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.”
The recipes came from the show’s cast and crew, Beck says, as well as from members of The Andy Griffith Show Rerun Watchers Club, founded by Clark. Beck says the club has 25,000 members nationwide.
The duo went on to write two more Mayberry cookbooks, as well as a book containing the recipes of fictional cops (for instance, “Colombo”) and one with the vittles of fictional cowboys (think “Gunsmoke”). Their 1993 book “Mary Ann’s Gilligan’s Island Cookbook” contains recipes from Dawn Wells, the actress who played the show’s beguiling Mary Ann.
And “Granny’s Beverly Hillbillies Cookbook” (1994) offers recipes from the Clampett’s stamping ground in the Ozarks. Yes, we’re talking ground hog. “I got that from a friend of mine whose mother prepared ground hog in the Depression years,” Beck says.
Cookbooks as a general category do well for publishers, but having a television connection often gives them an extra push. Television shows have long seasons, an established audience and re-runs with the potential to constantly generate new customers.
The books also benefit from strong cross-promotional opportunities, Goodman says. For instance, customers searching Amazon or Barnes and Noble online for a Dora shirt or a SpongeBob toy might also be alerted to the cookbook, racking up collateral sales.
Some shows, like the Sopranos, make easy work for the writer by offering lots of scenes with food. In the ABC series “Desperate Housewives,” each character had her own particular culinary style.
“I felt as though I knew these characters, and that I could easily take their point of view and give them a voice in the kitchen,” says “The Desperate Housewives Cookbook” co-author Chris Styler, a chef and culinary consultant who says he was a big fan of the show.
“Some of these ideas, especially for Bree, were easier because she would go into more detail about what she was cooking,” Styler said. “Susan was just trying to keep her head above water. Lynette was always scrambling to get something on the table. Gabrielle never went anywhere near a kitchen.”
Other books require more imagination. For instance, the hit NBC series “Friends” largely takes place in a coffee shop, but little food gets eaten. The character Monica is a chef, but viewers rarely see her cook.
“We were trying to do food that made sense for young people living in Greenwich Village,” says Jack Bishop, co-author of “Cooking with Friends,” which includes recipes for oatmeal raisin cookies and iced mocha lattes, among other things.
Bishop, whose position as editorial director at America’s Test Kitchen (home of Cook’s Illustrated magazine) gives him uber-serious food credentials, says the book gives him a lighter note on his resume. “Most of what I do is pretty serious,” he says. “It’s nice to have some fun and do something a little outside the box.”
It also gave him awesome street cred with his teenage daughters, aged 13 and 16.
“Of all the things I’ve done in my career,” he says, “they think this is the best.”
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