Why Cookbooks Are More than Their Recipes

March  4, 2015

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. 

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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. 


The Piglet—inspired by The Morning News' Tournament of Books—is where the 16 most notable cookbooks of the year face off in a NCAA-style bracketed tournament. Watch the action and weigh in on the results!


See what other Food52 readers are saying.

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Kenzi Wilbur

Written by: Kenzi Wilbur

I have a thing for most foods topped with a fried egg, a strange disdain for overly soupy tomato sauce, and I can never make it home without ripping off the end of a newly-bought baguette. I like spoons very much.


yunah April 4, 2015
kenzi blithely dismissed thorrison's complaint about sexism. I also think all this discussion about book design has very very little to do with the roberts review or thorrison's response. Lottie &doof has an excellent piece about the many shortcomings of kenzi's article. I enjoy food52 but this is definitely not a website I would read for intelligent criticism or writing.
stefanie March 18, 2015
Food52 may have started the Piglet for the amusement of its own employees and its originally close-knit community, but needs to recognize that as they reach a wider audience, they must also be willing to take the criticism.

Adam's review was sexist - it was hypocritical, complimenting Headley for the same things (staged photos) he took issue with in Thorisson's book.

Thorisson wrote to her readers detailing how she felt about it, Headley did the same, and the Food52 (Kenzi) jumped in and wrote how Food52 felt about Thorisson and Headley's feelings - in a super passive-aggressive, indirect way.

I understand that Kenzi wanted to defend the Piglet - and by extension, her employer - but I hope that she and the staff at Food52 realize that their golden boy, Headley, wrote a pretty meaningless and mean-hearted review .
Kate March 15, 2015
This piece misses the point; it's not about the importance of design in cookbooks, it's about whether Mr Roberts was justified in aiming his criticism at Ms Thorisson's life choices. This may be an opinion piece, but I felt your comments about 'crying sexism' and 'from her château in Médoc, more than 3,000 miles away' were both belittling and mean-spirited.
camilla_v_saulsbury March 12, 2015
Regardless of my feelings for Roberts' review (to be candid, I loved it, and posted as much on Food52), I must take issue with the following statement you make above: "...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."

In the words of Charlie Brown, good grief. Of course gender (our own, the author's, societal /cultural ideas about...) enters the conversation in a critique of a cultural artifact of any kind. As does race. As does socio-economic status (education, parents' education, income, wealth). As does geography. And the list goes on. Recognizing how these factors affect critiques makes for great discussion. Yes, facets of Mimi Thorisson's book speak volumes about our ideas about the connections between social class, gender, food, food writing, legitimacy, what makes an author worthwhile, the choices publishers make about the books they publish, and so much more.

To borrow your words, I'm writing this criticism because I think it matters. And if you think cookbooks are worthy of any kind of analysis or critique, from the mundane to the deeply philosophical (I'm all for both, and everything in between), then you have to recognize the socio-cultural realms that writers, readers and reviewers inhabit.
Nicki March 9, 2015
Food photos have never been a cookbook's selling point for me. It's always about the recipes. I've been let down by untested recipes in big-name cookbooks & heard the same from other cooks, so I'm wary of "lavishly illustrated" books. I want a book with as much effort put into the editing and testing as the design and the look. (To be fair, I'm a cookbook editor.)
Laurie March 9, 2015
What a dust-up! My cookbooks fall into two categories: those with recipes that WORK 100% of the time (Joy of Cooking, Ina Garten) and those that are really well-written, inspire me to cook new things and take me on an authentic journey (New Midwestern Table, Smoke & Pickles). I toss the ones that don't do either (I won't name names but there have been plenty).
kasia S. March 9, 2015
I remember the day I read Adam's review of Mimi's book, it stunned my with how crass he was. It bothered me all day. I was actually flipping through her cookbook looking for a soup recipe when I read the Piglet round of reviews and his was not something I'd expect on this site. I'm not just a random fan, I've been cooking from Mimi's blog for almost two years now, I found her through an article in Bon Appétit magazine, ironically enough Amanda has an article in it as well, about entertaining on Friday. Her recipes work and her style which anyone can see on her blog is reflected in the cookbook.

