Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Each Recipe, In Its Place

Photo courtesy Stock.Xchng / Plattmunk with modifications by Pete

Much of the time, the blogging community is a warm, happy place. There's lots of love to go around. But book publishing? Not necessarily...

I learned years ago that if you're going to be an author in the book publishing world, you'd better have a thick skin. Some people will love your work. Inevitably, though, others will not. And when they don't, they aren't shy about saying so.

This is only fair. People are entitled to their opinions, and here at No Gluten, No Problem, we certainly haven't held back in any of our product, bakery or restaurant reviews. We simply provide our candid and honest feedback. If we love something, we say so. If we don't, we tell you why. (We expect the same of reviews of our cookbooks...)

I imagine, though, that sometimes our negative reviews must sting a bit for the companies reading them. Fortunately, I get the sense that most of the companies that have been on the critical end of our reviews have taken our comments in stride and considered them a form of constructive criticism, which they are.

This is how I approach reviews of my and our books. You delight in the positive, and either absorb the negative as unsolicited constructive input for future improvement or simply move past it. For this reason, I seldom respond to negative reviews. Very little comes of doing so. It just looks unnecessarily defensive on the part of the author.

I have made exceptions to this rule, however. Such as the time a reader criticized our first cookbook, Artisanal Gluten-Free Cooking, because our Artisan Gluten-Free Flour Blend uses some sorghum flour, and this particular person didn't tolerate sorghum well. In that instance, I interjected to offer an ingredient substitution whereby they could make a sorghum-free version of the flour blend, so that they could still enjoy the baking recipes in the cookbook.

I can count - probably on one hand, and certainly not requiring more than one or two fingers on my second hand - the number of times I have done this. Usually, it's when I feel that a reviewer gets a substantive, factual aspect of the review wrong, or less often, when I strongly disagree with their perspective. (Most of the time, I just bite my tongue and grin and bear it...)

It is the most recent instance that has prompted me to write today's post. A reviewer took our first cookbook to task - pretty harshly, I might add - almost exclusively on the basis that our gluten-free cookbook contains some naturally gluten-free recipes. Within the same week, I saw my friend and fellow gluten-free blogger, Shirley, of Gluten Free Easily, praise Silvana Nardone's Cooking For Isaiah because it contained naturally gluten-free recipes which fit with Shirley's gluten free easily approach to the GF lifestyle.

The juxtaposition of those two diametrically opposed viewpoints prompted me to think more about the spectrum of gluten-free recipes, and which ones do or don't have a place in gluten-free cookbooks.

My thoughts are probably best shared in the context of my reply to the critical reviewer who didn't appreciate the naturally GF recipes in our GF cookbook. I made several points:

First, the cookbook was and remains an expression of us as people and food lovers. The recipes we included in Artisanal Gluten-Free Cooking are recipes we make regularly in our everyday living. Just as our tastes are eclectic (hence you'll find a wide variety of international cuisine in the book), our tastes also encompass a range of dishes that are either naturally gluten-free, made gluten-free with simple ingredient substitutions (such as swapping tamari wheat-free soy sauce for regular soy sauce in an Asian dish), or which are "specialty" gluten-free recipes that require heavy modification. Quite simply, to omit the naturally gluten-free dishes would also be to omit a part of ourselves from the book.

Second, when a specialty cookbook such as a gluten-free cookbook omits naturally GF recipes in favor of only specialty GF recipes, it forces you, the reader, to buy one cookbook for the specialty recipes, and another cookbook for the naturally GF recipes. By writing an inclusive cookbook that captures naturally GF, GF with simple subs, and specialty GF recipes, we offer "one stop shopping" where a wide array of GF recipes can be found under one convenient roof. There are many wonderful GF cookbooks that take this approach. In addition to us and Silvana, you can also look to the cookbooks of Shauna and Danny at Gluten-Free Girl and the Chef. Or Elana at Elana's Pantry. Or Amy at Simply Sugar and Gluten-Free. Or Carol at Carol Fenster Cooks. We're in good company.

Finally, I couldn't help but notice that the critical reviewer made frequent mention of several vegetarian cookbooks in his review of Artisanal Gluten-Free Cooking. Would he apply a similar critique to those vegetarian cookbooks, I asked? Should vegetarian cookbooks omit naturally vegetarian recipes? And only include those recipes which offer vegetarian versions of traditional meat dishes? I suggested he consider gluten-free cookbooks by this same standard. (Which you could apply to any specialty cookbook - Should dairy-free cookbooks omit naturally dairy-free recipes, and contain only recipes which make dairy-free versions of dishes that might otherwise contain cow's milk, cheese or yogurt?)

