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Do Mario Batali’s Cookbooks Still Have a Place on Our Shelves?

The chef’s book sales have fallen dramatically while readers wrestle with what to do with their existing copies

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Mario Batali signing cookbooks Photo by Jason Kempin/WireImage

In December 2017, celebrity chef Mario Batali was accused of sexual misconduct by women in the culinary community and members of his own staff. Since then, other reports have surfaced, accusing the chef of groping fans at book signings and more inappropriate behavior within his own restaurants; he is now under criminal investigation for an assault that allegedly happened in 2004.

Immediately after the news broke, Batali was removed from the cast of The Chew, and other pending television deals, including a reboot of his popular television series Molto Mario, were cancelled. Many of Batali’s restaurants, including Eataly, the food emporium he owns with Joe Bastianich, removed the chef’s branded sauces, pastas, and cookbooks from shelves as soon as the news hit; three of his restaurants — Carnevino Italian Steakhouse, B&B Ristorante, and Otto Enoteca e Pizzeria, all in Las Vegas — eventually announced their impending closures.

But as his signature sauces and pastas come off shelves, and as his restaurant holdings come undone, the 11 cookbooks he wrote — titles like Mario Batali Simple Italian Food, The Babbo Cookbook, and Molto Italiano, which helped cement him as one of the most famous chefs in the U.S. — still live on public and private bookshelves. In some ways, they’re bystanders to a legacy that is collapsing.

For longtime food writer Adam Roberts, also known as the Amateur Gourmet, cleaning out his bookshelves last month meant putting the two Batali cookbooks he had on his shelves atop his trash can. “I hate throwing out books,” he wrote on Instagram, “but it’s time for these to go.” He told Eater that he “couldn’t stand to see Mario’s face on my bookshelf after reading about his behavior towards women.” (In a piece titled “What should I do with my Mario Batali cookbooks now?” The Takeout’s editor Kevin Pang wrestled with similar questions last month, deciding to relegate his personal collection of Batali books to the basement, at least for the time being.)

Books — which often live on bookshelves at home for years, forming personal libraries — have proved an interesting site for the debate. Publishers that have worked with Batali in the past, including Kingswell (The Chew: What’s for Dinner), Ecco (Molto Italiano, Molto Gusto), Clarkson Potter (The Babbo Cookbook), Grand Central Life & Style (Mario Batali Big American Cookbook), and Rizzoli (How to Eataly), say they are not reprinting any of Batali’s existing titles. The publisher of the long-awaited Casa Mono Cookbook, a book tied to an NYC restaurant Batali has a vested interest in, says “Clarkson Potter and the authors of The Casa Mono Cookbook have mutually agreed not to move forward with its publication”; when the book was announced in 2016, Batali was slated to write its foreword.

(One possible outlier: A forthcoming title called Eataly: All About Pasta will be published on schedule by Rizzoli in October; a spokesperson for the publisher wrote that “Mario Batali was not involved in this book in any way.”)

While business partners, large event planners, and producers moved quickly to cut ties with Batali to avoid becoming a part of his downfall, the restaurants he founded (and that haven’t announced closures) are largely still busy. But his book sales are faltering. According to booksellers, Batali’s books aren’t in high demand with consumers: Batali hasn’t had a hit cookbook in years. In 2016, the Mario Batali Big American Cookbook sold around 30,000 copies, landing it just narrowly on the best-seller list in November of that year. That’s a solid showing, but nothing compared to the estimated 406,599 copies Ina Garten sold that same year. According to Nielsen BookScan, a publisher-focused source of sales data that is estimated to tally at least half of all book sales, all of Batali’s 11 titles sold nearly 11,000 copies last year combined. Through June of this year, per BookScan, Batali’s entire oeuvre has sold fewer than 1,000 copies.

Matt Sartwell, owner of New York City’s lauded Kitchen Arts & Letters, a bookstore for food obsessives, says that sales of Batali’s books have declined steadily over the years. “To be honest, our business with Batali books had fallen off a long time ago,” he says. “We haven’t sold a Batali book in past six months” — when the news of Batali’s behavior first broke. “At the moment we have one book in stock.” According to sales numbers on Baker & Taylor — one of the big book wholesalers that also sells by book rather than only by case — “only three of the 11 books that he’s published have each sold one copy” in the past 30 days, Sartwell says. “Most people have heard about what’s happened and they’ve made their own decisions on that.”

