More than a month into the shiny new year, anyone who is in the business of needing to know can obtain a total data picture for 2018 — pages viewed, exercise hours spent, units sold. I am always keen to survey the cookbook realm, wondering whether the food media’s “best-of” lists reflect what the American public craves.
I thought I had a handle on what the most popular cookbook would be, but I was Marco Polo off. Ice-cold wrong. Would you have guessed, without the photographic hint? Its author is a first-timer in the field, and its content was not driven by electric multicookers or immigrant cuisine.
In figuring out why I was so off base, I cooked or supervised the testing of 20 of its recipes, far more than for the average cookbook review. The process also took me places I did not expect to go: forcing me to own up to preconceptions and examining some of what it takes to mega-sell a cookbook. Turns out, the reliability of the recipes doesn’t always matter. But if you are an inveterate cookbook reader, you might have already known that.
The winner is “Magnolia Table: A Collection of Recipes for Gathering” by Joanna Gaines, published in April by William Morrow ($30). More than 1.3 million copies had sold by November, and more than 2 million copies are now in print. According to NPD Bookscan, “Magnolia Table” was the No. 2 bestseller across the entire book industry last year, behind Michelle Obama’s autobiography. That’s a lot of Jojo’s Biscuits.
Those buttery biscuits and convenience-product casseroles and green beans amandine, the meatloaf and apple pie are what “Magnolia Table” is made of, but hardly the draw. Joanna and her husband, Chip, are beloved lifestyle royalty who are by all accounts genuinely nice folks. Their hit “Fixer Upper” series ran on HGTV for five seasons, until the couple, citing a need for more family time, ended it. Their Magnolia Foundation is involved in community restoration. Their Magnolia Market retail complex has made Waco, Tex., a destination for ardent fans, whose hunger is partly responsible for this cookbook. Above all else, the book demonstrates how well the Gaineses know their audience.
Cookbooks in the United States do sell into the millions, but it typically takes decades to get there. According to the Daily Meal, the total for the “Better Homes and Gardens New Cookbook” is 40 million; its first edition was published in 1930. The various editions of “Joy of Cooking” (1936) add up to some 20 million. “Mastering the Art of French Cooking” (1961), 1.5 million.
Looking at more recent culinary juggernauts, there are 12 million of Ina Garten’s 11 cookbooks in print to date (since 1999). Samin Nosrat’s 2017 “Salt Fat Acid Heat” (Simon and Schuster), thanks in part to its acclaimed Netflix companion series, clocks in at 330,000 copies. Cookbook authors and their publishers these days might expect to hit a threshold of no more than 15,000 sold — or even 7,000 to 10,000, despite substantial food media coverage.
“Magnolia Table” did huge numbers online, with signed editions specifically created for Target and Walmart, but not so much among the top independent cookbook retailers, whose bestseller lists it did not crack, according to EatYourBooks.com. It was not included in Amazon’s late-January compilation of “100 Books for a Lifetime of Eating and Drinking.” Achieving New York Times bestseller status did not launch it onto gift-giving season cookbook lists of that paper, nor those of the San Francisco Chronicle, the Atlantic, Epicurious, Kitchn, Eater and Food52’s Piglet Tournament of Cookbooks.
It wasn’t on The Washington Post’s list, either. That I will explain when I get to the part about its recipes.
“The food media was not paying attention,” says Raquel Pelzel, editorial director of cookbooks at Clarkson Potter, who co-wrote cookbooks with designer Zac Posen and former “Chew” co-star Daphne Oz. Gaines “has an enormous, devoted fan base, and people are enamored of the brand and what she represents. Her food is approachable and relatable — that’s what resonates with them.”
Adeena Sussman, who lived for weeks at a time with Chrissy Teigen when she co-wrote the celebrity’s two hit cookbooks, said she was “not surprised in the least” at the success of “Magnolia Table.”
“When Chrissy’s book first came out, I’m sure people bought it to see her lifestyle,” she says. “The book had legs because the recipes were incredible.”
Joanna Gaines’s recipe partner was Marah Stets, known for her work on the 1997 edition “Joy of Cooking,” “Guy Fieri Family Food” and the “Forks Over Knives” cookbooks. I don’t know how much quality time Stets got to spend on site, because she signed a nondisclosure agreement, but photographer Amy Neunsinger, whose name is on the “Magnolia Table” cover (unlike Stets’s) provided insight.
“The recipes had been tested, so by the time we got them they were ready to go,” she says. “A lot are her friends’ and family’s recipes.” A food stylist made the dishes for the shoot, and they were chosen by Joanna’s team, in part based on the ingredients being readily available in Waco. They wanted a look of simplicity.
“Joanna was very hands-on, and she could not have been more lovely,” Neunsinger says. “I know that Jo had total say in this book.”
Gaines declined an interview for this story, but she wrote this on her blog in 2018:
“In the spring we opened our restaurant, Magnolia Table, and I released my first cookbook of the same name. Seeing those projects come to life was a dream realized for our family. For us, it’s not just about recipes or eating out at a restaurant, but time spent around the table sharing a meal together. Being intentional about these everyday moments was the heart behind both of these projects.”
