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On The Lack Of Photography In Culinary Non-Fiction

A photo of shelved books by Rani Manicka, Maria McCann, and Daphne du Maurier

I’m rather new to food-related non-fiction, but already I’m noticing a pattern. There are few photographs, sometimes none at all, included in these books. This strikes me as very odd as food is something that, if you can’t smell or taste it, is best visualised. Words may help, especially as smell and taste are not available, but visuals are something that I would’ve thought an obvious addition.

Cookbooks have visuals, and whilst the sort of culinary non-fiction I’ve been reading isn’t necessarily about creating the dishes yourself, an image would add a lot. The books I’ve read are very good as they are, in fact they’ve made a fan out of someone who had never been particularly interested before. But photographs would have improved their descriptions further.

It seems all the more peculiar when you consider that history books tend to include photographs, be they of paintings, places, events, or items. History is always well catered for, which is interesting because in many cases the only visuals we have are crude stained-glass windows or paintings created centuries after the event. In the latter case especially, these are surely far less relevant than a photograph of a food item mentioned in the culinary book in which it’s discussed.

With food, photography should be easy. Here are my thoughts in regards to the books I’ve reviewed here.

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Anya Von Bremzen: Mastering The Art Of Soviet Cooking – The audience for this book is not necessarily Russian. A lot of the dishes are not made much any more, and the book includes recipes for them at the back. Without knowing what you’re working towards it would be hard to follow the instructions. You could use the Internet, but it would be quicker to just have a photograph in the book by the person providing the recipe.

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Michael Pollan: The Omnivore’s Dilemma – Now, granted, you don’t really want to see pictures of slaughter houses (or do you – would that have added to Pollan’s case?) but the farmers, the hunters, Pollan’s exploits? That would’ve been great.

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Robin Shulman: Eat The City – In this case you can at least go to the website for photographs, but how long with the website be online for? How many readers would think to search for it, how many know it exists? The people in this book are described in detail and you become very familiar with them.

If this is the norm I can’t help but think there’s a lot of potential that’s been missed. Reading reviews of other books, ones I’ve not read, I’ve found there to be a lack there also.

I know that by itself this post is a bit of a non-entity and that your thoughts here will make it a lot better. So today I ask, what are your opinions on this lack of photography?


vicki (skiourophile / bibliolathas)

October 14, 2013, 12:01 pm

How about drawings/sketches? I rather like that in foodie books, especially if they are by the author (maybe I’m expecting too much there!). I think that’s perhaps less ‘illustrative’ than you are suggesting with photographs though.


October 14, 2013, 1:56 pm

I’ve never been a person who wants anything except text, so not sure I’m the kind of person you’re wanting to hear from, but I think you have a point here. Pollan’s description of how appalling the cow farms were (when I saw him in person last month) was mostly about the smell–in fact, he said there was a restaurant at one place that you could only want to eat at if you’d approached the place from the north, because you’d smell it first, coming from the south. So maybe the full horror wouldn’t come from a photo. But food photos in general–yes, they would add something. Knowing what something should look like when it’s cooked is very helpful to those who learn to cook entirely from books.


October 14, 2013, 5:05 pm

I can’t say I’ve read many non-fiction on food but I think I’d be rather upset to read one without any photographs. I did read Mrs Beeton’s Book of Household Management and even that had some illustrations of food and equipment. So I don’t think more modern books have any excuse for not adding some photographs.


October 14, 2013, 6:20 pm

As a culinary non-fic lover, I never thought about this until I read your post–but it’s a great point! I agree that Pollan’s books would benefit from some photography (especially his latest one). And many of Anthony Bourdain’s would as well. For someone like myself who is a culinary novice (I read about it–but heaven forbid I actually be able to DO it), the photos would add a lot to the reading experience (and also make me even hungrier than I already am).

Audra (Unabridged Chick)

October 15, 2013, 2:22 pm

As a rule, I actually think all non-fiction benefits from some illustration of some kind — it just helps!


October 15, 2013, 5:32 pm

So agree! I loved Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking, and though it was not a cook book per se, some visuals would have been interesting (and helpful- I made the Palov, which was incredible, but wasn’t really sure if I was doing it right.) I would add often in reading historical fiction I wish there were photos- often find myself over on google – just finished an ARC of Nancy Horan’s book on Robert Louis Stevenson, was dying to envision the family in the South Pacific – well worth the trip to Wikipedia.

Laurie C

October 17, 2013, 12:35 pm

I agree with Jeanne on this one! I wouldn’t expect to see food photos in a food-related memoir, maybe old family photos, if anything. But then, I don’t even care if a cookbook has photos. I prefer the hand-illustrated ones. So maybe Jeanne and I are the odd ones out here! ;)



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