purely about food history?
Are photos and other graphics more or less important to you?
Chef-written books do or no not turn you on?
Memoirs and biographies of food personalities and/or restaurants do or do not interest you?

Other than the cajun one, what were the last two or three cookbooks you found of interest?
They have taken the oath of the brother in blood, in leavened bread and salt. Rudyard Kipling
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They have taken the oath of the brother in blood, in leavened bread and salt. Rudyard Kipling
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post #8 of 19
Quote:
Originally Posted by KYHeirloomer View Post

Keep in mind, too, that with the new platform, you can comment on a review, post your own, etc. So if you disagree with a reviewer, we urge you to say so (but be sure and give your reasons). Frankly, I had hoped for greater use of this feature.

How can I comment on a review?  I tried to comment on your Batali book review, and the only way I could find to do that was to write a full review.
Schmoozer
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Schmoozer
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post #9 of 19
recent books, Secrets of the Red Lantern, Italian Country Table, Pleasures of the Vietnamese table
Palace of the Brine -- "I hear the droning in the shrine of the sea monkeys." Saltair
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Palace of the Brine -- "I hear the droning in the shrine of the sea monkeys." Saltair
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post #10 of 19
Thread Starter 
Schmoozer, that's how the set-up works. But you don't have to write anything extensive. Filling out the score card is necessary, as is listing pros and cons. After that, if you even wrote one sentence, it would post as a review.

Of course, I'd rather see something more extensive that that; something that really expresses your feelings about the book---what you liked, what you didn't like about the book or about already posted reviews.

BTW, you don't have to express yourself just by reacting to somebody else's review. With the new platform, any member of the community can post a review of any cookbook.
They have taken the oath of the brother in blood, in leavened bread and salt. Rudyard Kipling
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They have taken the oath of the brother in blood, in leavened bread and salt. Rudyard Kipling
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post #11 of 19
Thread Starter 
Phil, would it be a fair sumation to say that your preference runs to books that contain recipes from the author's experience, and that cultural and historical info be included as well? That you want insights into what forms the cuisine, not just recipe per se?
They have taken the oath of the brother in blood, in leavened bread and salt. Rudyard Kipling
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They have taken the oath of the brother in blood, in leavened bread and salt. Rudyard Kipling
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post #12 of 19
For what it's worth, which may be nothing, here are what I'd like to see in a review.

Do the recipes do only volume measurements for flour and such or are the weights available too?  Or at least an overall translation from volume into weight for the book?  I use weight measurements and, although I can do a translation of my own, I am trying to reproduce the author's dish when I use a recipe.

Is there a cultural context given?  I like a little history of the food involved.

Are there photographs of the final product and/or the steps along the way?  Especially the final product.

Has the book reviewer tried some of the recipes and how did they come out?  Cookbooks can be fun to read, but they're supposed to be useful too.
post #13 of 19
Thread Starter 

Thanks for offering your point of view, Free Rider. I appreciate the input.
 
Just so you know, let me address your last point first. The Review Staff is required to prepare at least two dishes from every book being reviewed, following the recipe exactly. Most make three or more to assure that they understand the author's style and method of handling ingredients. Or, sometimes, because there's such a diversity of techniques involved. When I was testing Molto Gusto, for instance, I prepared six recipes to assure I was assessing the range of dishes provided.

If a recipe doesn't work out, for one reason or another, most of the review staff automatically prepare an additional one to determine if the "bad" recipe was an aberation, or represented the author's work as a whole.

I would hope that community members who are not official reviewers would follow the same rule when posting a review. But, of course, I have no control over that.

Tell me more about your relationship to photos. This is something I have an on-going discussion about with a chef friend, and I'm always interested in insights from others. From your viewpoint, are photos of each dish a necessity? Something nice to have? Or are they even a tie breaker as to whether or not you buy the book?

Whether or not there's a cultural or historical context really depends more on the book than the review, wouldn't you say? Or are you saying that if the book lacks such you want the reviewer to specifically mention it?

Finally, virtually every baking book, certainly all the bread books, reviewed since I took over as Reviews Editor makes a point about volume v. weight measurements in one way or another. Are you saying you'd want non-baking books to be treated the same? Personally, I don't see the point of that. Most American cookbooks are given in volume rather than weight measurements, so it would have to be offered as a criticism of almost all cookbooks.

