For a brief span between 2005 and 2010, it seemed as though recipe blogs and cooking websites were forcing the humble cookbook into obsolescence. Why on earth would you need a fusty old unchangeable book, the futurists predicted, when you could simply type the contents of your fridge into Google and receive an endless list of potential recipes in less than a second?
That mass cookbook extinction did not occur as foretold. Lara Hamilton, founder of Fremont cookbook shop Book Larder, has always believed in the joy that a good cookbook can offer. “I’ve been a lifelong lover of cooking,” Hamilton explains on the phone, “and I got more into cookbooks as I started traveling more.” No cooking blog could provide the deep dive into another nation’s cuisine in the same way that a comprehensive cookbook written by an expert chef could.
To compete with the rise of recipe blogs, Hamilton explains, publishers smartened up and “got rid of the annoying dust jackets. They made pretty covers and included lots of photos. They encouraged authors to build more of a narrative in the book, letting individual personalities shine through.” A great cookbook, nowadays, is at once a beautiful object and a work of literary merit.
A decade ago, Hamilton left her job at Microsoft to pursue her passion of cooking in some way, and she kept returning to the idea of cookbooks. She started working with legendary events organizer Kim Ricketts at Kim Ricketts Book Events, a successful Seattle production company that paired big-name authors with gourmet food and drink.
“I’d always had the idea of a cookbook store in the back of my mind,” she says. Hamilton had heard of cookbook-only stores in other cities and “I always thought Seattle would be a really great place for one, because it’s a really good food town and it’s a really good independent bookstore town.” She and Ricketts were planning their dream shop together when Ricketts passed away, 10 years ago this spring.
Hamilton’s instincts were correct. This fall, Book Larder will celebrate its 10-year anniversary. It’s a space dedicated to the art and craft of cookbooks, with plenty of room to display the latest titles and a large kitchen space for author presentations and an array of cooking classes. The shop’s seven-person staff of avid cooks offer informed and enthusiastic recommendations to suit virtually every cuisine and cooking style.
Hamilton estimates Book Larder carries roughly 1,000 different cookbook titles in stock at any time. In the fall, the store ordinarily hosts anywhere from 15 to 20 readings a month. Some of the most successful events — from essayist Ruth Reichl and Mediterranean cooking sensation Yotam Ottolenghi — couldn’t fit in the space and were held in large-capacity venues like the SIFF Cinema Egyptian and First Baptist Church.
Book Larder events are not your typical literary reading. “We always make a little bite of food from the book for people to try,” Hamilton says, “and because the setting is intimate and we have so much support from journalists and bloggers and different people in the local food community who are willing to come in and do interviews for us, we’ve had some really great conversations.”
During the pandemic, the pace of readings has slowed somewhat, though Hamilton admits that financially “the cooking classes going away is a bigger deal for us than the author events.” Book Larder has hosted eight events on Zoom this month, including a prepublication party for Julia Turshen’s new book, “Simply Julia: 110 Easy Recipes for Healthy Comfort Food,” that attracted over 1,000 viewers from all over the world.
Hamilton isn’t worried about the future of cookbooks. “Doing a search for a recipe online is a crapshoot,” she says. “I have a lot of young customers who are in their first apartment and just learning to cook,” and they always turn to Book Larder after trying and failing to get by on recipe websites. The internet “doesn’t work as a way to really build out your own repertoire and make yourself comfortable in the kitchen,” because online searches “lack that cohesive point of view that a really good book can give you.”
So what books would Hamilton recommend to someone who wants to get comfortable with their kitchen for the first time? “That depends on their personality, their style and the kind of cooking that they want to do,” Hamilton says. Book Larder’s staff spends time with customers to fine-tune their suggestions accordingly. (Since the pandemic began, Book Larder has offered virtual, appointment-only personal shopping experiences for customers on Sundays; interested parties can register on the Book Larder website.)
But Hamilton does have a few titles for chefs to keep in mind, beginning with Turshen’s “Small Victories,” which guides first-time home cooks through the process of creating meals based on easily available ingredients.
Additionally, “Kenji Lopez-Alt’s ‘The Food Lab’ is really great,” Hamilton says. “A lot of people who like to understand the science behind their cooking gravitate towards that one.”
“My gateway cookbook was Deborah Madison’s ‘Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone,’” Hamilton recalls, explaining that “it’s fantastic for anybody who wants to take a more vegetable-focused approach to cooking.”
If you ask Hamilton the same question in 10 years at Book Larder’s 20th anniversary celebration, she’ll likely have three completely different suggestions for you. That’s because cookbooks are always evolving to meet our changing diets and lifestyles. At this time last year, for instance, as Seattle was settling in to the lockdown, Book Larder couldn’t keep bread-baking books on the shelves.
There are comforting annual cycles, too: Every summer sees a spike in the sales of pickling and fermentation books as backyard gardens overflow with zucchini and cucumbers. Every Christmas the baking section swells. Seasonal flavors come and go, and gastro-fads flare up and recede, but cookbooks will always be there to help us put meals on the table.
Book Larder’s guide to the local cookbook renaissance
Hamilton praises Seattle publishers Sasquatch Books and Mountaineers Books for their decades of work nurturing generations of local cookbook authors. It’s thanks to their investment in the community, she says, that “local authors are being published nationally and are viewed as national cookbook celebrities, as well.” Hamilton cites a holy trinity of classic debut titles by Seattle-area restaurateurs — Jerry Traunfeld’s “The Herbfarm Cookbook”; “Tom Douglas’ Seattle Kitchen”; and Renee Erickson’s “A Boat, a Whale, and a Walrus” — as exemplars of the form.
Last fall produced a bumper crop of Northwest-based cookbooks, including Lauren Ko’s stunning, Instagram-inspired “Pioemetry” pastry cookbook and Seattle food blogger Rosie Mayes’ decadent “I Heart Soul Food: 100 Southern Comfort Food Favorites.”
This year, the Book Larder staff is excited about Hot Stove Society teacher Hsiao-Ching Chou’s newly released “Vegetarian Chinese Soul Food” and Erickson’s upcoming second book, “Getaway,” which is inspired by tastes she has encountered in her global travels. Seattle cookbooks aren’t just constrained to salmon and organic potatoes — the Northwest chef has expanded their appetite to include flavors from around the world.
Editor’s note: This story has been updated to reflect the influence of Kim Ricketts on Book Larder and its history.