What Do Photo-Free Cookbooks Offer 21st Century Readers?
In a world of glossy, photo-heavy cookbooks, some go without.
Howdy cookbook fans!
Books without photos may seem a relic of the past, from the days of Craig Claiborne and Julia Child: massive tomes with hundreds of recipes, and maybe a spot illustration or two to break up the text. But there are books published without photos today, as writer and educator Jessica Kehinde Ngo writes in her examination of 21st century cookbooks that are published entirely or mostly photo-free. For these books, excluding photography from their books is not the necessity it once was, it’s a choice—and one that comes with a variety of benefits.
So what happens when you publish a cookbook without photos? Jessica, take it away.
What Photo-Free Cookbooks Can Offer Readers
Would you buy a cookbook that doesn’t contain photos? Or cook from a photo-free recipe? I’m not talking about cookbooks from your grandma’s collection. I’m talking about recently-published books that dare to forgo photos in the age of the glossy, photo-filled cookbook.
Recently, I was researching cookbooks for a food writing workshop I’m designing and teaching this fall. Since James Beard Award-winning culinary historian Michael W. Twitty is one of my favorite food writers, his work appears all over my syllabus. But when I got to the cookbook assignment, I paused, uncertain if he’d ever written one.
He has. Rice was published in March 2021. It’s the final installment in the University of North Carolina Press Savor the South cookbook series, which aims to highlight quintessential foods of the American South. Other notable titles in the series include Greens (2016), Barbecue (2016), Sunday Dinner (2015), Gumbo (2015) and Okra (2014). There are twenty-five books in total, and, get this: not a single photo among them, except for a solitary image of the title food on a white backdrop on each cookbook’s book jacket.
Rice is full of fascinating historical information; Twitty notes, for example, that “supposedly carried in seed form in the braided hair of African grandmothers, rice offered the enslaved a hidden and sacred link to ancestors and their deities.” The writing more than makes up for the book’s lack of pictures, and flipping through the cookbook’s pages feels like reading Twitty’s other work: grounded in his expertise as a culinary historian, bent on highlighting the food history of African-Americans. While reading it, I don’t need—or want, really—any pictures. I just want to cook the recipes and sit for a moment in the world he is bringing to life.
Similar to the Savor the South series, food blogger Adrienne Kane’s cookbooks United States of Pie (2012) and United States of Bread (2014) use words so successfully that photos are not needed. As a post titled “Going without: are photos essential in a cookbook?” on the Eat Your Books blog aptly points out: “Adrienne Kane manages to convey the exacting details [of baking] through word alone. I especially like her details on kneading pie dough. She deliberately guides you through sight, touch, and even sound (!) cues so you can get this notoriously tricky step of the pie process right.” I can’t help but agree. Just listen to Kane’s description in the “Sound” portion on kneading dough in United States of Pie: “As you are adding water, spoonful by spoonful, you should hear a squish. This soft squeak as you knead the water into the flour signals completion.” No photo could illustrate such a process so exactly.
The same post on Eat Your Books mentions another relatively recent photo-free cookbook, Crescent Dragonwagon’s Bean by Bean (2012), further proof that there is a place for such an anomaly in today’s cookbooks. The literary promise of Dragonwagon’s book begins on the first page with a reference to Henry David Thoreau’s Walden, in which he devoted an entire chapter to beans, one of the most important foods he grew during his time in the woods. “Let us, too, have an eye to the bean. Hold one in the palm of the hand. Discrete, self-contained as an egg, spotted or speckled, dark or light, it’s such a small package holding so much,” she proclaims. There are no photos on the page—just beautifully written words that make me excited to cook with beans in a way I’ve never been before.
Still unconvinced? Consider a 2019 Wall Street Journal article titled “Dare to Cook Photo-Free (And Love It So Much More,)” by cookbook author and food blogger Andrea Nguyen in which she points out one of the most compelling reasons to praise photo-free cookbooks: They ease stress for home cooks who can feel overwhelmed when faced with too-perfect photos that are impossible to replicate at home without the assistance of a paid staff of food stylist, photographer, and art director. “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,” Nguyen writes. “Each recipe presented another lesson in my education as a cook, not an image of perfection I expected to duplicate the first time around.”
Nguyen goes on to share a recent experiment with cooking from several photo-free cookbooks, both those with recipes she was already familiar with and those with recipes she had never before encountered. She concludes, “I was cooking for flavor, not for show.” The Savor the South cookbooks, Kane’s United States of Pie and United States of Bread, and Dragonwagon’s Bean by Bean definitely embody Nguyen’s celebration of cooking photo-free.
Modern photo-free cookbooks also cut around the economic and time factors involved in food photography. A notable recent series that does this is the paperback cookbook series Takeaway from groundbreaking crowdfunded micropublisher Somekind Press. Some cookbooks in the series are photo-free, while others include very limited basic black-and-white photos snapped by the restaurants’ staff. The series launched during the Covid-19 pandemic, and uses crowdfunding to pay for the publishing costs of paperback cookbooks that spotlight local restaurants, giving the restaurants a share in the proceeds of the books, which are composed entirely by staff at the restaurants. A Vice article notes, “Without the time and financial resources of a traditional publisher, Somekind's books don't have the glossy finishes, large size, or heavily produced photos of traditional cookbooks, but to [Somekind’s co-founder], that gives them a nostalgic appeal.”
A final benefit of the photo-free cookbook? Inclusion. In the introduction to her groundbreaking new photo-free cookbook Cook As You Are, published in the UK earlier this month, British food writer Ruby Tandoh says she chose not to include photos in her cookbook because in looking at such photos, “We’re also absorbing cues about lifestyle, class and background, from everything from the silverware on the table to the (usually) white hands stirring the pot. This can be a beautiful thing […] But it can also be limiting: by photographing a cookbook in one kitchen, with one cook, I’d be capturing only one very narrow vision of what cooking looks like and who these recipes are for.”
Understandably, many of these photo-free cookbooks have received praise from readers and critics. Dragonwagon’s Bean by Bean is a critically-acclaimed national bestseller; Twitty’s Rice was welcomed with a glowing reception from several outlets including the New York Times; Somekind Press’ Takeaway Australia series received an honorable mention on The Best Australian Cookbooks of 2020 list from the Melbourne city guide Broadstreet and was included on Food & Wine’s list of 25 Food & Wine Game Changers earlier this year. Clearly, a lack of photos is not keeping these well-written cookbooks from garnering the praise they deserve.
So, next time you are looking for a new recipe to cook, I urge you to consider the modern photo-free cookbook. Use it as an opportunity to learn a little history, avoid the pressure of a photo too perfect to replicate, focus on taste over aesthetics, wax nostalgic, feel included, and, as Nguyen says, reconnect with “the power of words.”
Jessica Kehinde Ngo teaches writing at Otis College of Art & Design and leads online food writing workshops for the Creative Nonfiction Foundation. Her writing has appeared in TASTE, Harvard Review Online, The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, and elsewhere. Learn more about her at jessicakehindengo.com
PF: I wrote the entry for Somekind in this package, but was not involved in the selection process for the Game Changers list.
Couldn't agree more with your thesis--that some photo-free cookbooks can still inspire! I regularly reach for titles like Nick Malgieri's How to Bake (1995) or George Greenstein's Secrets of a Jewish Baker (2007). But it's not just the bakers! Mark Bittman's gigantic How to Cook Everything books have largely been text-centric for twenty years. While I certainly can appreciate photos, it's not a deal-breaker for me if a cookbook is all-text.