It all started in 2008 with Jennifer McLagan's Fat: An Appreciation of a Misunderstood Ingredient, with Recipes.
Somehow I knew that slim cookbook with its evocative photos of glistening white fat clinging to crimson meat was going to be an award winner. The topic was provocative; the book beautifully produced by Ten Speed Press. Whereas fat was our previous enemy, Food Network chefs were convincing us what Julia Child had been saying all along: "Fat gives things flavor."
McLagan seized that moment and won the James Beard Foundation award in 2009 for the best cookbook of the year.
I knew it. So ever since then, as I look over the cookbooks that cross my desk daily, I mentally check off which ones will be likely James Beard nominees. I was right about Nathalie Dupree's Mastering the Art of Southern Cooking, last year's best American cookbook, and I figured Yotam Ottolenghi's Jerusalem would be another James Beard darling. (He won in the international category.) Martha Holmberg's Modern Sauces was a good guess, too. (She was a finalist in single subject.)
This year's winners will be announced Friday, and I would put money down that Amy Stewart's The Drunken Botanist: The Plants that Create the World's Great Drinks will take the beverage category. And I am also rooting for Amy Thielen's The New Midwestern Table: 200 Heartland Recipes in the American cooking genre.
What I am not so good at is predicting the bestselling books of the year, because rarely do the top sellers win the big awards. Unless you count money as a big award.
For instance, I didn't give Kay Robertson's Miss Kay's Duck Commander Kitchen a second look. It didn't much hold my interest, nor does the TV show from which it springs, Duck Dynasty. It sold 290,000 copies last year, second only to the No. 1 bestselling cookbook, A Year of Holidays by Ree Drummond.
Drummond, a superstar food blogger at ThePioneerWoman.com who has a show on the Food Network, has three of the top six selling cookbooks. Those three books sold 670,000 copies last year, and two weren't even published in 2013. To put it in perspective, the year that McLagan won the James Beard award, Fat sold about 25,000 copies.
It's not a phenomenon unknown to other genres of books. Many bestselling authors of fiction — James Patterson, Dan Brown and Nicholas Sparks to name three — are rarely among the names mentioned as writing the most noteworthy books of any years. This despite selling millions of copies of their works and having them made into movies.
So what gives?
As you look over the accompanying lists of best-selling food books and James Beard finalists, you'll notice a couple things that separate them. Most of them, anyway.
TV, for one. The Internet, for another.
Half of the bestsellers are written by people with significant television presence — Drummond, Robertson, Mario Batali, Ina Garten, Michael Symon, Giada De Laurentiis, Bobby Deen. Drummond and Deb Perelman (smittenkitchen.com) amassed huge Web followings through their blogs before their books were launched. Both have a big video presence on YouTube. To sell big, an author needs a mainstream marketing source.
The other books on the bestselling list are diet and nutrition books whose authors tapped into the juicing and whole-foods eating trends, among others. Superstar food and science journalist Michael Pollan's Cooked was a bestseller last year. The paperback was published this month. I was surprised it didn't garner a Beard nod for the thoughtful author who won with the Omnivore's Dilemma in 2007.
Ottolenghi, the London chef whose work has been championed by the New York Times and many bloggers who have sung the praises of Jerusalem and Plenty, is the one outlier author. His bestselling books are also award winners.
So far this year, I have pinpointed Ryan Farr's Sausage Making: The Definitive Guide with Recipes and Ellen Brown's Mediterranean Cooking as James Beard nominees for 2015. They've got the look. Serious and beautiful, and their authors are plugged into contemporary culinary interests. And I am just a bit in love with Kim Sunée's A Mouthful of Stars: A Constellation of Favorite Recipes From My World Travels. It makes me want to cook.
Who will sell the most cookbooks this year?
I'll have to watch more TV to predict that one.
Janet K. Keeler can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8586. Follow @RoadEats on Twitter.