Some cookbooks are turning to illustrations instead of food photos to convey their recipes

Here’s an inside look at “Cook Korean! A Comic Book With Recipes” by Robin Ha.
Here’s an inside look at “Cook Korean! A Comic Book With Recipes” by Robin Ha.
Published June 23, 2017

Beautiful food photography often pulls me into a new cookbook, but lately something else has been catching my eye: illustrations.

In Molly on the Range, food blogger Molly Yeh's food photography is the main form of imagery, but pages are also festooned with colorful illustrations: words drawn in sprinkles, a study of dumplings, a layered cake with a note encouraging readers to color it in.

A Meatloaf in Every Oven evokes another era with its charming drawings of many versions of meatloaf. Cook Korean! stands out amid several recent Korean cookbooks by telling its story and recipes completely in comics.

Recently, I got my hands on the highly anticipated Salt Fat Acid Heat from Samin Nosrat, and as I flipped through the pages of illustrated infographics and food illustrations, I realized: There are no photos in this thick book. Not one. This cookbook is brought to life with whimsical and colorful illustrations by Wendy MacNaughton.

Illustrations are having a bit of a renaissance, MacNaughton said, and it's like taking a deep breath. Amid all the images most people see every day, whether in a magazine, on a computer screen or on apps like Instagram, she said, something handmade forces us to slow down.

In Salt Fat Acid Heat, Nosrat, who taught Michael Pollan how to cook and has been called the next Julia Child, wants home cooks to move beyond recipes and learn to trust their senses by mastering the four elements that anchor good cooking: salt, fat, acid and heat. Though she appreciates food photography, Nosrat knew from the beginning that the art for this book would have to go in a different direction.

"Food photography in a cookbook is really the representation of something at its most perfect," Nosrat said, "and I feel like the whole point of this book is to make you feel comfortable using what you have on hand and making it taste really good, and it doesn't matter if you don't have exactly what I have."

Some of the concepts are also too complex to capture in a photo. Her philosophy may be better explained in drawings. The around-the-world flavor wheel and other illustrated infographics present information in a way that a photo could not. She also wanted MacNaughton's illustration to set the tone: approachable and fun.

"The joy and whimsy and the fun would be the first thing to hit you even if you saw words like osmosis and Maillard reaction," Nosrat said. "I don't want it to feel like a textbook. I wanted it to feel like a guide that's warm and inviting."

Nosrat said the pairing of illustrations and menus has been in her head since her days cooking at the iconic Chez Panisse in Berkeley, Calif. Some chefs would flip over a menu and sketch out a dish to describe how it should look.

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Working together over the past several years, Nosrat and MacNaughton found kindred spirits in each other. As Nosrat cooked, MacNaughton hovered over her with a notebook in hand to draw from real life. She also learned to cook this way, and during the process posed questions that helped Nosrat better explain her methods.

The resulting vivid illustrations are totally inviting and helpful.

"Our Venn diagram of Samin and Wendy overlaps in a lot of ways, and accessibility is a big one," MacNaughton said. The illustrations also show a similar sense of humor in the pair. On one page, a note next to a canele that has been bitten into reads: Samin was here.

In Robin Ha's Cook Korean!, a character named Dengki holds the reader's hand through recipes illustrated sequentially as comics, which fits naturally with the structure of a recipe.

"A comic is a really good medium to teach anything," Ha said. "If I'd had textbooks in physics or chemistry that were comics, I probably would've done better in school."

Ha, who wrote and illustrated the book, also finds illustrated cookbooks to be less intimidating. A comic creates more of an impression of how a dish should look rather than an exact representation, she said, making a recipe more enticing for readers to try.

Those who love step-by-step images with a recipe will appreciate the illustrations paired with each instruction. In a recipe for spicy beef soup, we see things like the noodles soaking in a bowl and where to cut the roots on oyster mushrooms before arriving at the final dish.

Illustrations bring an inherent warmth to a cookbook while also proving more timeless than photographs. Even though it's depicting a retro dish, A Meatloaf in Every Oven gets to be much more playful with its subject by drawing the loaves and their ingredients in all their iterations.

Marilyn Pollack Naron, an illustrator and former pastry chef, was raised on her mother's 1970s cookbook shelf, which was also stocked with Gourmet magazines. The drawings found in those books and magazines still inspire her today, and the inspiration is evident in her work for this cookbook written by New York Times writers Frank Bruni and Jennifer Steinhauer.

Given the chatty structure of the book, the images are reminiscent of something that might be sketched while on the phone with a friend.

While the illustrator and author of Salt Fat Acid Heat worked mostly at the same time throughout the project, Naron was given the manuscript and then went to work with ink and color to bring the authors' funny voices into the art. She said it was fun to later bring the recipes and illustrations off the page and into her kitchen, where she found a lot to love in these meatloaves.

"That was something I thought I didn't like when I was a kid, but Frank likes to say they are meatloaf evangelists, and they are," Naron, a Midwesterner, said. "I am a convert. Meatloaf is wonderful."

Back in 2013, when Nosrat's Salt Fat Acid Heat was a proposal, she had a clear vision for the illustrated cookbook but was aware she had to convince people along the way. Now, she's proud that the New York Times bestseller stands out on bookshelves, and she hopes in a year or two she'll start to see more cookbooks like hers as publishers embrace illustrations. As a home cook, I hope so, too.

Contact Ileana Morales Valentine at