Eating with our eyes — Cooking Down Under Blog

Eating with our eyes

by Pat Churchill on January 27, 2013

As an avid cookbook reader, reviewer and collector, I have witnessed amazing fashion swings in the styling , presentation and photographing of food over the past few decades. Once photos were crammed with table settings, candles, sprinklings of petals, glasses of sherry, kitchen utensils. Sometimes it was hard to find the actual food. In recent times they’ve become a bit more minimalist, leaving the food to speak for itself.

Recently I have been going through some of the vintage cookbooks I’ve collected. Early ones, of course, had no illustrations. Gradually, with advances in the printing world, some appeared with line drawings. Later there were coloured plates interspersed among the printed recipe pages.

Imagine the effort required to make Mrs Beeton’s Milanese timbale in the centre.

I have an 1870 edition of Mrs Beeton’s Book of Household Management (first published in 1861.) Isabella Beeton had passed away in 1865 but this new edition includes a note penned by her husband and publisher, S O Beeton, who said only the slightest alterations and corrections were needed. This edition includes not only numerous black line drawings, but also 12 coloured engravings. Some of these dishes are veritable monuments.

Apples a la Parisienne might have been created by a 19th century Adriano Zumbo

Even with the development of photography in the 19th century, it was a long while before photos of finished dishes were included. However, these served mainly to satisfy the reader’s curiosity about how the finished dish might look rather than encourage replication in the kitchen.

Eventually coloured photographs were introduced. However, looking at some of these early efforts, it’s apparent what a hit and miss business food photography was in those days. Food styling was non-existent. Printing vagaries often led to bizarre colours in the printed book.

One of the sadder examples I came across during the week was the 1948 book, Cooking the Modern Way! – the exclamation mark is the publisher’s which was a firm in the cooking oil business.

They promised 129 ways to better meals, home-tested and proved “each using a secret of famous chefs.” Famous anonymous chefs, it would seem – not a moniker in sight.

The sad part was the photos. I realised I was spending an inordinate amount of time trying to match them up with recipes in the book. Alas, some truly defeated identification.

I did my best to identify this one. I suspect it could be minted pear salad.

Obviously a moulded jelly salad, studded with a few peas. No recipe, however.

Waffles. The recipe suggests various toppings, but I guess the cupboard was bare

Food photographed for cookbooks and magazines is sometimes doctored to the point where it is no longer edible. There are lots of tricks of the trade that make dishes look gorgeous but destroy the food. But these 1948 photos were undoctored truthful representations where the food started off looking inedible – and remained that way.

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