The Art of Cookbooks

Cookbooks offer a special challenge for information design, as their pages must suceed at both seduction and instruction, luring and reassuring their readers. Bookstore shelves may bend from the weight of gorgeous, glossy tomes, yet home cooks are still increasingly kitchen-phobic. How do writers, artists and designers work together to produce pretty pages with error-proof recipes? Such were the issues we tried to tackle last night. With the sun-lit Bay Bridge as a backdrop, an excellent panel of publishing professionals managed to squeeze a lot into 75 minutes of conversation. Though it was hardly my best stab at moderating (note to self: quoting a dictionary is NOT a lively way to begin a discussion), Nancy Austin of Ten Speed Press, artist and illustrator Patricia Curtan, ground-breaking food photographer Christopher Hirscheimer, and food writer Peggy Knickerbocker generously shared their stories and insights.Peggy and Christopher describing how they collaborated closely from market to kitchen to studio in their recent book, The San Francisco Ferry Plaza Farmers Market Cookbook. Patricia, on the other hand, enjoys a rare and enviable autonomy in her contributions to the Chez Panisse brand. She showed several of her prints along with a highly educational display of her linoleum blocks. Nancy, who represents a small house known for its hands-on approach to book publishing, has the ability to allow authors an unusual amount of say in the look and feel of their books. Still, she was careful to temper our discussion with reminders about the reality of the bottom line.The formulaic language of modern recipes, what happens at a typical photo shoot, how printing 4-color books in Asia has changed the design of books, what to expect in the cookbook photography of 2008, and why a book dedicated to hot chocolate recipes was a surprise hit–numerous topics came up that we didn’t have time to explore in more detail.We just may need to reconvene for Part 2: The Business of Cookbooks.In the meantime, a bit of reading for the curious…- The dumbing down of recipesShooting food photographs for Lidia’s Italian-American KitchenNigel Slater’s books–the “messy” future of food photography?

Author: Thy Tran

San Francisco-based writer specializing in history and culture of food.

3 thoughts on “The Art of Cookbooks”

  1. I got a lot out of this panel discussion, Thy.

    It was fascinating to hear 4 perspectives on 4 distinct aspects of cookbook writing, design and production from women who had enough experience to back up their opinions with anecdotes and examples.

    …and the moderator kept things moving along nicely, too ; )

  2. Thy,

    I loved the panel; it was well-chosen and you led them through some great topics. Watch out Terry Gross…

    I loved the illustrations from the Northwest cookbook. I know you said it is out-of-print, but I’d like to look for it. Could you pass along the bibiliographic info on it?

    Thanks and congrats for putting together such a fun event,

    Eric Leve

  3. Here are the books in my show-n-tell intro on notable cookbook designs. Each of these titles is worth tracking down if you love books and art as much as you do food.

    The Northwest Kitchen: A Seasonal Cookbook , written by Judie Geise with sumi drawings by George Tsutakawa (B. Wright & Co., 1978)

    Every Grain of Rice, by Ellen Blonder and Annabel Low (Clarkson Potter, 1998)

    Fruit: A Connoisseur’s Guide and Cookbook, by Alan Davidson with illustrations by Charlotte Knox (Simon and Schuster, 1991)

    The Food of China, recipes by Deh Ta-Hsiung and Nina Simonds with photography by Jason Lowe (Whitecap, 2001) [NB: look for the original edition with fold-out spreads.]

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