Someone else who liked Adam's review said that they won't even carry that book in their store because the cover annoyed them so much. I mean really? What is exactly being judged here?
SpinachTiger March 11, 2015
If it's true that someone won't carry her book in their store tell me that we have reached the pinnacle of mean. I've written this elsewhere, but it's a new form of legal beheading to bring such a level of condemnation to a beautiful body of work. It's coming from such an odd place of dark. It's just a pretty cookbook. Makes me think of that "don't hate me because I'm beautiful." I'm older now, and while still attractive, I had the good fortune of good genes. I have experienced deep hatred from people (women) who never even knew me. It always baffled me, but it was witnessed over and over. What is it about "beautiful" that makes people so mad? Personally in a world of war and brutality that we are seeing now on social media, I embrace pretty. I actually want to cling to it. I don't think he was sexist as much as showing some form of jealousy. It's always so charming to get a good laugh and social media buzz on taking someone out in your field, right? I truly thought this harsh spirit (like old food critics) was so "yesterday."
kasia S. March 11, 2015
I had to look for the comment but I found it... it's as unprofessional as it gets.
And I hear what you're saying to me beauty or what not is more about the personality that makes someone look beautiful in my eyes or the opposite. :P

Omnivore Books

Adam, this is my favorite Piglet judgement of all time. I laughed, I cried, I felt justified for not carrying the French book (I always tell customers the cover annoyed me too much to carry it). This will be a hard review to follow up!
SpinachTiger March 11, 2015
Wow. Then they don't cook. They just joined the slam it party. Marcella Hazan's classical italian cookbook, rated one of the best cookbooks ever written by the Village Voice, worn out in my kitchen continues to sell for decades. I see orders on my amazon every month. She's deceased and NO PICTURES in the book.
kasia S. March 11, 2015
They act like these cookbooks are put out solely to be judged, not to be used.
I have Marcella's book at home, it's wonderful :)
Ellen March 9, 2015
I hope everyone has read Lottie and Doof's post on this subject
AntoniaJames March 9, 2015
I just did, Ellen. Thank you so much for pointing it out. He said so many things I've been wanting to say forever. I don't read any blog regularly (or more than just occasionally). That may change. (I'll read that one.) ;o)
Zelda March 10, 2015
Thank you. Some valid points there. I left a comment to say that, IMO, Roberts' review betrays just this lack of diversity, an unwillingness to engage when the context doesn't suit.
rosalind5 March 9, 2015
I feel saddened by the idea that a key role of the Piglet is to judge the gestalt of the cookbook - such that the reviewers are not required to actually cook a recipe (although of course most of them do). I still feel intense irritation remembering that review of "Smitten Kitchen", as it happens no, I really don't care whether a cookbooks has dust jacket. I also don't agree with the opening statement of this essay. When I think about cookbooks I love, I don't think about their heft, the headnotes or even the quality of the photographs - rather I think about the meals I have cooked from them, that I have enjoyed with the people I care about i.e. for me the recipes really matter. Am I really so unusual in this?

However also in spades yes - I clearly really do care about the Piglet. Long may it continue.
RobynE March 8, 2015
Mimi Thorisson is delusional if she thinks that visuals don't make a cookbook as much as recipes do. And Adam Roberts is disingenuous when he claims that he judged Thorisson's visuals in the same way that he judged Headley's. Helen Rosner nailed it.
zephyr050 March 8, 2015
Pot calling kettle black, if you ask me. Mr. Robert's cartoon review is, in my opinion, all about: "look at me and how cool I am"
Pegeen March 6, 2015
cookinginvictoria, thanks for posting the link to Helen Rosner's essay on Eater. Very thoughtful.

I questioned Food52's editorial decision to go with the cartoon-panel approach for the review of Headley's and Thorisson's books and think this format indirectly contributed to the kerfuffle. This highly graphic, small-frame format can’t help but focus on pictures (and so statistically in the case of Thorisson’s book, that means pictures of her, and she personally happens to be a key component of her brand, just like Martha Stewart was in her brand before she went to jail and subsequently had to step off the editorial board and away from the camera). The cartoon format minimizes the use of text and showing samples of the quality of writing in the books, text design, etc.

