I recently thumbed through some favorite old cookery books and started thinking about cookbook illustrations. Not the decorative splashes of line and color you see today (when most cookbooks are illustrated with drop-dead color photography), but the kind of didactic, black-and-white line illustrations that show you how to bone a chicken breast, flute a mushroom cap and make a lattice pie crust. As my cookbook collection proves out, those illustrations can be stylish, elegant and memorable. And perhaps they might have even helped make a budding illustrator’s career.
For example, Amy Vanderbilt’s Complete Cookbook (1961) was illustrated by Andrew Warhol. Yes, that Andrew Warhol. Mrs. Vanderbilt, heir to one of America’s largest industrial fortunes, portrayed herself in this book as a thrifty housewife who loved to entertain. She was of the era—my mother’s—during which recipes more often than not included canned cream of mushroom soup, processed American cheese and powdered gelatin. This is a book you buy only for the novelty of perusing recipes like Spaghetti Luncheon Omelet and Jellied Ham Loaf—and vintage Warhol illustrations such as his demonstration of how to roll tea sandwiches. Maybe his fascination with soup cans started with this assignment.
Even earlier, in The Joy of Cooking, the original 1931 version, authors Irma s. Rombauer and Marion Rombauer Becker, took very seriously the mission of educating our nation’s cooks. All 850 pages, illustrated by Ginnie Hoffman and Beverly Warner, are chock-full of information on everything from how to beat egg whites to how to skin a rabbit. I’m sure it was “Joy” that introduced Americans to “foreign” foods like enchiladas and curries (with recipes that are not very authentic, but probably tasty). The cake and pie recipes are classics, and I most appreciate the double-page spread on bread-making, especially the finger poking the top of the loaf.
Everyone who saw the movie “Julie and Julia” knows that Volume I of Mastering The Art of French Cooking (1961) by Julia Child changed the cookbook concept from six recipes per page to one recipe per six pages—every detail necessary to teach the correct, French way to do it. For those who took to heart Julia’s admonition that you can be famous for your hand-whittled vegetables, the illustrations by Sidonie Coryn include such treasures as how to peel asparagus (a necessity, Julia insists) and how to flute a mushroom cap.
Marcella Hazan, alas, died recently. Her The Classic Italian Cook Book (1976) will remain the authority on how to make pasta and risotto, the most delicious veal stew, and many other wonderful things. The drawings, by George Koizumi, elevate the art of the instructive, black-and-white cookbook illustration to another level. I am especially enamored by the pages devoted to making cappelletti and tortellini and the three pages of drawings showing how to prepare an artichoke. You have to be able to draw hands to do these illustrations well, and Koizumi was a master.
The Marcella creation below, which I will make someday soon, in her honor, I’ve promised myself, is called Scrigno di Venere, a shell of handmade pasta stuffed with spinach fettuccini with a sauce of béchamel and wild mushrooms. Oh, my.
Perhaps at the other end of the spectrum is Craig Claiborne’s Kitchen Primer (1969), which promises “to lead the beginner from here to there in the kitchen.” This is the book I used to give to guys who couldn’t make a decent fried egg and piece of toast. In the days before couples registered at Williams-Sonoma, I also gave it as a wedding gift in a nice mixing bowl with a wire whisk. The illustrations by Tom Funk are excellent and plentiful. Oh no—looking inside, on Amazon, I see that in later editions they replaced the line drawings with DK-like color photographs. Seek out the original, which is chock-full of charmers like these:
And then there was, and is, Great Dinners from Life. This is really a photography book, perhaps the first cookbook (1969) to feature double-page-spread color pictures of food like it had never been photographed before: a double-exposure of a chicken roasting inside its pot, with steam and aromatic vegetables; juice dripping off a spoonful of deep-dish blueberry pie in front of the stars and stripes. The author, Eleanor Graves, outlined a step-by-step battle plan for each dinner-party menu with the assumption that the cook had children, a dog and a husband who could be coerced to open the clams or shuck the corn. I can’t find an illustration credit anywhere, but the illustrator who signed his name “Sacks” drew still-lives of ingredients with a deft and delightful line quality.
Barbara and Roderick Wells did the drawings in The Chinese Cookbook by Craig Claiborne and Virginia Lee (1972), which helpfully illustrate what was then exotic kitchenware—steamers and woks and strainers—and how to bone a fish.
Laurie Colwin was one of my favorite writers—of short stories, novels and two food memoirs, Home Cooking (1988) and More Home Cooking (2000). She died unexpectedly at age 45, leaving us with works filled with simplicity, honesty, humor and good taste. She wrote about perfect potato salad, fried chicken and chocolate cake; about matchbox-sized New York apartment kitchens, draining spaghetti in the bathtub, and gravitating to the kitchen at dinner parties: “Somehow or other I always end up in the kitchen feeding a crowd.” The illustrations by Anna Shapiro (no relation) include a drawing of the six-burner Garland stove at City and Country School, which Colwin’s daughter attended at the same time as my son. Alas, we never met, but I do remember those shepherds’ pies they served at the annual school fairs, which called for 35 lbs. of ground meat and a gallon of mashed potatoes.
Although Tom Funk was known for doing “Talk of The Town” spots for The New Yorker for many years, none of these illustrators reached anything like star status. Except, of course, Andy Warhol, whose 1963 “Eight Elvises” sold in 2009 for a record $100 million.
Some of the illustrators may have not even have been appreciated by their authors. In her memoir, My Life in France, Julia Child wrote: “In December, Paul and I sat side-by-side… in our kitchen, and sorted through hundreds of envelopes and manila folders filled with Sidonie Coryn’s illustrations. There were rough sketches, photocopies of ideas and finished drawings. We tried to work out the proper flow of visual ideas and make sure each drawing told the story it should. But Sidonie was not a cook, and apparently had not read the manuscript. ‘I feel for her as the illustrator,’ Paul said. ‘We’re asking for an awful lot.’ He made corrections on tracing paper to show her how the drawings should look.” Oh, well.
After collecting cookbooks for a number of years, I decided to try a hand at my own. In 1994, I tested and wrote down my twelve favorite recipes and designed a little book called, amazingly, A Year of Recipes. I found my illustrator, Paul Hoffman, in The New York Times. Paul illustrates children’s books, cookbooks, and has done a lot of stuff for the food section. I loved his graceful lines, negative-positive space, and scratchboard technique, which he still uses (no computer). We bartered. In exchange for making twelve beautiful illustrations, I gave him 100 cook-booklets to use as self-promotions. Although I’m still sure I got the better deal, I just pulled out the file and see that I paid close to $6,000 for printing 500 5 x 7″, 28-page books in one color with grommet binding. Those were the days. Since, then, I’ve published two more personal cookbooks, illustrated with color travel photographs and reproduced via much more affordable color digital printing. (Note to designers: there is no more appreciated client holiday gift, especially when it comes packed with a little sample of your homemade spice rub or cookies.)
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