Julee Rosso has a bad taste in her mouth. And she’s not the only one. Claiming her new low-fat recipes don’t work, food critics have sliced, diced, and julienned the star author in some of the worst press the cookbook world has ever seen. Is it all just sour grapes?
Great Good Food, the much-hyped solo effort from Rosso, who coauthored the wildly popular Silver Palate and New Basics cookbooks with Sheila Lukins, is being skewered by newspapers and magazines around the country. The headlines say it all: The Silver Is Tarnished and Less Filling! Tastes Lousy! Reviewers now describe a disorganized book filled with careless errors and disastrous cooking results. Newsweek even said one recipe tasted like ”shredded erasers.”
The funny thing is, Great Good Food was getting positive notices after its April publication. Then on June 9, The New York Times ran an extremely critical 1,900-word article by staff reporter Catherine Manegold that dismissed Great Good Food as ”well-meaning, but a mess.” Among the charges: that Rosso didn’t test her recipes sufficiently, that she’s a marketing whiz, not a chef, and — worst of all — that she copied a recipe from another cook (a charge Rosso has denied). One reviewer quoted in Manegold’s piece said it was one of the worst cookbooks he’d seen in years. The story was accompanied by a tough review by Florence Fabricant that noted that ”too many [recipes] are flawed by errors and lapses that could cause consternation in the kitchen and chagrin at the table.” Among them: a recipe for four that called for five pounds of tuna and a shrimp recipe using a quarter cup of sea salt. Times Living section editor Eric Asimov acknowledges that the newspaper would normally have killed such a negative review: ”But in this case, a very famous person made a lot of money on a cookbook, and a lot of people were saying it’s pretty useless.”
Rosso’s advance for her first solo book — $625,000 — was indeed enormous. But The New Basics and the two Silver Palate books, which she and Lukins cowrote in the 1980s, all had extraordinary records, selling more than 4.5 million copies combined. They made a Kraft Macaroni & Cheese generation yearn to create complicated, imaginative meals with the likes of sun-dried tomatoes, raspberry vinaigrette, and phyllo dough. Ironically, even these early books were objects of intense criticism from members of the squabbling, gossipy New York food community (or foodies, as they’re called).
Rosso and Lukins parted ways in 1988 and no longer speak. (Manegold’s article pins the bitter breakup on a newsletter item Rosso wrote in 1991.) Lukins received an advance ”about half” the size of Rosso’s for her own cookbook, to be published by Workman next spring. She calls the critical look at Rosso’s book not only fair, but justified. ”As a cookbook writer, you’re selling something,” Lukins says. ”You have a responsibility to the public to be as fine as possible.”
Some foodies feel Rosso has gotten a long-deserved comeuppance, but others think Manegold’s piece was unfair and even meanspirited. (Rosso, now living in Michigan, declined to be interviewed.) Says Nach Waxman, owner of Kitchen Arts & Letters, a New York store devoted to books on food and wine, ”The article was disproportionate to the subject — I mean, we’re not talking about finding the cure for cancer. It’s a cookbook.” Says Carole Lalli, Rosso’s editor, ”She got a huge advance, and that really rankles some people. I’m not saying Manegold herself was jealous, but that’s the ground swell behind the article.”
”I stand by my story absolutely,” says Manegold. ”I did a tremendous amount of research, and yes it may be unusual to do a critical, analytical piece about a cookbook, but it’s a very high-profile book that has been getting a lot of attention — both positive and negative. I tried to cover that.”
What some professionals feel she didn’t cover is the fact that first printings of cookbooks are often riddled with errors. Even Julia Child admits her last book, The Way to Cook (1989), had ”quite a few typos,” adding, ”You hope you get them all by the fourth or fifth edition.” Child is among those who believe that Rosso’s treatment in the Times may not have been fair. ”Not many people go through anything as thoroughly as they went through that book. I think they were out to find the worst mistakes they could,” she says.
Rosso isn’t the first cookbook author to feel her fellow foodies’ wrath. Martha Stewart, for example, so annoyed some colleagues that they moved her cookbooks to the humor sections in local bookstores. ”Martha got wicked treatment,” says Waxman. ”But it was never printed in The New York Times.”
Bickering aside, some valid criticisms of Great Good Food persist. At least two popular magazines, which asked not to be identified, pulled scheduled reviews of Rosso’s book after testing the recipes and getting unappetizing results. The food editor at one says that she tried 16 dishes from the book; all eight of the desserts tested were failures. ”She called for baking pans in sizes that don’t exist, she left out ingredients, and in one case the cooking time was off by 30 minutes.” Of the light appetizers: ”A couple of them looked like dog food, though the lentil tapenade didn’t taste bad. Then there was a beet dip — you could gag.”
According to Crown, Rosso’s publisher, the negative reviews haven’t stalled the book’s yeasty sales. With just under 300,000 paperback copies in print, Great Good Food hit national best-seller lists almost immediately. Waxman, though, says the book has been moving ”very, very slowly” in his store since the Times article appeared.
But the book won’t go quietly. Recently, 70 people phoned a special Washington Post hotline number to share their Rosso recipe results. Says Post Food section staffer Mary Batts Estrada, ”The callers were much more forgiving than the people at The New York Times or Newsweek.” And though the sales may be plummeting, interest in the controversy is not. Says Estrada: ”It’s a story that just won’t die.”