How a Middle Eastern cookbook became a craze
Gayle Squires was so taken with the hummus in “Jerusalem: A Cookbook” that the Central Square foodie stayed up until 3 a.m. making four cups of the chickpea spread. In Allston, Molly Parr equates the book’s recipes with TV dramas. “When a friend told me she was making the chocolate krantz cake’’ — which needs to rise overnight — “the suspense was like a season finale,” says Parr, a Boston University employee, and author of the Cheap Beets blog. On the Cape, Hilary Johnson, a retired mutual fund professional, is trying to satisfy her desire to visit Jerusalem by making the book’s popular chicken with caramelized onions and cardamom rice. “It’s like a little vacation in a cookbook.”
Released last fall by Ten Speed Press, a subsidiary of Crown Publishing, without the sales-boosting benefit of a TV show, “Jerusalem” surprised the publishing industry by working its way up to the top slot nationwide for cookbooks earlier this summer. It has sold about 80,000 copies.
Aaron Wehner, the publisher of Ten Speed Press, attributes the book’s success to several factors: As Julia Child did with French cooking, it makes an exotic cuisine approachable for everyday cooks; the coauthors weave their terrific personal story throughout; its vegetable-centric recipes jibe with Americans’ growing interest in at least trying to eat less meat; and with its high-quality photographs and lovely typeface, it’s beautiful to look at.
And, not insignificantly, even before it was published, it had two ready audiences: cooks who talk about “worshiping” one of the authors; and people interested in anything Jerusalem.
In Boston, the gorgeous pictures of pureed beets with yogurt and za’atar, sweet filo cigars, and prawns and seafood with tomato and feta are generating such buzz that the wait for “Jerusalem” at the Boston Public Library is 23 people long — and that’s with the additional copies the library has bought. Harvard Book Store’s just-departed head buyer reluctantly likens the excitement to the frenzy that surrounded the steamy 2012 phenomenon, “50 Shades of Grey.” “I’ve got one or two friends who can’t even boil water, and they were like, ‘Should we get this book?’ ” says Megan Sullivan.
With people of all religions cooking their way through the entire book, Tablet, a Jewish-oriented online magazine, recently posed a question: “Can the ‘Jerusalem’ Cookbook Bring About World Peace?”
Yes, Tablet concluded. The dishes draw from Muslim, Christian, and Jewish inspirations — and then there’s the coauthors’ back story. Yotam Ottolenghi grew up on
Jerusalem’s Jewish west side and Sami Tamimi on the Arab east side, in the 1970s and ’80s. They met years later, working in London.
Like all interesting cookbooks, the $35, padded hardcover book (with the sumptuous close-up of braised eggs with lamb, tahini, and sumac on the front) combines terrific recipes with a compelling narrative. And, as the recipe for peace in the Middle East remains as elusive as ever, the authors don’t shy away from politics.
“Alas, although Jerusalemites have so much in common,” they write “food, at the moment, seems to be the only unifying force in this highly fractured place. The dialogue between Jews and Arabs, and often among Jews themselves, is almost nonexistent. . . . Food, however, seems to break down those boundaries on occasion.”
Although Ottolenghi’s name isn’t well known beyond food circles in the United States, he’s a cult figure of sorts. He is the author of the 2011 best-selling vegetarian cookbook “Plenty,” and the owner of an eponymous group of restaurants in London, and high-end Nopi. Tamimi is a partner and head chef, and coauthor of the US version of a book already published in the United Kingdom, “Ottolenghi: The Cookbook,” which came out last week.
In California, two Ottolenghi and “Jerusalem” fans found the cookbook so compelling that they launched a hashtag, #tastingjrslm, and started a Facebook page on which the 669 friends share posts like these: “Made baharat tonight for tabbouleh. Though I ground the spices for what felt like forever, the cinnamon was still in small pieces. Anyone else have this problem?” “Congrats to our member Mezze and Dolce for getting their photo of their July salad for Tasting Jerusalem accepted at FoodGawker!”
There was a time when people worried that the Internet, with its free recipes, might kill cookbooks. But that hasn’t happened. As Will Schwalbe, the founder of Cookstr.com , a recipe website, puts it: “No one says, ‘Happy birthday, here’s a URL.’ ”
The pleasure of a cookbook can be distinct from its recipes, Schwalbe notes, as he relayed a story that explains why people are still buying cookbooks. “A friend ordered a gift for himself of 12 cookbooks. The day they arrived he poured over them. That evening, when he went to make dinner, he went on the Web for a recipe.”
And for cookbook junkies, reading the text gives you a way to connect with the food even when you’re full. “You can’t eat all the time,” says Barbara K. Wheaton, honorary curator of the culinary collection at the Schlesinger Library at Radcliffe College.
Indeed, one estimate says that most people cook only three recipes from a cookbook, said Mark Rotella, cookbooks editor at Publishers Weekly, and editor of the PW newsletter “Cooking the Books.”
“Cookbooks are almost like novels or travel books,” he says. “They transport you to another world.” Popular cookbooks, he adds, capture a period in time. “When you go back and look at Julia Child, you see how people were eating [in the 1960s], or at least how they wanted to eat. In the ’70s and the ’80s, more women were going to work, and you had a large number, particularly in the late ’80s, of microwave cookbooks — how to cook a gourmet meal in a microwave.”
“Jerusalem” is successfully riding a few trends, he says: the Mediterranean diet, the quest for new flavors, and for food that’s relatively unfussy. Cookbooks from the Middle East are a growing segment of the market, he notes (as are those geared toward gluten-free and vegan diets).
“It’s Jerusalem’s turn,” says Sarene Wallace, co-creator of the “Jerusalem” Facebook page. “We’ve explored Japanese and Italian, and Moroccan was big for a couple of years. Middle Eastern cuisine is the next frontier.”
And, she’s quick to note, “there’s more to it than hummus and matzoh balls.”
The book is sending Bostonians in search of cardamom pods and the spice mix baharat, and it’s so popular that people are giving it as a gift to those who already own it. In Sara Clevering’s family, an aunt gave it to her sister-in-law, who gave it to Clevering’s mother-in-law, and she in turn gave a copy to the aunt. “Now,” says the Winchester lawyer, “we all have it.”