They have taken the oath of the brother in blood, in leavened bread and salt. Rudyard Kipling
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They have taken the oath of the brother in blood, in leavened bread and salt. Rudyard Kipling
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post #14 of 19
The answers to my questions don't have to be considered criticism, but information I'd like to know. 

For instance, I do prefer weight measurements for all cookbooks because that's my style.  I tried to just get non-American cookbooks, but then the availability of ingredients or such things as butter having different qualities comes into play.  It's just info I'd like to have about the cookbook.

I'd also like the reviewer to mention the lack of cultural content and, if there is, is it specific to the recipe or to the cookbook in general.  Sometimes it's obvious such as an Italian recipe collection.  Then again, I love to read about how particular ingredients came to be used or how the recipe came about.  Sometimes we just don't know.  Peanut butter and bananas, for example.  Have no idea who thought of that and why.

Photographs are very important to me and would be a tie-breaker in some instances.   This is because I like to read cookbooks when I go to bed at night.  It's a form of relaxation.  I'll often page through until I see a photograph of a dish that looks interesting because of its presentation/form. Then I'll read about the dish.  Sometimes the categories in the cookbook don't describe the dish the way I would and the photographs, especially if there is more than one of the dish, help. 

I loved the "Beautiful Cookbook" series because of the photography, somewhat for the cultural content and because, of the ones I tried, the recipes came out well.  I've given them to friends who tell me they've received compliments when they make the recipes, just as I have. 

I treasure my copies of "On Food and Cooking" and "The Professional Pasty Chef" too, but for different reasons.  I don't consider those cookbooks really, but more along the lines of textbooks for those who want in-depth views.
post #15 of 19

I like your question about photos in cookbooks and would love to hear others' opinions as well.  

I have heard a few chefs speak with disdain about the trend of "food porn" or the coffee table cookbook, but I admit that when I was learning to cook, the photos were very useful and I mostly limited myself to selecting recipes that had photos.  I just didn't have the necessary experience to picture the dish.  Though I have more experience now, I still think there are some areas where they continue to be useful.  If I am looking for a new recipe for short ribs or roasted chicken, I really don't need a photo, just browsing the ingredients will tell me if the seasonings sound appealing and I can go from there.  However, when it comes to my favorite subjects of breads and pastries a picture will sometimes convey more information than the ingredients.  If I can see the texture of a slice of cake or piece of bread, I will have much clearer expectations of results.  From one cake recipe to the next, the ingredient list may be almost the same, but the ratio of sugar to flour or eggs to fat will greatly affect the result.  If I am feeling lazy and don't want to do the math in my head, the picture is a great starting point.

Cookbook photos can also give me ideas for presentation, but I do laugh at some of the books I have seen with celebrity chefs as models.  There is one in the Crave cookbook (pictured here ) that always makes me roll my eyes.

post #16 of 19
Thread Starter 

I don't know about that critter in the middle, Jellly, but them is some good looking striped bass.

They have taken the oath of the brother in blood, in leavened bread and salt. Rudyard Kipling
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They have taken the oath of the brother in blood, in leavened bread and salt. Rudyard Kipling
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post #17 of 19

Jelly,

 

Okay, that wasn't exactly the type of photo I would pick up a cookbook for.  :D   Anyway, the platter holding the fish would likely to be too expensive and too controversial for my home.

post #18 of 19

Agree with Jellly.  Some recipes don't need a photograph (all meatballs look pretty much the same) but any "presentation dish," particularly an entree or dessert that requires assembly, deserves a picture.  Think how difficult it would be to make a Buche de Noel for the first time without a picture.  I won't buy a fancy dessert book if it doesn't have photos for nearly every recipe.  Maybe the reviews could routinely include an estimated percentage of the recipes that have photos??? 

post #19 of 19
Thread Starter 

The usefullness of photos is such a matter of personal taste that it's difficult to generalize. Nor is it just a matter of beginners vs experiences cooks.

 

I've a friend, for instance, who's worked in the industry all his life, in positions ranging from cooking at remote work camps in Alaska, to being the chef and upscale resorts. He insists that a good cookbook must have photos illustrating the recipes. That would be the food porn angle. But I also know at-home cooks who could care less whether or not there are any photos.

 

Most of our reviewers do talk about the presence or absence of photos, and their quality. Are y'all saying you'd like to see that emphasized more?

They have taken the oath of the brother in blood, in leavened bread and salt. Rudyard Kipling
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They have taken the oath of the brother in blood, in leavened bread and salt. Rudyard Kipling
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