October 9, 2021 10:00:48 am
Written by Priya Krishna
Chelsea Monroe-Cassel is currently developing a recipe for a dish whose traditional version she’ll never be able to taste, and whose place of origin she’ll never be able to visit: Plomeek soup, a staple on the fictional planet Vulcan. In writing “The Star Trek Cookbook,” out next March, she has spent hours watching old episodes and movies from her home in West Windsor, Vermont, trying to deduce what might be in the reddish soup.
“We know shockingly little about Vulcan cuisine, given how much of a fan favorite Spock is,” she said. Some people believe that Vulcans are vegetarian, as their strong morals and fear of their own capacity for violence would mean they avoid food that requires slaughtering. But do those arguments hold up, she wondered, in a universe where meat can be replicated with machines?
The result: “A cold gazpacho with tomato and strawberry and a little bit of balsamic.”
Monroe-Cassel, 36, has dedicated her career to bringing to life the food of her favorite television shows, movies and games. She has written “A Feast of Ice and Fire: The Official Game of Thrones Companion Cookbook,” “The Elder Scrolls: The Official Cookbook,” “Firefly: The Big Damn Cookbook” and “World of Warcraft: The Official Cookbook.” Together they have sold more than 250,000 copies. She is not a trained chef, but she is hugely enthusiastic about pop culture food.
For fans like her, “it is a big way, a new and tangible way, of connecting with a world that they love,” she said.
“Video games are a form of escapism and books are a form of escapism,” she added, “and I think this is a form of escapism that appeals to extra senses.”
This genre has existed since at least the 1970s, with titles like “The Dark Shadows Cookbook,” “The Partridge Family Cookbook” and “The Little House Cookbook” from “Little House on the Prairie.” Of late, these books have grown significantly in popularity and scale. They’ve found a mainstream audience, and contain recipes that many people actually want to cook.
As streaming platforms have made media both more accessible and social, fans have turned their fascination into full-on lifestyles. Monroe-Cassel, for one, was just an enthusiast of the “A Song of Ice and Fire” series with a blog called The Inn at the Crossroads before she started writing these cookbooks. Others visit the “Star Wars” theme park, pose on the Central Perk couch from “Friends” and cosplay as Moira Rose from “Schitt’s Creek.”
“My generation, to know what people are interested in, you went through their record collection or their library,” said Charles Miers, 62, the publisher of Rizzoli New York. “Now you ask them what TV show they are watching.”
While early pop culture cookbooks were more like novelties, titles like the 2002 “Sopranos Family Cookbook,” which sold more than 142,000 copies, and 2010’s “The Unofficial Harry Potter Cookbook,” with more than 1 million books sold, showed this could be a genre in its own right. Major publishers like Penguin Random House have dedicated teams for pop culture books, which can be officially licensed from the franchise or unofficial. The cookbooks span subject matter both expected (“Bob’s Burgers,” “Ratatouille”) and eyebrow-raising (“The Walking Dead,” “Hannibal”).
As fan cultures have deepened, these cookbooks have evolved, too. Less prevalent are the ones that simply name recipes after characters. Today’s pop culture cookbooks are heavily researched tomes about their fictional worlds. They consider climates and character motivations. They fill in gaps in the narrative. Authors pore over every element — down to the props in recipe photos — so fans can feel fully immersed.
“For better or for worse, if a brand isn’t publishing and merchandising itself,” Miers said, “it isn’t as alive as fans want it to be.”
When chef and writer Nyanyika Banda started working on the upcoming “The Official Wakanda Cookbook” based on Marvel’s Black Panther comics, she knew Marvel’s rabid fan base would expect a high level of detail.
“If we had written this book 15 years ago, you probably could have gotten away with including a lot of things from the entire continent of Africa without giving explanation to why they existed,” said Banda, 39. “There is this need for people coming up with these recipes to know what they are talking about” in terms of both the comics and African foodways.
Banda’s recipes — like chambo, a traditional fish dish from Malawi — speak directly to Wakanda’s varying locations in Africa throughout the run of the comics.
Banda considered the role that colonialism played in adding a Western influence to certain African dishes, and how to explain that influence when they included those foods in the book — since Wakanda is supposed to be isolated from the rest of the world. (Banda found a solution in referencing more recent comics about Wakanda opening itself up to outsiders.)
This approach is a far cry from the early books in the genre, which place little emphasis on compelling recipes and complex storytelling.
Andrew Rea, who re-creates pop culture food on his YouTube show, “Binging With Babish,” owns a copy of “Cafe Nervosa: The Connoisseur’s Cookbook” from the show “Frasier,” filled with recipes for sandwiches and salads, accompanied by memorable quotations.
“That cookbook really is a piece of fandom,” he said.