It’s not often that a restaurant cookbook is underway before the restaurant has even opened. I did not know that was the case when “Magnolia Table” first crossed my desk, but it doesn’t matter. It does make me think that the book was part of a marketing strategy. Not nefarious, but rather very forward-thinking and assured. A small number of the recipes are identified as being served at the restaurant.
I reexamined the book. Pretty standard stuff with a couple of tweaky bits such as vinegar in the guacamole (in addition to the citrus juice). Chili with Rotel tomatoes. LOTS of salted butter. Heyday Paula Deen amounts. Twelve ounces of it in less than two dozen Jojo’s Biscuits. In the Eggs Benedict Casserole recipe, there is a pound of it — plus 18 whole eggs, 8 egg yolks, 3 cups of dairy, 12 English muffins and 10 ounces of Canadian bacon. The dish serves 12 to 14.
A longtime volunteer recipe tester for The Post took the casserole assignment. She had trouble with the recipe’s hollandaise accompaniment and left that for us to redo. She dropped off the casserole and later asked via email: Did the sauce work? Was the whole thing sodden with butter? She also recommended that if we published the recipe, we ought to include directions to place the thing on a lower oven rack, on top of a baking sheet. So much butter had pooled on the surface during baking that the fat spat, causing much smoke.
Honestly, that list of ingredients kept me from digging in. What I do know is that the casserole was so dense it stayed warm for a long time. Food Lab tasters took judicious helpings and did not wax enthusiastic; in truth, some of them might have overheard me going on about the amount of eggs. I did sample the sauce, as did others, and it just didn’t taste right.
Another tester I trust made the Dulce de Leche Apple Pie. Such a good idea, combining that rich caramel with the spiced, cooked-down fruit. Except that, too, would have benefited from baking sheet protection. There were enough oven clouds to set off the smoke detector — this time, caused by drips of syrupy pie filling. (You can see a bit of char on the side that leaked, in the above photo.) The pie tasted okay, but the brown squiggly bits among the apples — the dulce de leche? — were not appealing.
Tasters tore up the Baked Chicken With Bacon Bottom and Wild Rice , oblivious to its recipe-testing issues. The taste of canned cream of soup took them back to a simpler time! The bacon is not cooked before it lines the pan, so between its rendered fat, the butter within and brushed atop the surface layer of chicken tenders, the casserole exuded so much grease that it needed to be poured off. Should I mention the oven spatters, too? That would be piling on.
“Magnolia” meatloaf looked nothing like the one so nicely presented on Joanna’s kitchen island, which is not a dealbreaker. The mix calls for crushed saltines and shredded cheddar, and however tasty a combo that sounds, the payoff for me is a next-day, cold meatloaf sandwich. But the cracker pieces stayed mushy, and the cheese congealed. Sad face.
Forget all our quibbles. Seriously. Legions of cooks on Instagram are thrilled to make “Magnolia Table” recipes and show off their handiwork. They tag #magnoliatable, #magnoliatablecookbook, #magnoliamarket, #magnolia, #joannagaines, #chipandjoannagaines, #chipgaines, #waco, #fixerupper. They bake and photograph Joanna’s Lemon Bundt Cake with varying degrees of icing thickness and swoon over her White Cheddar Bisque. Even when something goes awry, they tend to cite operator error.
Vancouver, B.C., resident Wendy Underwood, 43, had not watched “Fixer Upper” and barely knew who the Gaineses were. She began posting about “Magnolia Table” once she noticed friends and followers were interested in the book. It is one of a hundred she has tested and posted about as @kitchenvscookbook.
Of the three “Magnolia” recipes she tried, only the chocolate chip cookies were mildly disappointing. “They’re great when fresh, but seemed to get dry and stale very quickly, probably because they don’t use much butter.”
Underwood’s final assessment: “The flavors and ingredients used aren’t too challenging or experimental for most North American palates.”
That pretty much sums up mine, too, which is why I did not rank it among the best cookbooks of 2018. “Magnolia Table” recipes did not seem particularly fresh in their takes on the classics, however nicely they were presented. When you factor out the celebrity status and lifestyle allure, what is left? An added minor annoyance: Because of the way the book is bound, you must add a weight on either side to keep it open. I used a river rock and full water bottle.
Yet all those fans give me pause. Is it food snobbery? I like a good tuna casserole as much as the next guy, and I was raised on frozen vegetables and canned soups. I am not anti-celebrity; I listed both Teigen books. Am I, like some other food media types, out of touch with how much of America cooks and eats? “Magnolia Table” Amazon reviews are so overwhelmingly positive.
“I think the Gaineses might be the Nickelback of the cookbook world,” Underwood tells me. “Diehard fans clamor for anything they touch, but critics/media discount them. My hunch is that this book is easy to overlook because it doesn’t have a tight theme and isn’t too exotic.”
So, that’s the future of megahit cookbooks, I reckon. First, get a lifestyle.