Naturally gluten-free recipes have a place in gluten-free cookbooks, I concluded.

The reviewer's response surprised me. He considered gluten-free and vegetarian cookbooks to be in different leagues; they were held to different standards; he didn't want naturally GF recipes in his GF cookbooks. His rationale: gluten-free is such a restrictive diet compared to vegetarian, and therefor he had different expectations when it came to a cookbook.

I declined to comment further. While I respected his opinion, I disagreed with it. But I also sensed that I wasn't going to change his mind. Maintaining the dialogue wouldn't necessarily yield any fruitful outcome for either side. Which was fine.

But his comment on the alleged restrictive nature of the GF diet gave me a fourth and important final point. Being gluten-free doesn't have to be overly restrictive, and it doesn't have to be difficult. As Shirley will tell you, you can be gluten-free easily!

When someone first goes gluten-free after a diagnosis, the immediate reaction is sometimes one of "Oh my gosh! What can I eat? There's nothing for me to eat!" Actually, there's plenty you can eat. And it doesn't have to be fancy, expensive specialty gluten-free baked goods. The road to healthy gluten-free eating starts with naturally gluten-free foods. (What's more, if the GF diet is so restrictive, why make it more so by omitting naturally GF recipes from cookbooks?)

But when you're diagnosed and told to go gluten-free, where do you find those foods? You look to cookbooks. Gluten-free cookbooks. And thank goodness so many great gluten-free cookbooks (hopefully you'll include ours in that list) include naturally gluten-free recipes.

When you're a part of a diet-restricted food community, you come to better appreciate inclusiveness; having a place at the table. From my perspective, we should extend that inclusiveness to recipes in our cookbooks.

That's just me, though. What's your take on it? I'd love to know.

- Pete


Laura said...

Pete, I couldn't agree with you more. In fact, I spell out the same three categories (naturally gf/simple subs/specialty) in the intro to my book, "The Gluten-Free Asian Kitchen". They're all important in the big picture of gluten-free cooking.

Also, just because something is naturally gf doesn't mean the reader is familiar with it. It's a bit of a stretch to offer a recipe for say, mixed greens with vinaigrette, but recipes for tapioca dumplings, Breton crepes, or tamales potentially add value. There's more to balanced eating than just gluten-free breads and baked goods.

sweetchipsMS said...

I would prefer that the recipes be predominantly GF and not naturally GF. I love your book and have learned so much from you and your blog, but I am an accomplished cook so I don't need naturally GF entries much. But I also agree with Laura that when they are unusual recipes like those she mentioned, that's fine. Mostly I want how to translate recipes to my new lifestyle. Your master blend is the best and choices like the pizza, muffins, etc. have helped me not only learn but also have shown me how delicious GF can be. People should thumb through each book and decide if it's what they want. I highly recommend your book to friends who are only cutting back :)

Claudette said...

Peter, your cookbook was the first one I bought when I was diagnosed with celiac a year ago. The blend of recipes was *exactly* what I loved about it. I'm a foodie and the blend of recipes helped me know how to approach my other cookbooks (particularly my Moosewood Collective books) to eat healthily. In my opinion being strictly adaptive has the danger or restricting a worldview; It's too easy to believe "if it's not in the book I can't eat it."

theMom said...

I agree with you, Pete. Having a source for successful GF recipes that involve a large amount of substitution and specialty ingredients is great. But in my opinion, it's more helpful to learn about the many things one can eat that perhaps one had not thought of. There are so many things that one can eat that are naturally GF. And learning how to include or remembering to include those things in a GF diet is very helpful.

The naturally Gf cooking becomes even more important if one is on a limited income. The specialty baking can be cost prohibitive compared to using "all purpose flour or even whole wheat flour. So, too with GF pasta or pre-processed GF ingredients such as soup bases and Gf tortillas. But cooking with meat and rice and potatoes and vegetables and simple homemade sauces is cost effective.

But it is different than a mainstream diet. I have found it very helpful to be reminded of a particular dish, that perhaps I never realized is GF or an easily be made GF.

Stephanie said...

