Written by Josie Bond.
Today I almost bought Jamie Oliver’s newest cookbook. I adore cookbooks, as I am sure all foodies do. I have loved them since I was small, when, before our birthdays, my Mum would plant our two cake decorating books in front of me or my brother and we would get to choose which birthday cake she would make. This birthday tradition has pretty much continued into the present day, though Pinterest is now the prime source of cake ideas. It was always incredibly exciting to look through those books and I think I still carry a little bit of excitement when I flick through cookbooks at 22. They are full of unrealized possibilities – I could find the most amazing recipe completely by accident, and I love cooking food that makes people go wow. I can, and do, spend afternoons flicking through cookbooks post it noting all the things I would like to cook. There is a kind of escapism in a good cookbook: they are as much about the love of good food as they are about recipes. If a cookbook doesn’t inspire you, it doesn’t matter if the recipes are absolute genius, because you won’t want to try them.
Cookbooks have changed an awful lot over time. The first known cookbook in English is from the 14th century; Richard II’s cooks compiled a list of recipes, with highlights such as medieval fried beans and porpoise. It didn’t have any illustrations and was barely more than a tool to jog the cook’s memory – it certainly wasn’t designed for anyone to be able to use like cookbooks are today. As with a pretty much all books, the invention of the printing press completely changed how cookbooks were produced and read – rather than being produced individually, with each book being totally unique, the printing press meant that they could be printed on mass at a fraction of the cost. This resulted in quite a number of books on cooking being written and mass produced.
There is almost definitely a connection between this mass production of cookbooks in the sixteenth and seventeenth century, and the increase of really elaborate, artistic cooking in noble households – lavish banquets with visually stunning food were increasingly a sign of high status and by the 1660s, a good cook was a requirement in a respectable upper class household. In high society, cooking was increasingly regarded as an art form, rather than a practical necessity; the dishes produced were a long way from the medieval fried beans in Richard II’s time. However, the mass production of books did not really open them up to the lower classes: often they were illiterate, so they were of no interest to them. In upper class households, servants were usually unable to read, so the mistress of the household would read the directions as the servants prepared the food.
Cookbooks in the form that we would recognize them – admittedly aimed solely at women – emerged during the Victorian period. Domestic respectability – essentially the ability to be a good wife – was prized, and cookery writing became increasingly popular. Books were written with the aspirant middle classes in mind, rather than the wealthy; often books like Isabella Beeton’s addressed cookery alongside a wide range of other topics relevant to running a household – including child care and managing servants: these kind of books acted as sources of information for middle class social climbers.
The evolution of photography in cookbooks came a little later – early cookbooks were sometimes illustrated, but were often merely text with no pictures at all. The first colour food photography occurred in the 1930s but by the 1950s it was still a rare practice to use it in cookbooks because of the cost of printing colour photographs – they still tended to use illustration and black and white photography, though these were becoming increasingly popular. Colour photography was used more and more in the 1960s but, compared to today, there was still quite a low ratio of pictures to recipes. Unfortunately, although photography was being used more frequently, printing issues meant that the the visual quality was often poorer than that of the illustrations. Food styling was also questionable, with food substitutes often being used in order to make it possible to work with the hot studio lamps.
In the 1980s, due largely to Japanese colour printing, the volume of photography in cookbooks increased significantly. By the 1990s, fully illustrated cookbooks became more popular than unillustrated books, which often contained far more recipes: people began to want to see their food before they cooked it, to be seduced by an image. Nowadays, the visuals in a cookbook are possibly more important than the recipes and the words. Lets face it, no matter how well written a recipe, it’s unlikely to make your mouth water in the same way as a really really tempting photograph. I think there must be something in the way our brains are wired: writing just can’t generate the same sensations as pictures or film. This is where great food photography is really really important – not just in cookbooks, but in all media – if the photography is good and the product is good, then you want to eat it. If the photography is rubbish, it doesn’t matter how good the product, there is no immediate ‘yum’. For me the perfect cookbook photos look delicious, but also achievable and believable. I want to believe that I could actually make the dish and that it would look something like the picture and that it would taste amazing.
The whole experience of a cookbook is luxurious: they’re for inspiration and pleasure, as much as they are for recipes. I think this is why they continue to be so popular, and why ebook versions are relatively uncommon – when experiencing a cookery book, you want to hold it in your hands. Cookbooks are usually printed to a very high quality, so that the reader really enjoys the physical experience of handling the book. When David produced The West Country Cookbook, he ended up changing printers entirely, because they just weren’t providing the quality of print he wanted for the book.
As well as producing his own cookbook, David has worked on cookbooks with a number of chefs, and producing the images that entice people to cook the recipes is definitely a collaborative process between chef and photographer. Typically, chefs have a clear idea of how they want the cookbook to look, and it’s a photographer’s job to help them refine that vision and then ensure that the images reflect it. There are also the aspects that you don’t necessarily think about when you’re reading the book – the photographs need to feel cohesive so that the book feels like a finished whole, rather than a random collection of recipes. Working on the West Country Cookbook gave David a great insight into the entire process of creating a cookbook, because he got to see and do all the parts that aren’t normally a photographer’s job.
If you’re wondering why I didn’t actually buy Jamie Oliver’s book, it’s because I suspect it’s going to make an appearance in my stocking in a week or so!