The books that America cooked from in 2020 will stand as cultural artifacts of the year when a virus forced an entire nation into the kitchen.
The pandemic has been good to cookbooks. Overall sales jumped 17% from 2019, according to figures from NPD BookScan, which tracks about 85% of U.S. book sales.
Some of the smash hits were predictable. The world domination of Joanna Gaines continued. The second volume of her hugely popular “Magnolia Table” cookbook franchise sailed to the top of the New York Times list of the bestselling cookbooks in 2020, even as the first volume remained in the Top 10. Ina Garten, the cooking doyenne from the Hamptons, landed the second spot with “Modern Comfort Food.”
But the stir-crazy year upended the way that people cook and think about food in fundamental ways. Understanding more about how home cooking changed and getting a glimpse into which effects might linger requires a deeper dive into the 21.5 million print cookbooks sold in 2020.
“There’s not one story about how we learned to cook or learned to love or hate cooking during the pandemic,” said Francis Lam, the “Splendid Table” radio host and vice president and editor-in-chief of Clarkson Potter, a major cookbook publisher. “People just became more of their cooking selves.”
One of the year’s 10 bestselling cookbooks on a list complied by BookScan offered 600 air-fryer recipes, owing as much to the appliance’s ability to crisp up takeout french fries as it does to its popularity with those who made it through the year by heating up vegetarian egg rolls and mac-and-cheese bites. It sold more than 135,000 copies.
Everyday cooks went in search of new cuisines and projects to break up the routine. Practiced cooks who might have spent a Saturday afternoon before the pandemic hand-rolling pasta sought recipes that would help keep weeknight cooking from becoming a grind.
Plenty of people simply needed help getting any meal on the table, driving the popularity of general cookbooks. That category was the largest of cookbooks bought in 2020, according to BookScan. Sales showed a 127% increase over 2019.
And underscoring the great American food dichotomy, both dessert and diet books sold well.
The news wasn’t as good for cookbooks by restaurant chefs, perhaps a surprise in a year suffused with nostalgia for eating out. Rica Allannic, a literary agent with the David Black Agency, whose roster includes a murderers’ row of culinary heavy hitters, said the category “is not ascendant.”
Sarah Smith, another David Black agent, explained, “Prepandemic, there was already a move toward cooking that was more accessible and meant to be made at your house, as opposed to extremely composed, cheffy books.”
The year might best be remembered as the moment when project cooking became a national pastime. So much bread was baked that it set off a run on flour. Sales of canning and preserving books jumped 137% over 2019. Home cooks perfected dumpling-folding techniques. Families even made projects out of writing cookbooks together about their pandemic efforts.
Books, project cooking and equipment sales formed a kind of symbiotic relationship. The hours spent at home provided a lot of time to smoke meat, for example.
And if you bought a smoker, you would likely want a cookbook to help you use it. That helps explain why “Franklin Barbecue: A Meat-Smoking Manifesto,” by Aaron Franklin and Jordan McKay, was a breakout hit, even though it had been published five years earlier. The book has sold more than 360,000 copies, with a total of 500,000 in print.
Cookbooks offered other escapes, too, giving a lift to titles like “In Bibi’s Kitchen: The Recipes and Stories of Grandmothers From the Eight African Countries That Touch the Indian Ocean” and “The Blue Zones Kitchen,” longevity researcher Dan Buettner’s mash-up of photography and recipes from around the globe, which landed in sixth place on the New York Times cookbook list.
Americans wanted their culinary journeys delivered with strong points of view, like Toni Tipton-Martin’s in “Jubilee: Recipes From Two Centuries of African-American Cooking.”
“That book is not the kind of book that is built to be a conventional commercial bestseller,” said Lam. “It is a highly thoughtful, deeply researched book based in historic texts. But for some people, it opened up a world they didn’t realize was there, and for other people it was an opportunity to see more of a world that they knew was there all along.”
It has sold nearly 50,000 copies through nine printings.
And if yours wasn’t a household that relied on takeout, somebody had to make dinner. A lot. Cookbooks made the grind a little less mind-numbing.
“So many people were asking me about books that offered easy weeknight dinners, but in ways that introduced new flavors or ideas,” said Paula Forbes, an Austin, Texas, writer who produces a weekly cookbook newsletter called Stained Page News.
“People want big flavors,” said Christopher Kimball, founder of the cooking enterprise Milk Street. “That is going to only increase.”
“Cookish: Throw It Together,” Milk Street’s latest cookbook, hit all the right notes for pandemic cooks. It uses techniques from around the globe, ingredients that don’t necessarily require a trip to the grocery store and recipes that take less than an hour to make, like charred broccoli with miso vinaigrette, and West African peanut chicken. The book outsold anything else that Milk Street has published since it began in 2016.
Some traditional cookbook publishers say the market for cookbooks is likely to stay strong because the cooking habit is now ingrained in more people.
“If cooking was something you dreaded before COVID and now it’s something you actually look forward to? That’s a real game changer,” Kimball said.
Editors are banking on a few COVID-era trends. The baking habit is likely to stick, whether it’s sourdough, snacking cakes or something more elaborate. Allannic, the agent, recently sold a book on bread making with children that is organized by age.
“A few years ago, I wouldn’t have touched that with a 10-foot pole,” she said.
Top 10 cookbooks of 2020
From the New York Times bestseller list.
1. “Magnolia Table Volume 2: A Collection of Recipes for Gathering,” by Joanna Gaines (William Morrow & Co.)
2. “Modern Comfort Food: A Barefoot Contessa Cookbook,” by Ina Garten (Clarkson Potter)
3. “The Happy in a Hurry Cookbook: 100-Plus Fast and Easy New Recipes That Taste Like Home,” by Steve and Kathy Doocy (William Morrow)
4. “Magnolia Table: A Collection of Recipes for Gathering,” by Joanna Gaines (William Morrow)
5. “Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat: Mastering the Elements of Good Cooking,” by Samin Nosrat (Simon & Schuster)
6. “The Blue Zones Kitchen: 100 Recipes to Live to 100,” by Dan Buettner (National Geographic)
7. “Dessert Person: Recipes and Guidance for Baking with Confidence,” by Claire Saffitz (Clarkson Potter)
8. “Skinnytaste Meal Prep: Healthy Make-Ahead Meals and Freezer Recipes to Simplify Your Life,” by Gina Homolka with Heather K. Jones (Clarkson Potter)
9. “True Comfort: More Than 100 Cozy Recipes Free of Gluten and Refined Sugar,” by Kristin Cavallari (Rodale)
10. “Just Feed Me: Simply Delicious Recipes from My Heart to Your Plate,” by Jessie James Decker (Dey Street)