The Beautiful Books

As I've said before, it's a golden age of cookbook photography and design, maybe because digital photography and photo editing software have made it easier to achieve whatever vision of beauty or perfection you seek. (Though there's a downside, too - publishers often feel they must reserve a stiff chunk of a book's production budget for photography, and they sometimes short-change editing and recipe testing in the process.)

 Among these splendors, there's a subcategory of cookbooks so ravishing you hesitate to bring them near the splatters and spills of kitchen life. It may have started with the Canal House series of quarterlies; with their spare layout and saturated images, they felt like literary productions, or miniature works of art.

 More recent arrivals in the deluge of beautiful books aspire not so much to Art with a capital A as something more accessible, something more commercial. It's called "lifestyle". If you've ever browsed through a Martha Stewart magazine just to window-shop the pictures, that's "lifestyle". If you've bought a Beekman Heirloom cookbook for the recipes but then stopped dead while paging through it, floored by a vegetable still life whose lighting seems to have been arranged by a Renaissance master, that's "lifestyle". Sometimes there are associated "lifestyle products" you can buy - lotions, or jams, or glassware. It might be anything, but you can bet it'll have a stunning label.

Sometimes, there are profiles or interviews or essays or portraits, as in The Kinfolk Table - glimpses into lives beautifully lived, and airy spaces where people with great hair and intriguing accessories bite into crisp apples with perfect teeth. The recipes are often monklike in their simplicity, because, the cooks claim, they are really all about "beautiful fresh ingredients" rather than technique. (The fact is, recipes like this may not have much to teach a competent cook.)

Another one of these lovelies, A Simple Feast: A Year of Stories & Recipes to Savor & Share, crossed my desk today. The author, Diana Yen, runs a "creative studio" called The Jewels of New York, which does special-event catering, menu consulting, and other lifestyle-oriented gigs. The book is gorgeous, with a wide-open matte-finished page, serene photography, and the occasional charming graphic. The stories aren't exactly stories.  They're more a diary of things seen, planned, loved, or bought; a chronicle of materials. Nothing happens on this beautiful stage, but what doesn't happen, doesn't happen beautifully.

When I see these books, I fall in love a little, maybe for a half hour. I leaf through the pages, letting my eyes soak up the rich colors. I remember sitting at my graphic designer dad's drafting table, with Rapidograph pens and T-squares and cases of colored pencils at hand - the promise of trapping beauty and making it stand still for a moment. And then, after a while, I wake to the sounds of life passing by, my kids growing older, our own dinner crying out to be made. It's messy, it's imperfect, sometimes it's downright exasperating, and it's rarely staged at all, never mind beautifully staged. But no one would ever say that nothing happens.

1 Comment

  • ellabee  on  7/30/2014 at 6:45 PM

    From the title, I hoped the post might be a review of the series of cookbooks that includes Italy: The Beautiful, Provence: The Beautiful, etc. I've never seen any of those in person and wondered if they are primarily coffee-table items or are beautiful _and_ useful guides to the regions and cuisines of the titles. Kinfolk and its ilk, "aspirational" lifestyle guides, have less than no appeal for me.

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