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Think about some of the best cookbooks you know: Do you remember their heft, or the photos on their pages? Or what it feels like to flip from chapter opener to recipe to headnote? If they’ve earned even half of their real estate on the shelf, the answer to these questions will be yes.
Even if you forget what you cooked from them, you remember where they take you.
Last week, Adam Roberts wrote a review for our annual Piglet Tournament of Cookbooks that judged Brooks Headley’s Fancy Desserts against Mimi Thorisson’s A Kitchen in France. Because he’s aces, he did it in cartoon form. But here’s the point that caught fire: His first impression of Thorisson’s book was that it was “a series of highly-posed glamour shots.” Its message? “My life is better than yours.”
Here’s what Mimi had to say in response, from her château in Médoc, more than 3,000 miles away:
“My book apparently ‘rubs’ Mr. Roberts the wrong way…He does add, as an afterthought that ‘the food did look pretty fabulous.’ In my mind food is the most important aspect of a cookbook, the recipes the very purpose of it (which is why a very large majority of the photographs in the book are food pictures). If the recipes work, if the food is fabulous, then the book is good…But there is another part of me that can’t help feeling that his approach is a bit shallow…and also a tad, dare I say it…sexist. Women don’t want to be judged on their looks, and neither do cookbooks. I said in my latest post that I was old-fashioned — just not that old-fashioned. If I was writing a review of Mr. Roberts’ blog, I don’t think he would take kindly to me mostly ignoring his writing and his recipes and focusing on his looks, his way of dressing, his photography, or the design of his blog. Do we judge a theater performance by the decor of the room or the comfort of the seats? They can be important factors but never more so than the play itself.”
So how much are we actually allowed to pay attention to a book’s design, photography, layout?
A lot: We do judge a theater performance by the decor and the comfort of the seats, just as we judge a restaurant by paying heed to its room, its ethos, to the server who brings us our food and the dishes that that food is served on. Not one of these things trumps the play -- or, in the cookbook’s case, the recipes -- but they contribute to how we take in what’s in front of us. The food is king, but there must be a harmonious, supportive court: The voice must feel right, the design fluid and sensical, the message clear.
The role we allow aesthetics to play in cookbooks is important now more than ever. Blink and there are four new titles on the Food52 editorial desk; leave for a weekend, and we’ve got a mountain to contend with -- mountains that turn an idea like “If the recipes work, if the food is fabulous, then the book is good” into mere idealism. It’s not that simple: These days, a book’s visuals are a beam no less weight-bearing than its content; they are in front of us, joists for the recipes, supporting the headnotes. They tell the first story. We are right to judge them.
And so we do. When we get a new book in at Food52, we flip through each to take it in -- visually, first, because that’s the fastest way to absorb a cookbook. We mumble like the crazy book people we are. We want to figure it out: What is this book trying to say?
When I did this for Smash Mouth’s cookbook, the photos, font, and design taught me to expect the forced grit of a washed-up 90s alt-rock band. They taught me to expect vodka Red Bulls. When Stanley Tucci looked at Japanese Farm Food in the semifinals of 2013’s Piglet, unnecessary “personal bric-a-brac” made him apoplectic: “A recipe for Natto Rice shows a picture of people in a rice paddy, (okay, fine), as well as a close up of a green frog, (why?). The Stir Fried Snow Peas with Salt was accompanied by yet another photo of the family dog lying lazily on a doormat. Unless he was to be butchered and this was the 'before' picture, I had no need for this image. The same goes for the frog.” And when Roberts first looked through Thorisson's book, he found a dreamland.
When we make a book -- and we’re on our fourth and fifth now -- we don’t pore over spine colors and sans serifs because we like the busy-work: We do it because every single piece of the book -- each comma, each linen fold in each food photo, each close-up of a frog -- is contributing to the larger picture. We fret over cover images for weeks in fear of someone judging our books by their covers, because we know that they will. Get one element wrong, and the cohesive whole will feel less so. The reader will hit a pothole, and then another. Then they’ll take another road.
I might be not thrilled about Roberts’ review if I were Thorisson, either, but as subjective as The Piglet is, it has an uncanny ability to keep a level playing field. As Roberts himself pointed out in his response, his own book was criticized in the same tournament for not being visually appealing enough: Julie Pointer and Nathan Williams wrote that his “slew of white pages full of text seemed rather uninspired.” It gets more substantive: “If I'm not intrigued or inspired by what I find as I flip through the pages of a cookbook,” they write, “it's difficult for me to be motivated to keep coming back for more, particularly when it comes to being enticed by a recipe.” Fair enough.
That same year, Elizabeth Spiridakis skewered Smitten Kitchen and Small Plates & Sweet Treats -- and then the collective publishing industry, and then the world -- for their use of dust jackets. Her lede: “I hate dust jackets. I mean, I HATE dust jackets. Don’t you? You should.” She spends a good bit of word space in that review on interior layout and design, referring to Smitten Kitchen, a book that came close to winning the whole tournament, as “visually hard to get through.” And here’s Meredith Erickson and the Joe Beef crew in the same round: “When Bouchon Bakery arrived, we began to flip through the pristine, white, glossy pages and our first reaction was that it made us feel very, very dirty.” We cook to test our hypotheses, but the aesthetics of a book are how we first form them.
We print this criticism because we think it matters -- and we’ve never had an author cry sexism. Which is probably because it doesn’t truly enter the conversation: These writers aren’t making judgments based on gender. They’re making them because we ask them to review the whole book -- every word, line, photo, and design choice included. They’re making them because when you put photos into a book, you’re making a statement. This goes for Roberts’ pages that are “too white,” and it also goes for Thorisson’s well-styled French countryside portraits.
As much as we want the end product to look and feel like we effortlessly jotted it down in our bedside notebooks, Nigel Slater-style, it is the nature of cookbooks to be produced objects. Teams of photographers, stylists, and designers spend months making their vision feel understood, right alongside the writers and the recipe testers. Which is why, so long as we’ve seen the play, we can -- and should -- judge them by the decor of their room and the comfort of their seats. That decor, those seats -- they're all intentional.