When “The Sopranos Family Cookbook” was released in 2002, it felt like a departure from books like “Cafe Nervosa” — the tone (it was written in the voice of Artie Bucco) made it feel like an extension of the show.
“I didn’t want it to just be a celebrity cookbook where some superstar glamour person buys recipes from a recipe developer,” said the author, Michele Scicolone, 73. “I wanted to express the wonderful food that Italians and Italian Americans eat, so I took it very seriously. I would say a good amount of the recipes are ones I grew up eating.”
Author Dinah Bucholz’s proposal for “The Unofficial Harry Potter Cookbook” was fished out of a slush pile at Adams Media, and sold so well that it inspired a larger investment into these sorts of titles, said Brendan O’Neill, the editor-in-chief of Adams.
He said the company chooses pop culture properties for cookbooks based on depth, not breadth, of the fandom.
“People may love a series like ‘Survivor,’” he said, “but there is a bit of a disconnect between that and a cultural phenomenon and fan engagement you see on ‘Harry Potter’ and ‘The Simpsons’ where this universe exists.”
Bucholz said that fantasy series like “Harry Potter” and “Game of Thrones” lend themselves well to cookbooks because the food descriptions tend to be fairly detailed. “The authors clearly enjoyed writing about food,” she said. “They wrote about it with so much relish. It is such a major part of the characters’ lives.”
Fans, as a result, have high hopes when trying these foods themselves.
“It is the Narnia problem,” said Monroe-Cassel, who is writing “The Star Trek Cookbook.” “So many kids grow up reading about Turkish delight and thinking, ‘I have just got to have this,’ and they actually have Turkish delight and it is this wild disappointment.”
O’Neill said the demographic for these books tends to be amateur cooks in their 20s to 40s. But it’s unclear what percentage of them are actually cooking anything.
“I think a lot of people buy the books because they are just fans and collectors,” said Jennifer Sims, 47, a senior editor at Insight Editions. “Then you have the other half who like cooking and just will make one weekly meal from this particular book, or they will throw a viewing party.”
For some, the habit is beyond weekly. Rebekah Valentine, 30, a reporter at IGN Entertainment in Kansas City, Missouri, has cooked every recipe from the “World of Warcraft,” “Elder Scrolls” and “EarthBound” cookbooks. The hobby started in 2016, when she successfully made a turkey from the “World of Warcraft” cookbook she was given for Christmas.
“I had no cooking background, no experience,” she said. “But it was so well written and well explained.”
Her biggest gripe with these cookbooks is that ingredients can often be hard to find (like haggis, to make Ironforge Rations from “World of Warcraft”) or expensive.
Jenny Dorsey, 30, the author of the upcoming “Avatar: The Last Airbender: The Official Cookbook,” noticed that some pop culture recipes don’t consider regional nuances within non-Western cuisines. (Many authors in this genre are white.)
With “Avatar,” she saw countless recipes online that were “pretty cursory.” The recipe developer’s approach, she felt, was that “‘Avatar’ is Asian, so I made an Asian food.”
Those developers weren’t “responding to the fact that the creators had done a pretty good job of being clear” that certain nations are based on actual countries, and even geopolitical events, she said. The Fire Nation, for example, is supposed to be imperial Japan.
Dorsey’s recipes are specific to each nation’s climate and culture. For a stewed sea prune soup from the Water Nation, near the North and South Poles, she incorporated mushrooms because they grow in cold weather. Air Nation is supposed to represent Tibet and Nepal, so she developed a recipe for tsampa.
Vanessa Lopez, the vice president of licensing at Insight Editions, said creators are now asking more often that their properties be made into cookbooks.
Loren Bouchard, the creator of the television show “Bob’s Burgers,” even co-wrote the “Bob’s Burgers Burger Book,” based on pun-filled burger specials he and the writers formulate for every episode (for instance, “A Good Manchego Is Hard to Find”).
“On some level, we were preparing for the day that we were going to make a cookbook,” he said, as the names are created with the idea that they could be real burgers.
Even with the enormous success of these cookbooks, some authors, including Monroe-Cassel, said they were offered four-figure flat fees and no royalties for some projects, meaning that they wouldn’t share in the often considerable sales revenue from the book.
Monroe-Cassel also fears that in an attempt to squeeze the most money out of this genre, publishers may start churning out cookbooks for any remotely successful franchise, no matter how tenuous the food connection.
If a cookbook based on “The Matrix” comes out, she said, she’ll know the genre has jumped the shark.
In fact, one was released last December.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.
📣 The Indian Express is now on Telegram. Click here to join our channel (@indianexpress) and stay updated with the latest headlines
- The Indian Express website has been rated GREEN for its credibility and trustworthiness by Newsguard, a global service that rates news sources for their journalistic standards.