Eating with your eyes: books for the coffee table

On NPR yesterday evening, a reporter was speaking with an independent bookstore owner.  What was selling?  “Cookbooks,” the owner replied.  Coffee table cookbooks, the kind that never see the inside of a kitchen or the dirty underside of a spatula.

Back in the 1980’s, my dad and a couple of friends started a publishing company, Stewart Tabori & Chang, and produced a great many coffee-table books focusing on food:  Martha Stewart’s Entertaining (1982 – distributed by Potter, I think; we worked on it because Martha was married to one of the partners), Christopher Idone’s Glorious Food (1982), Giuliano Bugialli’s Foods of Italy (1984).     My mom and dad stayed up late nights at their drafting tables, designing the pages and pasting up the mechanicals – it was a few years before personal computing and QuarkXPress would change the face of graphic design.

Thousands of people bought those books.   As for us, we brought a book, still packaged in its protective cardboard case, to every dinner party we went to.  A whole lot of them ended up on the coffee tables of Westchester County.  Yet at none of those dinner parties did I ever see those books travel to the kitchen.  Foods of Italy, its cover a Still Life with Figs, became itself a still life, lying on the accent table instead of hanging on the wall.

In fact, I only once saw someone cooking from one, and that was my stepmother, a few tough years later.  She had a bookstand with a plastic screen for keeping the pages stain-free, though it would have had to be a bold stain indeed to show its face in that spotless kitchen.

Anyways, the food book as an art book has morphed over the years, handily helped along by the digital revolution.  We’ve seen glossy chronicles from top-shelf restaurants, where grainy black-and-white action shots are a stylistic choice rather than a photographic necessity.  We’ve seen multi-volume manifestoes on cutting-edge chefs, filled with edgy text designs (no one ever again has to hand-render a typeface, as my dad once did).  And we’ve seen photographic windows on food worlds once unknowable.

These last are my favorites.  Peter Menzel’s and Faith D’Aluisio’s What I Eat stopped me in my tracks – the pine nuts burned in the skillet and the next day’s deadline was forgotten as I leafed through page after page of faraway faces and foods.  In the same vein is Saveur‘s The Way We Cook: Portraits from Around the World, its democratic lens passing from high to low. from local to global.  I should be making the bread right now, but wait – how exactly are those Kenyan women rolling out the rice-flour couscous on the floor of their home?

Indeed, my biggest question these days is not “why aren’t these books in the kitchen?”, but “how can I find the time to enjoy them?”  For they are meant to be enjoyed, in a way that Instagram and Flickr may have caused us to forget – one lingering, mouthwatering page at a time.

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  • lesorelle  on  November 28, 2012

    Your post brings back such memories of just starting out in New York back in the 80s, working in publishing — including Clarkson Potter and some of their glossy tomes — and spending all of my meager paycheck on cookbooks. It was the start of my collection, which I now can access thanks to Eat Your Books!

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