Future of the Printed Word Looks Bleak, Even at International Cookbook Fair

Gala evening at international cookbook fair in Paris provides unforgettable reminders of the Oscars, the Eurovision Song Contest and your average bar mitzvah party.

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“We are about to begin the discussion,” announced the moderator of the panel devoted to the future of bookstores, as he gazed sadly out upon rows of empty seats. From his perspective, not just that of the business of the printed word, the future looked bleak. The audience eventually trickled in just six women in all and took their seats. Turnout was so poor that one of the panelists, a representative of the Bookstore Association in China vanished and did not return.

“We are willing to start the discussion a second time,” the moderator endeavored to lobby more passersby to join the minuscule audience. Suddenly his eyes lit up. Three large, tawny-complexioned men strode confidently down the path leading to the panel’s assigned location in a corner of the vast space that, for three days, was transformed into the home of the Paris Cookbook Fair. “Come here, my Patagonian friends. Come take part in a discussion on the future of bookstores,” the moderator beckoned, and the three embarrassed fellows who were obviously in search of either the bathroom or the bar – quickly retreated, mumbling apologies as they went.

The publishers from Patagonia who are always a popular attraction at cookbook fairs by virtue of their exotic recipes for roast armadillo and other unusual fare lost out. Because the discussion that ensued on stage was actually quite fascinating.

A representative of British bookstores spoke about the steady decline in the number of bookstores (73 closures versus just 39 openings in the past year, the sixth straight year for this negative trend). The French representative spoke about the fight against online “bookstores,” especially Amazon, and about the mortal blow that has actually been suffered by the big chains compared to independent shops, and about the future of publishing.

Interesting as it was, the discussion failed to draw any more listeners and participants. Attendees at Gourmand International, a cookbook fair aimed at a professional crowd, are there mostly to see and be seen, to forge worldwide relationships and business deals.

This was the 18th year of the fair bringing together publishers, chefs, cookbook authors, photographers, editors, translators, antique book dealers and food writers from all over the world. After the 1994 Frankfurt International Book Fair, Edouard Cointreau – descended on his father’s side from the makers of the famous liqueur, and on his mother’s side from the dynasty of the Rémy Martin cognac distillers, an aficionado of good food, alcohol and words felt that cookbooks and the whole field of cookbook writing and production should be given their own separate fair.

The first cookbook fair was held in 1995, still in Frankfurt, and since then, apart from two trips to the Far East (Beijing and Kuala Lumpur), the annual fair has migrated to various European cities, with a clear preference for the French capital.

This year, too, the fair was held in Paris, at the Carrousel du Louvre the upscale underground shopping mall located next to the world’s most famous museum. In the huge hangar-like space, dozens of pavilions were set up where publishers, marketers and distributors large and small presented their wares.

The crowning glory, as every year, is the gala evening where an annual awards ceremony is held for the world’s best cookbooks. It’s the Oscars of the cookbook world, if you like, second only to the prestigious cookbook competition run by the James Beard Foundation in America.

Gala at the Louvre

“We’re going to a gala evening at the Louvre,” we announced importantly to just about everyone we knew. In the name of that same prideful boast, two days before the flight we’d pushed our way into the Tel Aviv shop of Sami, “the tailor of the king of Egypt” (no one has ever been able to prove that this wonderful elderly gentleman ever got anywhere near an Egyptian king with scissors in hand, but still). The royal tailor quickly repaired the hem of an evening jacket and matching gown, and on the night of the festive event we were beside ourselves with excitement.

There’s nothing like Paris at night, especially the city’s First Arrondissement: An enormous spotlight illuminates the Tuileries Gardens; imposing sculpted busts stand watch over the roofs of the palace courtyard and the ancient fortress; and the glass bricks of I.M. Pei’s modern pyramid reflect all the lights for which the city is legendary. We went to the awards ceremony with the tiny Israeli delegation Irit and Shalom Maharovsky, owners of the Mul Yam restaurant, and Dan Alexander, a designer and partner (with chef Yair Yosefi) in à point books which published the cookbook of the prestigious Tel Aviv restaurant. The book, which also includes a gorgeous guide to fish and seafood that was photographed mainly at the Paris wholesale market, is the first Israeli book to be accepted into this international competition.

The line for the coatroom snaked all the way to the inverted pyramid (the new trademark of the famous site), and 20 precious minutes elapsed before we were able to walk the red carpet and find our assigned table. As at the Emmy Awards, here, too, the audience is seated at round tables and served an array of light finger foods along with cocktails and wine.

