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Cookbooks answer: What would Tony Soprano eat?
Andy Griffith always saved room for Aunt Bee’s rhubarb pie. The Brady bunch couldn’t wait for Alice’s meatloaf. It’s not Sunday in Tony Soprano’s house without gravy. And everyone knows that Don Draper enjoys an old fashioned now and then.
What you probably didn’t know is just how robust an industry has been cooked up around helping fans eat like their favorite TV characters.
Because for about as long as viewers have been sucked into the lives of the Bradys, the Sopranos and the will-they-won’t-they ups and downs of Rachel and Ross, a surprising number of them also have hankered for the characters’ on-screen eats. And cookbook publishers have been happy to oblige.
Fans have responded. Ken Beck’s 1991 “Aunt Bee’s Mayberry Cookbook” has sold 900,000 copies. Michele Scicolone says her 2002 book, “The Sopranos Family Cookbook,” has sold 10 times as many copies as her other cookbooks. Publisher John Wiley and Sons‘ 2007 Sesame Street branded “C is for Cooking” flew off the shelves.
For context, publishers today often consider a cookbook modestly successful if it sells 20,000 to 30,000 copies.
“Those books do really well for us, especially during holiday season,” says Jessica Goodman, associate publisher at Wiley, which offers several TV tie-ins, including “SpongeBob's Kitchen Mission” and “Dora and Diego Let’s Cook.”
The genre of television-inspired cookbooks likely traces itself back to movies. Tie-in books have been around at least since the Pebeco Toothpaste company published the “Gone with the Wind Cook Book” in 1940.
Some TV-inspired cookbooks feature well thought out recipes created by experienced culinary professionals, such as Scicolone (who is better known for cookbooks dedicated to Italian home cooking). Others are essentially community cookbooks that are untested or barely tested. But none of that seems to matter to fans.
“A lot of good people are brought on to produce them from time to time, but people buy them because it’s a lark,” says Matt Sartwell, manager of the New York cookbook store Kitchen Arts and Letters. “Most of the time people don’t even think about the recipes. Most people understand we’re talking about fictional characters.”
Some of the books, such as the recently released “The Unofficial Mad Men Cookbook,” border on culinary anthropology. Just in time for the long-awaited start of the show’s fifth season (March 25), the cookbook offers an exhaustive history of New York dining in the 1960s, right down to the actual recipes used in Draper haunts like Sardi’s and The Grand Central Oyster Bar.
For her first Sopranos cookbook _ there’s also a follow up, the 2006 “Entertaining with the Sopranos” _ Scicolone drew on her family recipes and those of series creator David Chase to imagine what the New Jersey mafia don and his family might really have eaten.
“Whenever I write a recipe I always try to put myself in the place where I had this recipe or what inspired me,” Scicolone says. “So in the case of the Sopranos, instead of thinking of that time on the Amalfi coast, I was thinking `What would (Tony’s wife) Carmella make if it was late and she was coming home after selling real estate all day?’”
Other books are intended primarily as fan documents.
“We were just fans of the Andy Griffith Show,” says Beck, who wrote “Aunt Bee’s Mayberry Cookbook” with co-author Jim Clark. “We knew how we loved the show and we knew how fans felt. We filled it with photos and dialogue from scenes around food. We gave all the recipes names based on Mayberry characters.”
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