I personally appreciate having the all-purpose cookbooks. The first GF cookbook I ever bought (written by some local girls) has a ton of naturally GF recipes, but like you pointed out, they're recipes that go along with the theme of the cookbook, what these people incorporate into their daily lives. I enjoy the way they make their specialty foods, therefore it would make sense that I see what other recipes they rely on regularly.
I'm also a person that does a lot of research when trying a new recipe. Because of that, I appreciate having multiple approaches to something new, and will often consult several of my GF cookbooks, along with my trusty ol' Betty Crocker and BHG cookbooks before I jump in.
Great topic, and some good insight on the giving and taking of criticism :)

Kari said...

I wish there was a cookbook out there that is just naturally GF and Dairy free recipes. It would make my life so much easier. I have the GF cookbooks that tell me how to make bread, cakes, etc.,

M Smith said...

Peter - you can't please all of the people all of the time. and some people are so narrow minded and negative that all they can do is see only their way of thinking and delight in arguing that way 'til their death. Ron N. et al. isn't worth your intellect.

For what it is worth, I like the mix. And I firmly believe that far too many people give very little thought to the food they eat until they are diagnosed with a condition that requires dietary restrictions like Celiac disease. So call me crazy, but I'm betting that most of those critics probably don't even realize what is 'naturally' gluten free when they start out. It is an unfortunate side effect of the American way of eating in the modern world.

Anonymous said...

My husband has celiac disease and I do all of the food shopping and food prep for our family of 4. Our house is virtually GF, mainly so I'm not cooking 2 different meals at a time. I go out of my way to serve GF recipes to guests to prove that GF is not restrictive and that we aren't missing much. In the months since we've gone GF, we prefer the naturally gf recipes to the modified recipes. Modified recipes and substitute foods seem to cost much more money than NGF foods and seem to also be less nutritious. And we very much enjoy exploring this new world of food that this disease has forced us to find. We never knew we'd love quinoa as much as we do!

Keri said...

We love your cookbook and find it a great mix of recipes our whole family enjoys. My son experiences some health issues that he can not eat gluten and other foods. He is almost 12 years old and it was emotional to give up things he enjoyed and eat different then his peers. He loves to cook and wants to be a chef so food has to taste great, even gf. As a family we have all gone gluten free to support him and it is easier not cooking different meals. I love that your cookbook has such a variety of recipes and it shows people that there is lots of foods you can still eat being gluten free. Giving up gluten can be very overwhelming at first and I find your cookbook has such a nice variety of foods that are easy to prepare and taste great. Your Artisanal Gluten Free Cooking book is a fav in our house with both us and my childrens friends(who do not eat gf)We are making the chinese chicken lettuce wraps for dinner tonight. Thank you for a well used and loved cookbook.

gfe--gluten free easily said...

Pete, thanks so much for the mentions. I must admit this new "battle" on the gluten-free front has caught me by surprise. Frankly, it just seems inane. Are these reviewers looking at gluten-full cookbooks and "marking them down" because there are recipes in them that don't contain gluten? Not exactly the same I know, but totally ridiculous IMHO. You really handled this situation in the best way possible. Last, I trully believe that the more naturally gluten free we are, the easier, healthier, and less expensive your gluten-free lives will be.


Maura van der Linden said...

Hmm - that's an interesting point of view and, like you, I sort of see where the reviewer is coming from but I don't actually agree that it's a requirement for all recipes to be "Made" gluten-free instead of naturally gluten-free.

I love to see the variety of foods and recipes that can be enjoyed while still being gluten-free. There's a richness there that I don't think is well known and I know I've been thanked for including recipes in my weekly round up that are naturally gluten-free but are not on the blogs or websites of dedicated gluten-free bloggers.

I have enough cookbooks that will teach me whatever flour mix the authors really like and how to bake with it. But that doesn't help when I'm looking for a side-dish for Thanksgiving that the children in the family won't turn their noses up at :)

peterbronski said...

Hi Everyone... Thanks for sharing your perspectives! It's insightful to see how other people approach the "appropriate recipe" question. A lot of great points made!

Cheers, Pete

LP said...

Pete, I bought your cookbook "Artisanal Gluten Free Cooking" when I was diagnosed with celiac over a year ago. The reason I love it is because it has "normal" recipes that I could see myself actually making. A lot of GF cookbooks I find have very unusual dishes that I couldn't see making very often. I love it and have recommended it and your website to everyone that I have come to know as gluten free and those who are not GF but want to learn to cook gluten free for me and others. A lot of people don't know what is naturally GF and what is not. So this book is very helpful. Thanks for "all" kinds of recipes inluding naturally gluten free.