It seemed editorially unbalanced to me to use essentially pictures to describe cookbooks that are also full of text designed to teach and instruct. Especially since all the other reviews in the Piglet competition are not.
cookinginvictoria March 6, 2015
I have been following this controversy and discussion with a great deal of interest. Helen Rosner of the Eater website has this to say: Well worth reading and thinking about. She makes some very good points and evaluates Adam's review, Mimi's rebuttal, and Adam's response in what I thought was a very objective and balanced way.
kim March 6, 2015
agreed ,cookinginvictoria ! it introduces a really thoughtful point of view.
MRinSF March 6, 2015
Yes, thank you for sharing this! I think she is spot-on!
amysarah March 6, 2015
Thanks so much for posting that link. Rosner articulates precisely my reaction to this kerfuffle. I found the notion of comparative 'authenticity,' both in Adam Roberts' review and in reader comments, particularly questionable. Also the conflation of valid critical reaction with projected intention. Also, how/if sexism applies (I agree that it does - though more insidiously than I thought his rebuttal or many others' addressed.) Also, while cute and inventive, how the comic medium amplified these issues. In fact, I started to comment here a couple of times, but gave up on my semi-processed thoughts...and she did it so much better! I thought her piece was spot on.
Megan March 6, 2015
Thanks for posting this. I also have been following this and thinking about this and I've had mixed feelings about the whole thing. This essay was helpful.. As was Kenzi's piece and many of the comments below!
Lauren March 6, 2015
Kenzi, I have to disagree with the way that you are equating the reviews of previous cookbooks with Adam's review. In the critique of Smitten Kitchen that you mention, the reviewer complains that the cookbook is too dark and dreary for their taste, and not visually pleasing as a result. The reviewer doesn't, however, make an assumption about the message that Perelman is trying to deliver. They didn't write "Is Perelman trying to tell us that her life is more difficult/sad/lonely than ours?" In Adam's review, criticizes Mimi's content (fair) and then goes on to say what he thinks the author meant to say with that content (not fair).

I also think it's reasonable to question the sexism/racism/classism of any review or reviewer. All people have prejudices, even good people who are not intentionally writing with those prejudices in mind. If Adam had followed his critique of the punk rock aesthetic of the other book he reviewed with a similar hypothesis about the author's intent ("All I see is how much cooler and more hip this author thinks he is than me") the review would appear much more balanced. Just because no one has ever complained about sexism on the site before doesn't mean that a review can't have elements of sexism in it. To say that gender "doesn’t truly enter the conversation" ignores the fact that our social context influences everything we write. If gender, race, and class are not entering the conversations around reviews, they probably should be.
mcs3000 March 6, 2015
Superb, Kenzi!
figgypudding March 5, 2015
Beautifully written, Kenzi. A cookbook, to me, is like a meal. The food is only one factor, which can (and will) be influenced by those you share it with and the setting in which you dine.
rachaelmr March 5, 2015
"Idiosyncratic" is right (as luvcookbooks says below) and that is how I am with cookbooks, myself. Who knows what connects me sometimes - maybe the matte but lush pics of the farm today, or just the honest and simple recipe (with no pics or line drawings), or the family stories about your children's favorites or flubs - with a cookbook, there is sometimes just a magical connection. And I love any discussion about cookbooks and articles about cookbooks; I wish I knew more people in my life that wanted to sit around a cheeseplate with wine and discuss the merits of the cookbook! Thank you Piglet!
creamtea March 5, 2015
I agree with lunarwoozle's comments--I think it's important to be a little thick-skinned, difficult as that may be. When you've published a book (or blog), you've put yourself"out there" so you have to expect a little criticism to come your way, hard as that may be. I disagree with the "sexism" charge--that's too easy a target.

Hmm, I can envision a "lifestyle" cookbook with "posed" images of it's male author. It could be titled "Beef-cakes"...
AntoniaJames March 5, 2015
creamtea, you make me laugh! And I agree with you 100%. Cheers. ;o)
MRinSF March 5, 2015
I greatly appreciate that you bring this larger perspective to the recent controversy, which has been interesting to watch unfold, and about which I've had mixed feelings. I tend to agree with Roberts but can see that for fans of Mimi, and for Mimi herself, it may have felt like a low blow. However, reviews are not meant to be a treatise of adoration, so all's fair, to my mind. I do also see (thanks to many of the comments from the community) that there may be cultural differences at play. Overall, though, the whole saga has led me to think more broadly about blogging, cookbooks, image, opinions, and reviews. Kudos to Food52 and The Piglet -- as well as to Adam Roberts, Mimi Thorisson, and TipsyBaker -- for inspiring a broader discussion of these ideas. The 2015 Piglet is a real stand-out this year!
kim March 5, 2015
Wow- I think AJ made a great point- images do date a cookbook don't they? When I read Robert's review I thought that part about "my life is better than yours " was a little ridiculous and unnecessary - it smacked of that weird jealousy vibe that readers aim at blogs that's very popular and , frankly a little sad because it diminishes beautiful content that people are sharing. I think Mimi Thorisson's cookbook is like her blog - a lovely thing.
AntoniaJames March 5, 2015
A friend told me recently that Deborah Madison has insisted on no photos in her most recent books, we suspect for that reason. We were also discussing how, when drawn masterfully, a line drawing can often be more effective in communicating a method being illustrated, e.g., the illustrations on how to handle and shape dough in that great classic (and firm favorite of many Food52'ers) "The Tassajara Bread Book." ;o)
kim March 6, 2015
I would LOVE to see more cook books with illustrations - whimsical , fun, simple , perhaps scratch and sniff? *wink*