Batali’s books on Amazon are also not among the site’s top sellers. (Amazon appears to be low on stock of once-popular titles like The Babbo Cookbook (2002), Mario Batali Simple Italian Food: Recipes from My Two Villages (1998), Molto Gusto: Easy Italian Cooking (2010), and others.) Barnes & Noble, which did not respond to a request for comment, still has Batali’s books on display at locations in New York City, Dallas, Chicago, and Los Angeles. But “I haven’t gotten a request for that author in probably the last year,” a staffer at a location in New York City says.

Over in San Francisco at Omnivore Books, owner Celia Sack tells Eater via email that Batali’s books “were never terribly popular because my customers rarely buy books by ‘celebrity chefs,’ but now, especially, I can’t wait to just have them off my shelves.” She’s not actively stocking the books, though “I think I have one or two in stock that I’ve had for a few years, and now have to assume I’ll be stuck with them forever.” Sack doesn’t plan to push the books aside, but she’s grateful she dodged a similar bullet a few years back: “At least I never carried Paula Deen’s books.”

Sales aside, for independent book sellers, the question of whether to stock Batali’s books in light of the allegations can be more personal, as many have personal relationships with their shoppers. Despite sluggish sales, bookstore owners and representatives tell Eater that removing books from shelves constituted censoring, not simply selective merchandising. “We take the stance of most public bookstores,” says Sartwell. “We don’t censor, per se. As book sellers we’re sensitive to the idea that somehow that we ought to decide not to carry someone because of pressure in the public space, but we resist that in the way that librarians resist that.”

“That isn’t to say that if someone came and pulled a book off the shelf they’d say, ‘Hey I heard some news about that author…’” Sartwell says. “We’d discuss it; that’s how we address is, is to open that conversation up.”

General interest bookstores appear to be applying similar store policies. At one of the shops closest to Batali’s restaurants, the Strand in Manhattan, managers say they’ve removed Batali’s books from front-facing displays and tables of featured books, and do not plan to reorder any, but that any that are in stock remain on shelves, in the cookbook section. A spokesperson says that the company’s “policy when accusations come out against authors is to pull their books from all tables and displays, but leave the copies we have on the shelves.”

Powell’s in Portland, Oregon, one of the country’s largest independent bookstores, is taking a similar approach. “Powell’s inventory consists of millions of titles, and since our founding in 1971 it has been our position that we do not censor the titles we offer, but rather let our customers make the choice about what they read,” says Powell’s director of marketing Kim Sutton. “As a result, our inventory includes many titles by authors whose behavior and views with which we disagree. While we don’t have any plans to remove Batali’s books from our inventory, we do not have any plans to promote his works, either.”

Many diners are now avoiding Batali’s restaurants, where so much of his alleged misconduct transpired. Batali’s flagging book sales in 2018 suggest readers might be doing the same.

But for some, drawing that line for cookbooks and recipes we’ve brought into our homes and cooked for our loved ones — where Batali’s name and face was on the cover but he wasn’t physically there — isn’t as easy. Recipes generally don’t stand up in court as intellectual property, allowing, for some, a little bit of ethical wiggle room. And unlike with restaurants or licensing deals, it’s likely that Batali does not financially benefit from a new sale of a book. As a celebrity author, Batali was likely paid a large advance up front; only after a book has sold an agreed amount of copies will the author earn additional royalties. Regardless, most of Batali’s books are at least 10 years old at this point, so any potential royalties have dried up.

I don’t happen to own any of Mario Batali’s cookbooks, but if I did, I would have thrown them out by now. Like Roberts, I wouldn’t be able to stand to see Batali’s face on my shelf, as it’s a reminder of not only what he’s been accused of, but of all of the men who have ever taken advantage of women in the world of food. When there are hundreds of thousands of other recipes for eggplant caponata, Roman carbonara, gnocchi, pesto, and puttanesca, why not veer away from the ones that leave a bad taste in our mouths? It’s time, now, to move on and leave Batali and his library in the past where it belongs.