Cookbook Illustrations of Yesteryear
When they really tried to teach you how to cook
Last week I was gifted with a cookbook by — no, not by, about — an internationally famous chef. An oversize, glossy, full-color volume, it has spectacular photography and interesting recipes, but its most notable feature is that every other page has a photo of the chef himself: the chef picking vegetables in the field and cooking them in his kitchen, the chef in his restaurants, the chef presenting his signature dishes, the chef in various parts of the world with his celebrity friends.
Of course, I will add the book to my library and turn to it when I want to make something like watermelon gazpacho with peeled white grapes. But when I need inspiration for, say, Thanksgiving dinner or a refresher on the best way to roast the turkey, I’m more likely to turn to Julia or Jacques than Giada or Bobby — as much as I like to watch them on TV.
After browsing through the new book and giving it its rightful, temporary place on the coffee table, I decided to walk down memory lane and thumb through favorite old cookbooks published in the days before food TV and celebrity chefs, when the author may have gotten a head shot on the jacket flap. In those days, illustrations weren’t the decorative splashes of line and color you might see today. They were didactic (yet stylish, elegant and memorable) black-and-white line illustrations that show you how to bone a chicken breast, flute a mushroom cap, and carve a roast. Besides helping home chefs learn to do tricky new things correctly, they might have helped make a budding illustrator’s career.
In The Joy of Cooking, the original 1931 version, authors Irma S. Rombauer and Marion Rombauer Becker, took very seriously the mission of educating America’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 recipes for every kind of baked goods are classics, and I most appreciate the spreads on bread-making and pie-making, especially the illustration above showing how to flute a bottom crust and make a lattice top crust.
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 many recipes called for canned cream of mushroom soup, processed American cheese, and powdered gelatin. This is a book you might think of buying today only for the novelty of perusing recipes like Spaghetti Luncheon Omelet and Jellied Ham Loaf — and the dozens of vintage Warhol illustrations including demonstrations of how to roll tea sandwiches and how to carve the crown roast of lamb you will surely serve at your next dinner party. Maybe his fascination with soup cans started with this assignment.
Everyone who saw the movie “Julie and Julia” knows that Volume I of Mastering The Art of French Cooking (1961) by Julia Child changed home cooking forever. And changed the cookbook concept from six recipes per page to one recipe per six pages — with 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.
However, not all Ms. Coryn’s illustrations were appreciated by Ms. Child. In her memoir, My Life in France, Child wrote: “In December, Paul and I sat … 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.”
The Classic Italian Cook Book by Marcella Hazan (1976) will remain the authority on how to make pasta and risotto, succulent veal stews, and many other wonderful things including many of my favorite appetizers and soups.
The drawings by George Koizumi elevate the art of the instructive, black-and-white cookbook illustration to another level.
I’m especially enamored by the pages devoted to making cappelletti and tortellini and the three pages of drawings showing how to prep an artichoke. You have to be able to draw hands to do these illustrations well, and Koizumi was a master. The Marcella creation shown here, which I promised myself will make someday, is called Scrigno di Venere, a shell of handmade pasta stuffed with spinach fettuccini with a sauce of béchamel and wild mushrooms. Oh my.
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 men who couldn’t make a decent fried egg or tuna sandwich. 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 the current edition they replaced the line drawings with DK-like color photographs. Seek out the original, used, which is chock-full of charmers.
And then there was, and is, Great Dinners from Life. This is 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, delightful line quality.
Laurie Colwin is one of my favorite authors — 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 that all her dinner party guests gravitated to the kitchen: “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. We never met, but I do remember the annual school fairs where they served Colwin’s shepherds’ pies, which called for 35 lbs. of ground beef and a gallon of mashed potatoes.
These illustrators didn’t do it for the money.
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 painting “Death and Disaster,” sold for $105.4 million last Wednesday, the second most expensive piece of art ever auctioned, according to Sotheby’s.
After collecting cookbooks for a number of years, I decided to try a hand at my own. For a holiday gift, 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, on the pages of The New York Times. Paul illustrates children’s books and 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 for me, 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 in 1994 I paid nearly $6,000 for printing 500 5 x 7-inch, 28-page booklets in one color with grommet binding.
Those were the days.