We discovered that our places had been taken by some quite jovial uninvited guests, who had meanwhile developed close neighborly relations with the others at the table a heavily made-up lady who had written close to 80 (!) cookbooks on Jewish-American cuisine, a Middle-Eastern woman who had written an esoteric book on figs, and a stern-looking Indian chef in official dress who looked as if he had stepped right out of a Rudyard Kipling story. When we were forced to oust the invaders, the others gave us a look of disappointment and sadness, and the atmosphere around the table instantly soured.

“You’re late. It’s 8:20,” the American lady scolded us, as she pushed away small dishes with partially eaten servings of crumbly yellow cheese and Swedish-style meatballs. There’s nothing like an incident of this sort to remind one that the line between a bar mitzvah party and a gala evening at the Louvre is razor thin.

Then, Edouard Cointreau, completely looking the part of an heir to two great alcohol empires, took the podium to announce the winners. First came the prizes to the Japanese members since, like modern Cinderellas, they had to catch a return flight at midnight. And only after the Japanese sunset and countless, very specific, categories (best Japanese cookbook, best sushi cookbook, best sake book, and so on) did the real ceremony get underway, and with it the really bizarre categories. Every national cuisine, not to mention person, gender, ingredient, geographic region and cooking method, seemed to have its own separate category.

Up to the podium strode the chef who had won in the category of best Chinese cookbook, accompanied by a struggling translator who received much encouragement from the crowd, only to be followed by the Chinese chef who won for the best noodle cookbook, and insisted on delivering his own victory speech (“Aah ... Paris ... very romantic city ... my wife love ...”); the Belgian winner of the prize for the model cook a broad category that includes cookbooks authored by attractive women who are photographed batting their eyelids next to mounds of red ripe tomatoes humbly declared her faith in romantic cuisine, apparently the culinary parallel to beauty queens declaring their belief in world peace.

The prize for the best African cookbook was accepted by a whole group dressed in colorful tribal wear; and when the name of the winner in the category of Jewish cuisine was announced a splendid book authored by a group of relatives who are descendants of exiles from Spain who found their way to a Jewish community in Central America the hall filled with whoops of joy as five aunts stood on stage waving Mexican flags. The Jewish-American author who failed to win in this category now made a demonstrative departure from our table.

This kind of event is the perfect reminder that when you think you’re off to a night at the Oscars, you might very well find yourself in the midst of the Eurovision Song Contest instead.

At first it seemed that Maharovsky and Alexander, two very reserved and refined gentlemen, felt out of sorts amid the circus-like atmosphere that had taken over this stronghold of French culture. But as the announcement of the winner in the “Best Fish and Seafood” category grew imminent, those seated at the Israeli table tensed with anticipation. “And the winner is ...” Cointreau intoned dramatically, “the amazing Israeli book ‘Seafoodpedia.’”

The heart immediately swells with national pride, even if this is honestly the least Israeli book to have been published in Israel in recent years. Like Limor Livnat on the winners’ podium at the Olympics, like the fans that swarm the court at the end of Maccabi TA basketball games in the culinary-literary field as well, we showed the rest of the world just what real Israeli joy in victory is. Everyone at the table leaped to their feet in prolonged cheers for the winners, and Maharovsky gave a simple, candid speech in which he explained to the audience just how unusual this book is in the world of Israeli gastronomy and publishing.

Recipes for success: five good reads 

A History of Food in 100 Recipes” British food critic William Sitwell surveys world culinary history via 100 original recipes from different periods: from an ancient Egyptian recipe for bread, to a 1651 recipe for asparagus in white wine, to dishes from the modern era.

Fäviken” The cookbook of the Swedish restaurant that has been gaining worldwide renown, with recipes based on ingredients that are grown, hunted or collected in the area near the remote farm where the restaurant is located. The recipes of Magnus Nilsson a handsome and charismatic Viking turned celebrity chef are accompanied by gorgeous photographs of nature scenes, culinary traditions and cultures from central Sweden. 

Fool” Also from Sweden, a focus of international culinary attention in recent years, along with its Scandinavian sisters, comes one of the most interesting and beautiful food magazines to be seen lately. Husband and wife duo Per-Anders and Lotta Jurgensen food photographers, designers and independent publishers are responsible for this fascinating quarterly, which is published in English and combines culinary matters, design, fashion and popular culture. 

Sergiology” The lavishly produced album of recipes from chef Sergio Herman, whose Dutch restaurant has earned three Michelin stars, comes with an interactive video kit and attempts to get to the heart of the connection between art (primarily music) and food. Minestrone, the small and innovative publishing house that released the book, took this year’s award for outstanding publisher. 

POLPO: A Venetian Cookbook (of Sorts)” This book, named for Russell Norman’s famous London restaurant, presents the cuisine of Venice’s bacari unpretentious little bars and restaurants that serve up numerous small dishes along with alcohol.

Visitors to the cookbook fair.Credit: Dan Peretz