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A Love of Cookbooks: Form and Function

Over the past ten years I have amassed a large collection of cookbooks. At the moment I have approximately 153, give or take a few stragglers on my nightstand. Why do I collect cookbooks? I love them because they combine the intensely practical with the incredibly sensual. Cookbooks celebrate something vital to all our lives. Not all people like to cook, but everyone likes to eat. And cookbooks, and the recipes within them, present possibilities—created in twenty minutes or less, or over several hours.

I am not alone in my fascination with cookbooks and recipes. They are everywhere these days. People are obsessed with food and cooking in general. In our fast-paced technology-centric lives food is one of the few opportunities to bring people together. Cooking allows people to get their hands dirty and experience the results (the good, the bad and the ugly) in real rather than virtual time. We use all our senses when we cook and eat, and a cookbook allows us a way in to this immersive experience.

A quick search for “cookbook” on Amazon yields close to 325,000 results. Brick and mortar stores like Barnes & Noble have enormous sections dedicated to cookbooks. Many high-end grocery stores like Whole Foods carry cookbooks. In Seattle, where I live, we have the Book Larder, a shop dedicated to just cookbooks. It’s a wonderful place, I highly recommend a visit. Wherever you shop, and whatever you are in the mood for, it’s safe to say there’s at least one (or several thousand) titles that cover it: vegan (16,000 titles alone on Amazon), vegetarian, by ingredient, by season, for parties, cooking on a budget, desserts, sides, appetizers, by region and many more. And famous restaurants and celebrities are coming out with cookbooks in droves: Thomas Keller (The French Laundry Cookbook), Yotam Ottolenghi (Plenty), and Gwyneth Paltrow (It’s All Good) to name a few. Confession, I own two of hers and do actually cook out of them—more on that later.

For my mother’s generation, there just weren’t as many cookbooks. People didn’t use their disposable income to buy them, and most recipes were handed down from generation to generation by word of mouth or on little notecards stuffed in a box. The Joy of Cooking was one of the few books a person in the kitchen really needed. Now in its eighth edition, Joy of Cooking is the ultimate reference cookbook: no photographs with recipe after recipe running over 1100+ pages of uncoated paper. It’s a wonderful cookbook with loads of trusted recipes. Joy of Cooking is a utilitarian book a cook feels comfortable writing in, making notations about recipes, and then passing the dog-eared copy on to the next generation chef in the family. But that’s not what I collect. Most of the cookbooks I have acquired are a combination of beautiful typography, strong editorial design, interesting photography, and high production value.

As a graphic designer who has worked on several cookbooks, I am fascinated with the unique challenges presented when designing one. Considerations like hierarchy of information, line length, type size and margins become important when someone in the kitchen is flipping pages back and forth trying to decipher a recipe with one hand covered in batter while something is burning on the stove. Cookbooks include multiple levels of information that often vary in length from recipe to recipe: a title, the headnote (usually a story describing something special about the recipe), instructions for creating the recipe (which must be presented in the correct order!), an ingredient list with measurements, notes and cooking tips, serving size and, when available, photographs or images to accompany the recipe. Cookbooks are typically broken down by section: by meal (breakfast, lunch, dessert), by season, by ingredient or cooking technique. When working on a cookbook the designer must develop a system that can handle recipes with very different amounts of information, some with images and some without.

Of course the recipes in the cookbooks I collect must be interesting to me too. When I’m looking at a cookbook for the first time, I flip through it to see if there are any recipes I would consider making. As a pescatarian with a long time dislike of dairy (more like a phobia, not an allergy) I won’t buy a cookbook unless there are at least a few recipes I might make out of it. 

To date though, I haven’t cooked much out of my cookbooks. As it turns out, plenty of people have the same problem—see The Pleasures of Reading Recipes from The New Yorker. As a typographer and a book designer, I see most of my cookbooks as objects meant to be handled carefully away from splatters, spills or flour-covered hands. I would never consider writing in most of them and I am very careful about handling a book when I do manage to try a recipe.

But I’ve decided that it’s time to start using my cookbooks rather than storing them on the shelf. This blog, Paper Plates, will be a combination critique of the design of cookbooks as well as a commentary on some recipes from each book. Every few weeks I will try two to three recipes out of a single cookbook. I will write about the form and function of the book—what I think works and what might be improved from a design standpoint. Is the book engaging and readable, are the recipes clearly presented, what typographic decisions contributed to the strengths or weaknesses of the book? There are plenty of typesetting guidelines that make for a better reading experience. I’ll also give my two cents on the recipes I tried. Hopefully a few members of my household will try them too. I will also give one kitchen tip (likely something I learned that week) and one design or typesetting tidbit.

First up: It’s All Good by Gwyneth Paltrow and Julia Turshen. Stay tuned. 

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