Food

Making Stock of the Piglet

The end of Food52’s venerable cookbook tournament is a loss for textually inclined home cook, but its impact lingers in our kitchens.

Collage of a flying pig hovering over a shelf of books.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by bazilfoto/iStock/Getty Images Plus, Guillaume Galtier/Unsplash, and Jessica Ruscello on Unsplash.

Late last month, the cooking website Food52 announced that the Piglet Tournament of Cookbooks, their decade-old feature pitting 16 competitors against one another in an NCAA-style bracketed contest, was no more. “The last few years in particular, we’ve seen that readership has fallen quite a bit,” the editors wrote, announcing that they planned to replace the yearly contest with a single competition asking community members to identify the best cookbooks of all time. (Disclosure: Slate has a reprint partnership with Food52.)

“Well, that stinks,” read the top comment on the site’s announcement, and we foodies here at Slate have to agree. Over the years, the Piglet, which asks chefs and other food-friendly personalities to judge the relative merits of cookbooks that sometimes had almost nothing in common except their publication dates, has produced some exceptional writing on the cookbook genre. And—anecdotally, at least!—it’s moved books off the shelves and onto readers’ kitchen counters. My Slate colleague Daniel Schroeder, a Food52 reader currently mourning the death of the competition, told me that the Piglet was his entry into the pocket-draining world of cookbook consumption. “Before the Piglet, I didn’t really think of the cookbook as more than a detailed collection of recipes,” he recalled. “I hadn’t considered them a cohesive text that conveyed a sense of food and atmosphere.” For somebody like my colleague Mark Morgioni, a Piglet fan since 2013 who has purchased multiple books via the contest, buying a winner could lead to a whole new world of kitchen endeavor. Thomas Keller’s Bouchon Bakery Cookbook, which made it to Round 3 in 2013, “changed the way I bake,” Morgioni told me over DM, “convincing me to buy a scale and cluttering my cabinet with an array of different flours and mix-ins.” (That’s the good kind of “clutter,” of course.)

Cookbooks, as any bewildered browser can tell you, vary tremendously in approach and quality. The randomness of the Piglet‘s bracket system really worked to highlight this fact. The judges being asked to compare Giulia Melucci’s I Loved, I Lost, I Made Spaghetti to David Lebovitz’s The Sweet Life in Paris replicated the experience of the cooking-curious consumer, who might have a bit of money to invest in something new, but no idea how to pick. The judges were sometimes illustrious—Padma Lakshmi (Bottom of the Pot beats Season, 2019), Gwyneth Paltrow (Canal House Cooking beats The Big Sur Bakery Cookbook, 2010), Bill Buford (Brooks Headley’s Fancy Desserts beats My Paris Kitchen, 2015), Nora Ephron (Seven Fires beats Canal House Cooking, 2010). Their entries often felt vital and ad hoc in a way other celebrity writing isn’t. It’s also pretty funny, now, to look back at the comments on Paltrow’s 2010 entry, and see readers wondering why anyone would ask this actress to review cookbooks. How times have changed!

But I most liked the entries from less glitzy names that added creative touches: Kate Schelter’s (Night + Market beats BraveTart, 2018), which incorporated her original illustrations for each book, or Adam Roberts’ (Brooks Headley’s Fancy Desserts beats A Kitchen in France, 2015), a critique in graphic novel form that handily illustrated his argument about the two books’ difference in tone. Other entries were full of unexpected moments. Ryan Sutton (Heritage beats Prune, 2015) described pouring hot water on each beautiful cookbook, to see how their coffee-table pages would hold up in the kitchen. Former Slate editor David Plotz (Samarkand over Taste of Persia, 2017) ended his comparison of the two meals he cooked with a little story about Tamerlane’s bloody 1383 conquest of Persia. (Classic Plotz!)

The best Piglet reviews helped me articulate what I like, and don’t like, about cookbooks. And the enthusiastic commenters’ responses to each critique were addictively lively. Every year, a few reviewers came under fire for not cooking enough of the recipes from each of the competitors; most years, one of the cookbook authors, or their relatives (!), would appear in the comments to defend themselves or their kin; every year, a commenter or two would shake their head with frustration at the very idea of comparing such dissimilar books. I learned so much from reading the Piglet comments about why people cook, how they evaluate recipes, and what they expect from cookbooks. (I also learned to always check out new cookbooks from the library, before buying—an excellent tip!)

Ah, well. Maybe such a bizarre beast was too good for this world. The Piglet is dead; long live the Piglet.

Food52 has a roundup here, with links to the final entries in each year’s contest and recipes from the winners.