These classic books are being overlooked by new cooks

Joy of Cooking

For many of us, learning to cook meant spending time with classic cookbooks like Mastering the Art of French Cooking, Joy of Cooking, The Fannie Farmer Cookbook, and others published between in the last 60+ years. All of these books share one trait: they are not lavishly illustrated. A few line drawings appear here and there to demonstrate a technique, but by and large the recipes have no accompanying images, unlike today’s books that are chock full of luscious photographs. 

Because of the profound shift in publishing, due in part to the prevalence of gorgeous food photographs on the internet, the classic books that have taught several generations how to cook are being passed up by the most recent generation. Kitchen Arts & Letters has noticed this trend, and they’ve written about the phenomenon in their blog. The staff at KAL tries to match people with a book that will be right for them, taking into account their skills and ambitions, among other factors. When they recommend a classic book like those mentioned above, they often get a question similar to “How can I cook it if I haven’t seen what it’s supposed to look like when I am done?” Passing up these books just because they aren’t replete with photographs means these cooks “are missing out on some of the most useful and insightful resources within their grasp,” says the KAL staff. 

I admit to being seduced by stunning photography when buying a book. However, gorgeous pictures do not always translate into the best dishes. I’ve been let down by several recipes with beautiful pictures that don’t live up to the ideal expressed in the photo. While having an idea of what the finished dish looks like can be helpful, some of the pictures can be downright intimidating.  When I was discussing this issues with a friend today, she said she specifically avoids looking at a photo when making a dish, because she does not want to feel disappointed if her food doesn’t look as pretty as the image. She posited that she might like the food less if she compared it to an ideal that she could not replicate. 

Cookbooks without photographs will be in the very small minority going forward, but I agree with KAL that we shouldn’t pass up books just because they are not brimming with artful pictures. In fact, some of my favorite recipes have been from books with few illustrations. Rose Levy Berenbaum’s The Cake Bible has some photos in a few color pages in the center, but for the most part there are only a few black and white line drawings interspersed with the recipes. Many of them form the backbone of my cake baking endeavors. Even as new, admittedly gorgeous books find their way onto my bookshelves, I still turn to The Cake Bible time and again, and I wouldn’t part with that book for anything. 

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  • Mrs. L  on  April 10, 2018

    Ahh, this is why we must all post photos of the dishes we make on Eat Your Books. That way if there is a cookbook without photos , and we want to know what a dish looks like, all we need to do is check EYB!

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