Hard as it is to fathom in an age when we Instagram every plate and sauté with one eye on YouTube, cookbooks once came without photos.
There is, after all, information an image can’t convey. “A photograph doesn’t tell you what to do when the meat is dry or the chicken is old and tough,” said Matt Sartwell, managing partner of the New York City bookshop Kitchen Arts & Letters.
I called Mr. Sartwell following a social-media post in which he’d gotten snippy about customers who reject classic cookbooks without photos. Their explanations boiled down to this: I can’t make it if I don’t see it.
“Photos can be alluring and help clarify what you’re doing. They can help you make choices. But they can also be intimidating,” he said. “The pressure of the visual ideal gets in the way and prevents people from having the experience and getting the practice in to become good cooks.”
Up until the 1980s, most cookbooks lacked images, save the occasional illustration or technical photo. “Caterers and tastemakers like Martha Stewart started making books filled with styled pictures, then celebrity chefs followed,” said Lorena Jones, publisher of Lorena Jones Books and editor-in-chief of Ten Speed Press. “In the early 2000s, after ‘food porn’ evolved from cultural trend to the new norm, there was no going back.”
As an author of cookbooks loaded with photography, I regularly huddle with an editor, art director, photographer, food stylist and prop stylist. We confer on lighting, dishware, utensils, cookware, linens and even crumb placement. Each beauty shot is strategically composed to look deliciously doable and to inform, yet the fact remains that no home cook has a team of professionals laboring to make their dishes look as perfect as those pictured on the page.
Years ago, American classics by the likes of Julia Child, James Beard and Irene Kuo taught me, a curious kid from Vietnam, about new flavors and unfamiliar techniques, entirely through the power of words. Each recipe presented another lesson in my education as a cook, not an image of perfection I expected to duplicate the first time around.
Recently, remaking Marcella Hazan’s pork loin braised in milk, a Bolognese classic that tripped me up years ago, I told myself to remain calm and trust my instincts. The three-hour recipe from the entirely photoless “Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking” called for simmering the pork until tender and letting the milk coagulate into “nut-brown clusters.” What nut was Ms. Hazan referring to? I chose to stop at a well-toasted-almond color. Without pictures to reference, I had to cook with my gut and all my senses. The finished dish wasn’t photogenic, but it was profoundly delicious.
“ Without pictures to reference, I had to cook with my gut. ”
Celia Sack, owner of Omnivore Books in San Francisco, had issues with the same recipe when she first tried it. She, too, persevered. “Nowadays, if people don’t know what it looks like, they won’t take the leap of faith,” she said.
That leap launched the career of Ken Concepcion, co-owner of Los Angeles cookbook and culinary shop Now Serving. In the late 1990s, as an aspiring chef looking to master quintessential dishes, Mr. Concepcion turned to Mark Bittman’s “How to Cook Everything.” Later, starting out as sous-chef at Wolfgang Puck’s CUT in Beverly Hills, he pored over Barbara Tropp’s “China Moon Cookbook” to learn techniques fundamental to the restaurant’s Asian-fusion dishes. The fact that these authoritative books had no photos was no impediment. “They were bulletproof but also made you feel you had freedom,” said Mr. Concepcion.
It’s one thing to follow photo-less recipes for foods we grew up on. But what about less familiar dishes? For an introduction to South Asian cuisine, I cracked open Julie Sahni’s “Indian Regional Classics,” a book without so much as an illustration to supplement the written instructions.
When I called Ms. Sahni, a New York-based cooking teacher known for her immersive classes and culinary tours, she pointed out that the photographs in a cookbook can freeze a recipe in a particular era, by the way the food is plated and styled. “I truly believe that for a timeless book, one does not need photographs,” she said. “You write to bring a recipe to life. Give people enough prose so they know the desired result, cook with flexibility, know what can go wrong.”
Cooking my way through “Indian Regional Classics,” I whipped up fluffy naan, creamy chicken korma, cumin potatoes and curry-scented mushrooms. Without pictures to preview outcomes, I relied on Ms. Sahni’s writing, rich in visual, tactile and flavor cues.
There were lasting takeaways, too. For example, after making three rounds of korma, adding purchased and homemade spice blends at different stages, I understood that DIY garam masala is superior and adding it at the end of cooking creates a beautiful aroma. The spices didn’t linger long enough in the sauce to impart a deep color, but I was cooking for flavor, not for show.
Feasts for the Mind
Cookbook authors and experts weigh in on food writing so good it needs no photo garnish
‘The Flavor Thesaurus’ by Niki Segnit (pictured) “The writing style is informal and often funny, yet also informative, learned and authoritative. It’s a book full of wonderful anecdotes and insights into the world of flavors.” —Yotam Ottolenghi, chef and author of ’Simple’
‘The Taste of Country Cooking’ by Edna Lewis “There are so many details between the recipes and so much pleasure in finding out about the ways of country life. No photograph would provide a substitute for those details.” —Matt Sartwell, Kitchen Arts & Letters
‘Maida Heatter’s Book of Great Desserts’ by Maida Heatter “I love all of her books, especially this comprehensive one. Her voice is clear, encouraging and funny. She can convince me to bake anything with her infectious ‘Spectaculars’ and ‘Divines.’ ” Kristen Miglore, author of ’Food52 Genius Desserts’
‘The Cook and the Gardener’ by Amanda Hesser “It brings to mind the first cookbooks I fell in love with. I find such joy in the quiet of the photoless pages, and this stillness lets me delve into the language unencumbered.” —Molly Stevens, author of ’All About Roasting’