Remember the old, unillustrated days of cookbooks, when you
opened to a page of Mastering the Art of French Cooking, or Joy, and
your eyes always fell on an unbroken page of solid words?
Oh, you might get a diagram of primal cuts on a beefer or something
like that. But as for the recipes themselves? How they
were supposed to turn out was left to your imagination--which could
sharply diverge from what the author intended.
Cookbooks, once, were reference books--like a telephone book or
a computer manual. Pictures were expensive, especially in
color, and publishers trusted to the written word to get the job
done. And if you remember the food photography of the 1960's (have
a good look through James
Lileks' thoroughly amusing books if you don't), this was
probably just as well. Stuff just looked scary, even when it
wasn't sitting on a bed of green Jell-O with festive
novelty toothpicks stuck in.
Flash forward to 2012, when a majority of cookbooks come with
styled, mouthwatering photographs. They might be in a separate
gallery section. They might be blindingly glossy or muted,
printed on the same matte stock as the text. Often, there's one for
every recipe, and in some remarkable cases there's up to a dozen
process photographs - a staggeringly generous display.
So it comes as something of a
surprise when a well-promoted, reasonably visible cookbook turns up
with few or no illustrations. Personally, I think it's
refreshing. It re-focuses my attention on the author's voice
and the clarity of the instructions. This year's Bean by Bean is
one such--no pictures, just whimsical one-color drawings, and a
no-nonsense 2-column page format reminiscent of the Silver Palate
Cookbook. It worked, too. I never felt the lack of
a clarifying photograph. But then, legumes are tolerant of outcome,
and none too pretty anyway.
More surprising is when a baking
book attempts to go pic-less, as Emily Luchetti's The Fearless Baker did last year (line drawings
only). Same for this year's United States of Pie. You might imagine
that the meticulous nature of baking ought to make some kind of
illustration a must, yet Adrienne Kane manages to convey the
exacting details through word alone. I especially like her
details on kneading pie dough. She deliberately guides you
through sight, touch, and even sound (!) cues so you can get this
notoriously tricky step of the pie process right.
Why do so many cookbooks rely on photographs? There could be so
many reasons: an increasingly visual culture, the rise of food blog
photography, the economics of the digital revolution, the rise of
the app. It doesn't really matter. I'd just like to
make the point that it's still possible for a purely written
cookbook to equal and even surpass an illustrated one.
Photographs may be a valuable shortcut to visualizing what a
dish should look like - maybe even worth 1000 words. But you
can't beat print for nuance.